What struck me most in my first few weeks as a MOFGA farm apprentice two summers ago wasn’t the hard work. It wasn’t the beauty of the clear night sky far from the light pollution of Providence, Rhode Island, where I had been going to school. It wasn’t even the simple joy of eating the plentiful produce we grew with our own hands. What struck me most during those first few weeks living on a MOFGA farm was how the farmers spoke about their land – as though it were a family member, as in need of them as they were in need of it; necessary, basic, beloved.
I have had the opportunity to travel a fair amount, meeting farm workers in Central and South America, but there is only one other place in the world where I have heard people speak of their land in such a way. This is in the West Bank of Palestine, where I spent three months in the summer of 2005, and where I learned that the Palestine-Israeli conflict, contrary to what I’d always believed, is not about religion, and is neither inevitable nor insurmountable. It is a struggle for, and about, land.
One of the first people I met in the West Bank was a 23-year-old university student (and English major, like me) named Moath, who lives in the city of Qalqilya. Qalqilya, like many towns in the West Bank, is surrounded by a 25-foot-high concrete wall that Israel built inside Palestinian territory. The first week I was there, Moath took me to see his family’s land, which, like 98% of Qalqilya farmland, is on the far side of the wall. We walked under lemon and fig trees and through an orchard of olive trees hundreds of years old. This land, which Moath’s family has owned for generations, is the sole source of income for his family, and Moath is the sole provider of that income. (His father has been held in an Israeli prison, without access to a lawyer and without being charged, for over 10 years.)
Moath’s story is not unique; most Palestinians rely on farmland for their income. This is land that the indigenous Palestinian population (comprised of Christians, Jews and Muslims) has worked since Biblical times. Indeed, this “desert” bloomed long before the establishment of the state of Israel. But now Moath, like most Palestinians in the West Bank, finds himself cut off from his land. Israel constructed its “security wall” so that it effectively annexes 47% of the West Bank, dividing Palestinian residential areas from the farmland and water wells those residents rely on to survive. Moath, like all Palestinians who find themselves in this position, must now seek permission cards from the Israeli government to access and work on his own land.
One week after I walked with Moath under his olive trees, I went with him to a nearby Israeli checkpoint to renew his permission card. He was denied, the soldiers citing only “security reasons.”
Again and again, during the course of my three months there, I heard almost identical stories. Farmers are cut off from their own land, and then denied access to it. The Israeli military locks gates, erects checkpoints to block access, and keeps farmers from their land until crops spoil. Meanwhile, Israel expands the construction of settlements (illegal under international law) in this stolen farmland. The settlements, which bear striking similarities to North American suburbs, have access to four times as much water as Palestinians. Settlement residents run sprinklers and build swimming pools while Palestinians can’t turn on the tap, and while the ancient orchards that inspired depictions of the Garden of Eden wither and are bulldozed for further colonial expansion.
Israel’s destruction and illegal occupation of this land is the root of the Palestine-Israeli conflict. Only in a culture where land is as important as a mother or a lover would one see old Palestinian women weeping on the ground at the sight of CAT bulldozers uprooting olive trees for resale in Tel Aviv nurseries.
Not until I got involved in a MOFGA apprenticeship did I realized I had come upon another community that sees land not only as a resource to be exploited or controlled, but as something more than that, something to be cared for, something even worth fighting for.
If anyone is interested in working with me to create an agricultural solidarity project between farmers in Maine and Palestine, please contact me at [email protected].
About the author: Molly Little was a MOFGA apprentice at Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner in 2007. She now lives and works at Townhouse Farm in Whitefield.