Podcast Ep 60: The history of wheat in Palestine

On episode 60, Nora speaks with Mohammed Abujayyab, a small-scale farmer and food security activist, about Palestine’s agricultural economy under Israeli occupation.

The price of bread in the Gaza Strip has risen several times over the past few months, partly due to the supply chain situation in Ukraine as Palestinians, like much of the world, import flour from that country.

Gaza’s economy ministry has also blamed the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. The PA has not exempted Gaza’s merchants from taxes imposed on wheat and flour imports.

That has also led to a rise in flour prices in Gaza.

The problem is compounded by Israel’s ongoing blockade, which severely restricts Gaza’s imports and exports of agricultural products, and by Israel’s continuous theft of land in some of Gaza’s most fertile areas near the Israel boundary.

“You can imagine how very few lands are available for [wheat crop farming],” Abujayyab explains.

He notes that two-thirds of the flour imported into Gaza is provided by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

Israel’s control of the Gaza economy has made the coastal enclave “a dumping ground for the extra crops that Israel has,” Abujayyab tells us.

“So Palestinians tend to go towards planting cash crops, especially vegetables, flowers, strawberries, watermelon, these things that eventually have a sort of cash outcome compared to something like planting wheat” that would require multiple stages of production.

“And most of the time, farmers are not involved in [the] supply chain,” he adds.

Originally from Gaza, Abujayyab is the co-founder of Om Sleiman Farm in Bilin in the West Bank. He also works with the Al-Barakeh wheat mill in Jordan, which aims to build food security in the region through traditional grain planting, harvesting and processing practices.

He describes the effects Israeli settler-colonialism has had on Palestine’s traditional agricultural economy, as well as the changes in diet and nutrition due to loss of ancient grains and dependence on food aid.

“The evolution of the type of bread that we’ve eaten has changed in the past 80 years, based on different flours that we have gotten as aid that is very different in comparison to the [traditional] flour,” Abujayyab says.

Before Palestine came under European control and was subjected to colonization, Palestinian bread flour was a mix of high-protein wheat that was usually augmented with barley or other grains.

Wheat had lower yields compared to the fields in operation today, he explains, but it also had a “very balanced ecological impact on the surroundings and created a very strong social bond that made villages act collectively, defend their land collectively and see each other in that common social loom that was woven” by the collective agricultural system.

The collective agricultural system was dismantled by Britain, which ran Palestine between the 1920s and 1940s. Israel’s colonial project in Palestine has further destroyed traditional farmland and farming practices.

Articles we discussed

Video production by Tamara Nassar

Theme music by Sharif Zakout

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Full transcript

Lightly edited for clarity.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast, I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman. Today we’re going to be talking about the agriculture and food economy in Gaza. Recently, the price of bread in the Gaza Strip has risen several times in the last month, with the ministry of economy in Gaza accusing the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank of not exempting Gaza merchants from taxes imposed on wheat and importing flour like the merchants in the West Bank, which led to a rise in flour prices in Gaza from 97 shekels to 120, or about 36 US dollars.

There is a fear amongst bakery owners that the prices of flour will continue to rise due to the situation in Ukraine as Palestinians, like much of the world, import flour from Russia and Ukraine. Joining us to talk about the agriculture economy under occupation and settler-colonial land theft is Muhammad Abujayyab. He is a small-scale farmer and food sovereignty activist originally from Gaza and living in Utah. He’s the co-founder of Om Sleiman Farm in Bilin in the West Bank. Mohammed is also working with Al-Barakeh wheat mill in Jordan. Mohammed, it’s so good to have you with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Mohammed Abujayyab: Thank you, Nora, for having me.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: So, you were back in Gaza after many years, just a few months ago. Let’s start by having you talk about the current state of the food economy and the wheat reserves and how it’s all operating in Gaza after, you know, 14 years of Israeli blockade, and what did you see when you were there?

