Beit Ummar used to be known as the fruit basket of Palestine.
Nestled in the Hebron Mountains, the old Beit Ummar was covered in olive orchards and trees bearing brightly colored lemons, plums and dates. Lush, leafy vineyards wound their way through the meandering mountain roads, bearing robust grapes often used for the stuffed grape leaves or sweet grape syrup that the region is renowned for.
The orchards and vineyards are still there, but they are no longer vibrant with color. Like a photograph that has been leached of its saturation, the once abundant orchards and fruit trees bursting with hues of bright yellows, rich reds and warm, deep purples are now ragged, parched and covered in dust.
Just across the way, a similar farm doesn’t appear to have these problems. The leaves of the trees are still lush and green as the branches hang heavily with fruit. Signs of thirst or stress from the dry, desert climate are absent.
But this farm isn’t Palestinian. It’s Israeli—and the people who will reap this harvest are not Palestinians, but Jewish settlers in the neighboring Israeli Settlement Karni Tzur.
Unlike the Palestinian farmers, these Israeli farmers have access to the necessary water resources to irrigate their crops. While state-of-the-art irrigation technology nourishes these crops, and ensures their abundance and profitability, Palestinians must rely solely on inconsistent rainwater for irrigation. This is because Israel, not Palestine, controls the vast majority of water resources in the West Bank.
Ironically, the political enabler for the Israeli control of Palestinian resources is written into the alleged Peace Process. Since the Oslo Accords in 1993, Israel/Palestine has been administratively divided into three sections. Most of the farmland and water resources of the West Bank fall under Area C—meaning that the Israeli Defense Force maintains complete control of the land and resources, despite the fact that they are in the West Bank, meaning that these resources are technically Palestinian.
Israel now controls 85 percent of the water resources in the West Bank. Though Palestinians could theoretically drill more wells, they are forbidden from doing so without a permit from the Israel Military. These permits are notoriously difficult, if not impossible to obtain. Palestinians are forced to rely on Israeli authorities for access to their own water.
Often, Israeli merchants sell this water back to Palestinians at inflated prices. Palestinians can barely afford their own drinking water—much less the necessary gallons of water to irrigate their orchards and crops.
Though Palestinian crops flourish in dry, desert climates, the extreme lack of water is taking a devastating toll on the land. Many farmers have forgone harvesting their crops because the yield and the quality are no longer worth it. Israeli farmers with similar crops have replaced Palestinian farmers in the markets, further economically marginalizing an already disenfranchised people.
Israel is also symbolically asserting its physical control over Palestinian land and natural resources through the infamous Separation Barrier—known among Palestinians as the Apartheid Wall. Originally, the Separation Barrier—which upon completion will be a 470 mile long wall and fence physically separating Israel from the Palestinian territories—was erected for security reasons. In practice, it is used to further segregate Israelis and Palestinians and reassert what land is Israeli and what land is Palestinian.
Unlike most man-made borders, the Separation Barrier does not follow a smooth line. It is jagged, as if it were following a river or a mountain range as its border. It is not. Instead, it is meticulously jaggedly drawn in a way that puts the most arable land and plentiful natural resources are on the West (Israeli) side of the wall, while relegating the meager leftovers for the East (Palestinian) side.
Palestinian farmers that have tended their land for decades, if not generations, often find their homes on one side of the wall and their land on the other. To cross the barrier and access their crops, farmers need to obtain special permits from the Israeli authorities. As a result, Palestinian farmers can often only spend a few days per year with their crops—which is not nearly enough time.
If farmers are able to harvest their crops, in order to sell them in Israel—and often other parts of the West Bank—they are forced to wait for hours at checkpoints, and are often denied entry. Sometimes they are able to transfer their produce across the border—but this is time consuming and expensive. Most times they return home, unable to sell their crops.
Many farmers have been forced to give up their land and seek another form of livelihood.
For Palestinians, owning land is not only an essential component of their livelihoods, but also a point of pride. Land is passed down through generations—sowing seed in the land and reaping the harvest is a cultural ritual that honors the family and ones identity and heritage as a Palestinian. When Palestinian land is stolen and starved, it is not simply Palestinian livelihoods that are being attacked but also centuries of Palestinian tradition, identity and honor.