Hebron (Al-Khalil in Arabic) is home to more than 165,000 Palestinians—making it the largest city in the Palestinian West Bank. The city is famous for leather shoes, avant-garde blown-glass vases and qidreh, a fragrant dish cooked in clay pots. It is also notorious for settler violence in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And now Hebron is becoming increasingly known for an agricultural project that sets the standards for access to food in that city and across the occupied Palestinian territories.
Grassroots International’s partner, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), established Palestine’s first comprehensive seed bank in Hebron in 2003, shortly after their staff traveled to Syria where a similar seed bank broke ground as the first in the Middle East. UAWC representatives returned to Palestine energized to revitalize their agrobiodiversity and protect their land from confiscation. The land around Hebron—within the district that bears the same name—is rocky and arid. Most of it falls within “Area C,” a post-Oslo Accords classification that means it is under full Israeli military and civil control. Area C is the most vulnerable land in the West Bank—it can be swept up in a moment for use by the Israeli military or for expansion of Israeli settlements. If the land is not farmed, it is all the more likely to be taken away from its owners. Under Ottoman law that predates Israel’s statehood, if land is not used for seven years, it belongs to the State. Israel shortened that timeframe to three years. As a result, UAWC asserts that the best way for Palestinians to avoid expulsion from their lands and retain their homes is to intensively work the land. But Palestinians don’t want just any kind of agricultural project happening on their land. Not farm aid from big international NGOs, as much of that help requires heavy concessions from the local community. And certainly not from toxic GMOs, that make a self-sustaining future all but impossible. Do’a Zayed, the young and spirited PhD agronomist who heads the seed bank, summed up UAWC’s organizing mission. “To have your independent voice and your independent thinking you have to have food sovereignty,” she said, “and that starts with control over your own seeds.” She works tirelessly with other UAWC organizers to protect, preserve, and document local heirloom seeds from the West Bank and Gaza. Do’a said that by activating the use of traditional seeds, they are benefitting from hereditary resources and preserving biodiversity. The seed bank has grown to include 35 seed types and more than 200 species from at least 11 plant families. The facility also boasts a lab unit, a database unit (with records for each seed), a GMO detection unit, DNA extraction, a drying unit and a storage unit. The more project participants they serve, the greater their ability to increase the quantity of seeds available. Farmers travel long distances from all corners of the West Bank to drop off their seeds. Many seeds have been in their families for generations, precious heirlooms that they offer to the extended community. Due to imposed travel restrictions, Do’a and other agronomists cannot access the Gaza Strip, and the majority of people there are banned from the West Bank. Even so, UAWC farmers do whatever they can to unify Palestine’s seed stock. Sometimes, that means long journeys through Egypt and Jordan to share seeds and information. UAWC is dedicated to making seeds available to anyone who is interested with access to land—even if it is just a small scrap or rooftop garden. These seeds are an integral part of land protection and reclamation in the Securing Farmers’ Rights project that Grassroots has supported for years—and a crucial component of seed sovereignty in Palestine. Like so many in the occupied Palestinian territories, UAWC sees food sovereignty and land tenure as a way to achieve self-determination and sustain future generations—while at the same time resisting the increasingly violent occupation. Fuad Abu Saif, UAWC’s Hebron Project Director emphasized that their work is only beginning, expressing a desire to see seed banks across Palestine and throughout the Middle East. Somewhere between the glass shops and shoemakers in the West Bank’s largest—and perhaps most contentious—city, they are laying the groundwork for this, seed by seed.