Once the mainstay of the local economy, Palestinian agriculture in the rocky West Bank is in decline, with farmers struggling to protect both their livelihoods and their lands.
Deprived of water, cut off from key markets and held back by hidebound traditions, farmers in Beit Ummar town can only look on with a mix of anger and envy as Israeli settlers copiously irrigate their own plantations and export at will.
“The problems that we face as Palestinian farmers are because of the Israeli fruits and vegetables. Our vegetables are not allowed to be sold outside to Israel. The Israeli fruits and vegetables which are sold here, caused damages to our vegetables and fruits, we do not gain money from selling our fruits,” Palestinian farmer Abdel Hamid Abu Maria said.
The pressure to keep farming is strong, not least because Palestinian farmers believe that Israel and Jewish settlers will expropriate their farmland if they leave it uncultivated.
But with restrictions on water use and land, what farmers produce often fails to match the lower cost or higher quality of what Israel supplies to the Palestinian stores.
Palestinian agriculture represented just six percent of gross domestic product in 2010 from 13.7 percent in 1994, the World Bank said. The Palestinian statistics bureau said where the sector employed 22 percent of the workforce in 1994, now it employs just 12.7 percent.
The Palestinian market is heavily restricted and regulated by Israel, which has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, making it often hard to distribute goods.
All produce destined to Israel or for export must through Israeli checkpoints and subject to lengthy checks and procedures, significantly increasing production costs and decreasing profitability.
At a wholesale outlet, shopkeeper Muhammad Awawda sits surrounded by stacks of Beit Ummar grapes -- once much sought after, but now unsold and starting to ferment.
“We do not have markets for our goods. We used to sell to Gaza strip and it is closed now. We do not sell to north of West bank such as Nablus, Jenin or Tulkarem. We threw the goods. We do not have relations with Israeli farmers; the Israeli goods are sold in Gaza strip and our West bank markets. The Israeli farmer has insurance, even if his goods are thrown away, the government will compensate him. If our goods are thrown away, we do not get compensation,” he said.
Under agreements signed in 1994, Israel controls more than 80 percent of West Bank water resources by occupying the areas where the water is most plentiful. International aid groups say it is much more generous in distributing the water to its own citizens than the Palestinians, who claim not just the territory, but also the underground aquifers, for themselves.
Human rights organization Amnesty International says Palestinians on average use 70 liters of water a day while Israelis and Jewish settlers consume an average 300 liters a day.
The differential is even more stark in settler communities in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea, where, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, residents used some 1,312 liters a day in 2008, mainly for agriculture.
This was almost 18 times more than the amount of water made available to Palestinians, the group said in a 2011 report. It said the monthly cost of water for Palestinians was three times more than that paid by settlers.
The direct results can clearly be seen in the farming town of Beit Ummar, north of the city of Hebron. Once dubbed Palestine's fruit basket, now farmers leave some of their crop to rot in the sun-baked orchards, unwilling to sell it at a loss.
“The Israeli grapes are sold 8 NIS ($2) per kilogram. Our grapes are sold 2 NIS ($0.5) per kilogram. People say it is expensive. Earlier it used to be sold for 8 NIS ($2) and people used to buy it,” shopkeeper Samer Abu Maria said.
Palestinians imported $72.2 million worth of fruit and vegetables from Israel in 2010, while their own farmers exported just $2.92 million of their produce and often labored to sell it at home, according to local official statistics.
Palestinian farmers in most West Bank areas cannot drill new wells without Israeli permission - something European Union diplomats say hardly ever happens.
Israel says it is already giving Palestinians more water than was agreed in the 1994 interim Oslo peace accords. They say a definitive division of resources can only be decided in a final peace deal - something that has proved elusive in years of mutual recrimination and missed chances.
Israeli agriculture experts say the Palestinians could do much more with their land if they adopted modern farming methods including using “drip technology” and modern fertilizers, but again Palestinians counter that it comes down to ample water supplies and unrestricted access to imports.
The locals certainly receive little help or encouragement from the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank.
It allocates a mere one percent of its budget to farming, despite the sector’s importance.
In a speech aimed at ending recent protests against tax hikes, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad this week promised to do more for the sector.
Small-scale farmers around the world find it brutal to compete with super-efficient industrial agriculture, but locals complain that the politics of occupation and the neglect of Palestinian official doom makes an uneven field almost unpalatable.
“We always try to limit damages for the farmer. But the Israeli army and settlers attacks are aiming to destroy the Palestinian economy or keep the economy levels so low. We cannot be independent; we cannot build an independent economy. We have to defend what we own and to re build all what is destroyed by the occupation,” Palestinian Minister of Agriculture Walid Assaf, told Reuters.
While the Beit Ummar fruit orchards are parched, relying only on scarce rainfall, a settler farm across the way is lined with black pipes for regular hosing, allowing for faster growth. Lush green, the rows of fruit trees were all picked months ago. For the Palestinians, it’s a different story.
“We only gain 2 NIS ($0.5) from a box full of grapes, after paying the fuel, picking the grapes, and all the family work in the land. The farmers are depressed. I think it is a policy to emptying the Palestinian land and then it will be easy for occupation to take the land,” farmer Yousef Abu Maria said.
Farmers also say they are denied access to some of the West Bank’s most fertile land, especially in so-called Area C, which includes the Jordan Valley and is controlled by the Israelis.
Right group Peace Now says Israel has declared 25,000 acres or 16 percent of the West Bank as “state land” since 1967 and annexed it to settlements.
Other areas are still under scrutiny
In August, the Israeli authority which administers the West Bank, COGAT, ordered a group of farmers near Jericho, close to the Dead Sea, to tear up over 35,000 date palm trees, and leave the land.
COGAT told Reuters the trees had been planted illegally because they were on land where ownership is still to be established. It said in a written statement that the farmers had also been illegally siphoning water from Israeli sources.
Palestinian farmers and officials say the land is owned by the Islamic waqf, a kind of religious trust, which the farmers have been renting for years.
They say Israel is threatened by the success of their crop, the sweet, fat Medjoul date, one of the world’s most expensive varieties.
Jewish settlements nearby grow Mejdoul dates too. Several neighboring Islamic countries are now boycotting their produce.