Debate: in the West Bank, the palm trees of discord

Julie Trottier, Université de Montpellier

On January 28, 2020, US president Donald Trump announced a “peace plan” that would involve the annexation of most of the Jordan Valley by Israel. Most reactions focused on its contradiction with international law – the Israeli occupation of the West Bank has been condemned by several United Nations resolutions. The economic context is also important: the feasibility of any annexation would hinge on the agricultural transformation of the Jordan Valley that has been occurring over the last years

Israel occupied the West Bank during the Six-Day War in 1967. On July 30, 1980, the Knesset adopted a basic law annexing East Jerusalem without granting citizenship to its residents. The map published with the peace plan put forward by President Trump proposes the annexation by Israel of the part of the West Bank that is least inhabited by Palestinians. This allows annexing land without integrating a non-Jewish population into the state of Israel.

The key role of medjool date palms

The rise of medjool date palm agriculture plays a key role in this process because this agricultural transformation has been emptying the Jordan Valley of its Palestinian inhabitants for several years. A short historical note is useful to understand this.

Families in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nablus purchased land in the Jordan Valley starting in the end of the 19th century. Sparsely inhabited before the 1948 war, the Valley went through a demographic boom as Palestinian refugees settled there following the Israeli war of Independence. They provided cheap manpower to landowners irrigating from Ein Sultan, Al Auja and Fassayil springs. After 1949, the valley thus hosted agricultural laborers who worked land belonging to people living far away. Sharecropping quickly became the main form of land tenure – most often, farmers did not own the land they cultivated and upon which they lived. Instead, they split the crop revenue half-half with the landowners, a system called “nos-nos” by Palestinians.

The occupation in 1967 triggered the departure of many refugees to Jordan, but sharecropping remained the main form of land tenure in the Jordan Valley, a distinct phenomenon from what happened in the rest of the West Bank. Israeli settlers in the valley introduced the first medjool date palms, which grows only in extremely dry and hot climates – the Jordan Valley suits it perfectly. Global demand for this fleshy date is so strong that its price remains high even when production increases. Palestinian farmers started growing medjool dates at the end of the 1990s. They have been spreading at an accelerating rate since then. Our research demonstrated that, in 1999, 524 hectares were covered by date palms cultivated by settlers and 25 hectares by Palestinians. By 2016, these areas had grown respectively to 2,560 hectares and 1,584 hectares.

The stake of water

Half of the land covered with Palestinian grown date palms in 2016 had previously been uncultivated whereas the other half had been cultivated for the local market. These crops – vegetables, cereals and bananas – generated little foreign currency. Medjool dates are exported with a very high added value, however, making a significant GDP contribution. Moreover, a date palm tree requires little water, about a third of what a banana tree requires. Dates also tolerate relatively salty irrigation water. In an arid environment, they seem, at first hand, to be an ideal crop.

Israel developed infrastructure to channel wastewater from Jerusalem, Ma’ale Adumim and Bethlehem to a series of reservoirs and wastewater treatment plants along the Jordan Valley. Settlers irrigate their date palm trees entirely with that wastewater, while Palestinian farmers use groundwater, except in the case of a few hectares relying on treated wastewater from Jericho. The demographic evolution of the area means that wastewater supply will increase in the future, while groundwater will become saltier. The uncertainty concerning the future of their water supply constitutes the greatest risk that Palestinian date growers face.

The interests of Palestinian agribusinesses

The expansion of Palestinian-grown date palm trees is mostly carried out by agribusinesses whose executives live in Rawabi, Ramallah or Jerusalem, far from the Jordan Valley. They have often studied in American universities and seek support from European donors for wastewater reuse projects in the Jordan Valley similar to those developed by Israel for the settlers. At the same time, they understand that the most cost-efficient and technically reliable approach would be to connect their fields to the Israeli wastewater reuse network.

In June 2019, the United States organised a “Peace to Prosperity” economic conference. There was no official Israeli and Palestinian presence; the US sought an alliance with the Palestinian economic elite. The White House economic plan aims to “grow the capability of Palestinian farmers to shift their efforts to producing higher-value crops and afford them the opportunity to use modern farming techniques […]” The projects foreseen by the plan, such as refrigerated warehouses, wastewater networks and “critical connections”, are clearly favorable to Palestinian agribusinesses growing date palm trees.

Drawbacks of this agricultural transformation

Our research demonstrated several drawbacks linked to the growth of date-palm agriculture. While they are perceived as a means of decreasing agricultural water consumption, in fact they have increased demand. About half of Palestinian date palm trees are planted on land that was previously uncultivated. This generated a demand for water that didn’t exist before. Date palm trees cultivation requires more water than the minimum for their evapotranspiration. For instance, they must be sprayed against mould in February. Another downside is that drip irrigation in an area where there is hardly any rain causes soil salinisation – the salt accumulates and is never washed off. This is not an impediment for agribusinesses because they do not purchase the land they cultivate. Instead, they lease it for a period of 40 years.

Far more crucial, however, is the impact of dates on sharecroppers. Agribusinesses who plant dates do not resort to sharecropping. They mostly hire seasonal labourers two months of the year during harvesting season. Agribusinesses fence their plots, preventing access to plants such as khubbezeh, a variety of mallow that is extremely nourishing. Moreover, no one is allowed to keep on living on fenced plots, however.

Sharecroppers used to live on the land they cultivated and were once food self-sufficient. The switch to seasonal labour thus entails the loss of food security, employment security and housing security for sharecroppers. Our research demonstrated that, between 1999 and 2016, at least 7,567 members of sharecropping families were thus displaced by date palm trees, a significant number compared to the total 51,410 Palestinian inhabitants of the two governorates where date palms are cultivated. The accelerating expansion of date palms since 2016 has furthered this process.

Displaced from their homes and deprived of economic activity for 10 months of the year, sharecroppers and their families are being cleared from the Valley by an economic process of agricultural transformation led by Palestinian agribusinesses that is in part supported by European donors. Emptied of its Palestinian inhabitants, the Jordan Valley becomes an ideal space for annexation by Israel for it allows integrating land without integrating a non-Jewish population.The Conversation

Julie Trottier, Directrice de Recherche au CNRS, spécialiste des territoires palestiniens, ART-Dev, UMR 5281, Université de Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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