Mohammed Abujayyab: Yeah, so I was there in January and the whole economy, especially like with, with the most important foodstuff being bread, you know, for Palestinians, as you would know, like Palestinians consume probably one of the highest levels of bread like around 100 kg, kilograms a year, per capita, and that puts them at a point where they would need a lot of flour and wheat compared to the amount of lands that are available to them to plant that amount. And particularly in Gaza, the amount of flour that is needed is probably two-thirds supplied by the UNRWA flour, where most people get their flour through the rations that are distributed regularly through UNRWA. So around 25 percent of the wheat consumption that happens in the Palestinian Authority areas and so on goes to Gaza Strip.

And that is broken down roughly by almost 10, 10,000 tons a monthly from the UNRWA and the rest goes to local mills that import wheat through through places like Kerem Abu Salem [crossing], and that’s where the taxes are levied on them by Palestinian Authority that is centrered in Ramallah. And most of these taxes don’t make it back to the Gaza Strip. So the – in the recent period of time, especially after the corona period, and after when, you know, Ramadan has come around, when the war in Ukraine came around, where Ukraine is a place where a lot of the Arab countries are dependent on imports from Ukraine like Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, and so on. And Palestinian Authority actually, areas, ends up importing 90 to 95 percent of the flour that is consumed that basically makes the bread that we have. We can probably talk more about the makeup of that flour and so on because the flour and wheat that was planted at one point in Palestine is very different from the flour that is imported or the flour that is brought in by the UNRWA.

So you’ll end up basically with these bakeries selling this bundle of bread that ends up – so the price of bread for that bundle in Gaza Strip, for example, was two and a half shekels for a period of time then became three, then the size of the bundle shrank a little bit and then the price – so it’s either the bundle that shrinks or the price goes up to sort of compensate for these changes. But really, the problem seems to be compound, it’s not only that we don’t have enough land to plant, you know, enough wheat or enough grains in Gaza Strip and the West Bank combined actually. So mind you, the Gaza strip has very tiny space. Like if we look at the statistics given by agricultural administrators on the planted area in Palestine, which three quarters of it ended up being perennial because of multiple, as well, political reasons.

But basically, the area that ends up being annually cropped that could be dedicated for something like planting wheat and so on, is roughly 340 kilometer squared, which is almost the size of the Jerusalem area, a little bit smaller than the size of Gaza Strip. Gaza Strip has like a very tiny portion of that land, which is put at around 190,000 dunams, after the Israelis have evacuated some of the settlements there. And that land is roughly 1/5 or 1/6 of the lands that were basically planted by the same size of the same population pre-‘48 in Palestine. So you can imagine how very few lands are available for this. So Palestinians tend to go towards planting cash crops, and, you know, cash crops, especially vegetables, flowers, strawberries, watermelon, you know, these things that are – that eventually have a sort of cash, you know, outcome compared to something like planting wheat and so on, that requires multiple stages of going through a process and going through milling and going through baking.

And most of the time, farmers are not involved in that, you know, supply chain. So they tend to prefer that, but at the same time, because the entire Gaza Strip’s economy has been attached to Israel’s economy that actually operates in the same way. If you look at the way the distribution of cropping lands and vegetables and flowers and so on, in Israel, you’ll find it very similar to what is happening in the Palestinian areas with the opposite distribution. So most of the lands, 80 percent or so of the lands in Israel are dedicated for annual agriculture. So there is space for cropping, for annual cropping of these lands within ‘48. But if we’re going just, you know, rolling back the conversation to the Gaza Strip, so yeah, we ended up with a situation where there’s very limited access to land, but as well, there is another angle that is social, you know, that is attached to that – half of the population of Gaza Strip is refugees, and they mostly don’t have access to these, to the cropping plains in Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahia.

And unfortunately, we have a lot of stories that sort of play back sort of things and social things and interactions that we have faced and seen as refugees coming into the Gaza Strip and people who live there saying like, Hey, stay away from us, or in a sort of, in a sort of way, the sort of classes and that breeds, you know, under conditions of occupation, settler-colonialism, and that’s not necessarily what would pan out or what would happen basically under normal conditions, but when you know when these things happen, like mass expulsion, expelling of Palestinians happen, you know, other things that sidebars of like social stratification and so on, get created.

