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For the Love of the Land: Building Food Sovereignty in Palestine

January 2017

Excerpts from an article originally published by Just World Educational.

Walls, barbed wire, security cameras, guard towers puncture our views of the grey, rainy landscape, the serpiginous highway and roller coaster hills, until the massive spattered bolts of construction, rocky open fields, and unimaginable piles of rocks announce Ramallah. We are meeting with a longtime Grassroots International partner organization, the Union of Agricultural Workers Committee (UAWC). This group’s structure is based on small farmers organized into local work committees in Palestine.

We arrange ourselves in a bare office at a long table, posters of wheat and an olive oil competitions tacked on the walls. We have a spunky consultant/translator. Fuad Abu Seif, the general director begins to speak. He has a mix of earnest sweetness and smart sophistication, greying hair, black glasses. The news is grim: the current situation is worse, there has been a three to four fold increase in Jewish settlements since 1994, (gobbling up the proverbial pie that is the Palestinian slice of the two state solution), the settler population has jumped from 125,000 to 700,000 in the West Bank, there are still over 500 checkpoints restricting movement of Palestinian people and goods. The Palestinian economy is in a vise.

UAWC’s Work and Challenges

UAWC, established in 1986, has five offices in the West Bank and five in Gaza, dedicated to protecting and empowering small farmers under attack, losing land and water and energy sources to a steady confiscation by the now-metastatic encroachment of settlements and “illegal” settler caravans. UAWC focuses on building sovereignty for men, women and youth, farmers and the poor. They focus on Area C, the 65% of the West Bank that is under total Israeli control, where the occupation forces control all land and water. In Area C, any land deemed unused for five years is seized (based on an old Ottoman and British-era law conveniently still in force in modern Israel.)

We learn about UAWC’s range of activities. They have set up a local seed bank in Hebron to enhance food access, avoid GMOs and the Monsantos of the world, and to support 2,000 local farmers. UAWC sponsors 35 women’s cooperatives in the West Bank and Gaza, building economic and social independence, access to markets, and establishing a store to market cooperative products. They are also working on a livestock farm in Hebron to teach modern techniques of animal breeding. Their work involves policies and campaigns, organizing locals and internationals to assist in the annual olive harvest to improve access for the local farmers to their fields and to minimize threats from super-entitled, gun-toting Jewish settlers. They celebrate international environmental day, international women’s day, world water day and are the only Arab members of La Via Campesina, a global federation of small-scale farmers that has over 250 million members in more than 70 countries. They have a legal unit to register and protect the land of small-scale farmers and to follow up on a multitude of Israeli attacks and violations.

Fuad continues that two big challenges are that the Israelis prevent the West Bank and Gaza branches of UAWC from meeting, and that since 2014 the priorities for Gaza have focused on the humanitarian emergency, like supplying tents. With all the destroyed houses and farms there, the immense political fragmentation between the different governing authorities in the two areas, and the dysfunctions of the two Ministries of Agriculture, unity is hard.

UAWC developed a strategic plan in 2015 to work more on development and economic empowerment in the West Bank, to gather people in local communities into clusters and larger districts of decision making and governance.

He notes that La Via Campesina was established on Palestinian Land Day and helps anchor the work in the political roots of the conflict, that injustice goes beyond occupation and the inequities of capitalism, and that the fact that the Palestinian Authority agreed to give up 60% of the West Bank (that is, in the Oslo Accords) was a big mistake. Working with other NGOs such as the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee, (PARC) and PNGO (the Palestinian NGO network,) UAWC focuses on communities, landless farmers, influencing governmental policies and documenting Israeli actions.

Attacks and Smear Campaigns

Clearly any occupying power does not like a strong civil and social movement or society and UAWC is frequently under attack. The staff pass around news promoted by the Israeli TV Channel 2, and picked up by the Al-Quds newspaper, that accuses UAWC of using a drone to spy on Israeli settlements – though in fact, it had been the European Union, which gives some funding support to UAWC, that had contracted a freelance photographer to document some of the implemented projects in order to inform the general public about the activities of the EU in the West Bank.

The UAWC people believe that this news story, among others published by Channel 2, was designed to create negative awareness of the organization as part of the ongoing incitement against it. UAWC is always keen to work in a professional and independent manner according to international norms and conventions, but the news account accused the organization of using a drone and shooting at the settlements! (I can only imagine, with what exactly? Olive pits?) So now they have a new controversy on their hands and will be talking to their lawyer about another scurrilous attack on their valuable work.

Conversation moves to US politics. Fuad notes that the two-state solution died with the massive settlement growth and infrastructure, the Israeli control of universities, hospitals, access roads and growing intolerance of all dissent. Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Minister of Defense, lives in a settlement in the West Bank. Members of UAWC are all happy with the recent UN decision condemning settlement growth and the US abstention. They see Trump as a dangerous, unpredictable actor and the surrounding Arab states as breaking down and threatening Palestinian access through Jordan. Fuad states Palestinians need to build their own unity and the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement is having a big impact which is why the Israeli government is so angry, committed to spending 300 million NIS to defeat BDS and “to change the truth.”

UAWC gets funding from Norway, the UN Development Program (UNDP), the European Commission, Spain, and smaller funders like Grassroots International who are willing to fund projects beyond the purely technical. They are already seeing the impact of global climate change and the need to increase the resilience of small farmers.

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