So you end up with basically most descendants of these fellahin folks that have actually traditionally grown foodstuff like wheat and so on in Palestine, traditionally we’ve grown 60 percent of our crops were field crops, like wheat and barley, millet, sorghum and so on. Yeah, so you end up basically in the Gaza Strip, we have no access to these lands and so on. And the economic situation and attachment to Israel being either a dumping ground for the extra crops that Israel has, or basically a supply chain the other way around, if there’s any gap in the production in Israel, they would basically pull it back from Gaza Strip. So yeah, you end up basically having to import 95 percent of the flour, like Palestinian economy requires 650,000 pounds roughly of flour that gets mostly imported, 25 percent of that is consumed in Gaza Strip.

And as I said, two-thirds of that is provided by UNRWA as flour. So the other are the rest of the chunks – and you could actually take your sack of flour to a bakery in Gaza Strip and get like these little coupons and so on that you can buy in exchange for bread from these bakeries. But we’re talking about bread that we ended up – even the bread, the evolution of the type of bread that we’ve eaten has changed in the past 80 years, based on different flours that we have gotten as aid that is very different in comparison to the flour, and the wheat that was planted that was high-protein wheat that usually was augmented with other things, like wheat that was augmented with barley or other things.

And that was part of the ecosystem of how things were growing. If we had a chance maybe we can talk more about how that sort of these crops come together to make bread and how their, you know, their role in the ecology grows for crops like grains, like wheat and barley and millet and so on. So I hope that gives like an overview of how, you know, how we end up basically consuming this – we call it kamaj or pita bread, whatever it is that is very, very different than the taboon or the saj that we used to consume pre, you know, pre-‘48 with a very different nutritional profile, with mainly soft wheat being the main component, which is mostly a pastry flour, actually, bread flour has very low protein, it tends to be lower. And 90 percent of the, sorry, actually 75 percent of that is imported as flour, so it’s milled somewhere else and is brought in.

And the agriculture ministry says or basically puts the reason for that being that we don’t have silos to actually store wheat, because flour sack stores very differently than wheat, it has a shorter period of time to store – and sort of the old purpose wheat where you have to remove the bran other things could store longer, but the value, the nutritional value drops. So we ended up basically with a bigger part of the supply chain being done somewhere else and then we are – and a bigger chunk of the prices will be pegged somewhere else instead of having mills locally that could actually bring in part of the supply chain and actually reduce the costs potentially.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Give us a kind of a snapshot of what Palestine’s wheat industry, the agriculture economy looked like before 1948. Where were the, you know, the most arable lands, fertile lands for the wheat crops and you know how – yeah, talk a little bit more about how that’s changed.

Mohammed Abujayyab: Yeah, absolutely. Like one of the surprising facts for some people because there’s a lot of these statistics and so on. Sometimes they’re utilized for political reasons and so on by Israelis and so on. The lands roughly that were planted pre-‘48 are almost the same as the lands that are planted today like around 400, 320,000 hectares, and these lands – and this is very important in every settler-colonial sort of project to actually realize and see whether in the US here or in Palestine, that the seller-colonialists – most of them when they come like whether it being Zionists in Palestine or Europeans to the US. Most of them didn’t have the capacity to deal with an empty Palestine or an empty wilderness in the US. Most of them have the capacity to take over agricultural lands and utilize it for future agriculture.

And this is, you know, this is what comes – the reality, like when you look or basically see the size of the land that we’re talking about, they’re almost exactly the same. And if we look at the projects that Israel has attempted to actually expand lands, or change the ecosystem, we’ve seen disasters, economic, like ecosystem, ecological disasters, like the drying of the Hula marshes, like the the huge cost of making the desert bloom, quote, unquote, that actually these practices that have never actually worked out or panned out and the old, the old forestation and the consequences of fires that came because of all these forestation projects. So cropping and farming in Palestine, and like in 1948, 50 percent of Palestinians were working in agriculture, in a way or another. And a lot, it’s distributed mostly, like my family comes from the coastal plains north to Gaza, from a village called Yusor.

Adjacent to Asdoud, a little town, now it’s a port on the Mediterranean. That’s a chunk basically, of like people that – and most of the refugees were displaced from these areas. And actually, we’re talking about the beginning of June. So we’re, while we’re recording this in the beginning of June, it’s very important to remember actually, the wheat harvest came around this period of time. So when these lands were taken over, the wheat harvest was either done and stored, or still standing, waiting to be harvested. And these are things that often are overlooked in the inception of Israel, that period of time, it was dependent on not only Palestinian lands, but Palestinian crops, Palestinian crops that were already planted like even wheat for a period of time, like in the ’50s, or Israel, like the – like foreign currencies came into Israel. Almost only 15 percent was through Israel, like the local economy, and the rest came from foreign money being sent through the US and other entities.

And that 15 percent, a big chunk of it, was because of oranges, the Jaffa oranges, or the olives. So Israel’s economy is dependent as a result of the cropping systems and the policies that were created. But basically 60 percent of these lands pre-‘48 were field crops, half of them were wheat, most of the time, and the other half was barley. And it’s important because barley now makes up almost 1 percent of the crops that are planted in Palestine. Barley is a very important crop in the Palestinian context or the regional context as a crop that has the capacity to reduce the salination in the soil, that has the capacity to survive in lesser ideal environments, whether, you know, in terms of lower rains and so on. Another crop that completely disappeared in Palestinian foodstuff was millet – where millet was one of the important crops, summer crops that were planted, it has a shorter period of time and so on.

But we’ve planted it for thousands of years and now completely disappeared because it has almost no cash value when you sell it, right, but it has very important value it and sort of like sorghum, zorghha. We call it – what we call corn, the white corn were very important summer crops that sort of, you know, so that distribution – even the grains, the grains that we planted, the distribution there wasn’t a monoculture. It was different crops like if it was a good rainy year you’ll have a good wheat crop, if you have a bad rain year you’ll have a good barley crop and then the summer as well – you’ll have these other crops that would augment and, you know, make things like karadeesh, these type of breads that we have, we’re still eating, but we’re planting very few amounts of.

So yeah, vegetables made 5 to 6 percent, roughly of the lands that were planted. And it’s important that crops like sesame and other things that we now, like after a period of time, since ‘48, the amount of land, I would say oil crop, olive oil became a replacement for sesame oil. Well, sesame was actually the very – the number one oil crop used in Palestine. This is why we call it tahini, you know, which is the feminine version of tahin, which is flour. So it goes hand in hand in how important it is, but like, and this actually, the transition – because most of these lands that we’re talking about, the cropping lands, and so on, including, if I look at statistics, statistics of the village that my family’s from, most of the land’s crops, were edible crops. And most of the villages where the land was held together in a masha’a system.

And that came to change in 1858, where public laws came in by the Ottomans. And but even by the 1930s, you know, when the British were around and so on, most of the villages were still or the lands in the villages were held in this common social system, the masha’a system where like everybody owns the land and village. And then there’s these shares that get distributed differently. And people get these pieces of land in separate parts to actually create a sort of balance of what kind of lands you get every couple of years. And it gets redistributed every – like periodically.

So that actually created, and actually most of the literature, not surprisingly, criticizes this masha’a system. And even amazing researchers like Shokri Arraf, and so on, they actually criticize the masha’a system. And they blame it for degrading, quote unquote, the lands that are planted. But if you look at the other facts, where basically the fellahin – like the whole agricultural system for fellahin was a closed-loop system where it has very little, if any, inputs, and has zero inputs roughly. And basically, yes, it had lower yields compared to if we compare it to the fields today, but had no inputs, had very balanced ecological impact on the surroundings and created a very strong social bond that made villages act collectively, defend their land collectively and see, you know, each other in that common social loom that was sort of weaved by that masha’a system. When the British came and so on, they had the surveillance capacity to sort of fragment and break apart these lands.

And actually, since 1858, the Tabu laws by the Ottomans were created all through to the British, you’ll see the increase of other types of cropping like trees and like, you know, that was essentially – or like when crops like oranges and Jaffa oranges became popular, because not only settlers, Zionist settlers, were buying chunks of lands to plant with these orchards and it’s, it was very hard to find in a village somebody to sell you a part of land, but like when the lands were broken and were categorized, a lot of the trusts that were basically – they’re not public, and they’re not private, they’re held in common, the British sort of broke it in a more simplistic system, like these are private lands, and these are lands that could be sold. And then that’s where a lot of these lands, a lot is a very qualifiable word, and so on but basically a good chunk of these lands were being bought by Zionists, and orchards were created, where a lot of capital was needed to be put into these orchards and that money was, you know, or these crops were to be sold somewhere else.

So there was more of a system that turned well as a fallah system or a village system should have sort of space making or placemaking, you know, that continuous – you continue to be in a place and continue to take care of it. These orchards became a sort of turning soil and fertility into liquidity, into cash. And these – this is a summary of like settler-colonial farming systems in the US. So you find like in the prairies when you had meters worth of topsoil, and they were depleted to like, point five for 1 percent of organic matter now. So, so you know, this is – these are the sort of social and maybe land base – and we’re talking about areas that were coastal plains or areas and Marj Ibn-Amer in the Galilee area in the mid-north, or areas that often get forgotten that were cropped in Beir Saba. And this is actually the importance of the Gaza Strip of being an intersection between two very important areas, which is like Beir Saba, and Gaza. And sort of, you’ll be surprised if you turn the map of Palestine upside down and actually read it through south onwards instead of the center, centric sort of Jerusalem being in the middle, al-Quds of being in the middle.

It’s important, we tend to see Palestine from the center and more centric views. But you will see a very different history – social and economic and ecological – once you turn them upside down, actually read it from Beir Saba onwards. So a good amount of the cropping in wheat crop is going to happen in Saba, you actually see that in now – if you go to Jordan, a good amount of people that do farming and soil in Jordan are from Saba originally, from Beir Saba, but then, you know, and yes, some of them like Sa’aideh and other people that are in Gaza Strip, they still work in farming and have very old traditions of farming, but farming that lives at the intersection of value and farming life. And you’ll find that more common in Jordan as well like so – so you’ll see that sort of geographic continuity, even foods like that are bought and sold that you will see the bread that is made on the ashes, you’ll find it being made and Jordan, you’ll find it made in the southern Gaza Strip, you’ll find it made in the Sinai too. So I feel like this is the sort of overview of the agricultural social context for farming.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thanks, Mohammed. Yeah, it’s fascinating. And, you know, people always talk about food sovereignty and, you know, but, but what does food sovereignty mean when the most fertile lands have been stolen? When farmers in Gaza, you know, their crops are shrinking all the time, because of, you know, Israel’s encroachment on their lands, the so-called, you know, buffer zone keeps expanding. And the economy is in a stranglehold by what Israel allows Gaza farmers and agricultural producers to export, if they can even do that at all. What is your definition of food sovereignty when it comes to Gaza in particular, but also for Palestinians in the West Bank, who have, you know, similar restrictions, but possibly more land? What does it mean? What does food sovereignty even look like? How do we even begin to talk about that?

Mohammed Abujayyab: Yeah, unfortunately, when we’re talking about food sovereignty and so on, a lot of people’s minds or thoughts around it, especially in the US, have been framed around the food sustainability movement, in a sense, and most of the food sustainability movement is really a white settler-colonial construct that probably is similar to the, you know, making the desert bloom or you know, forestation projects in Palestine. So we sort of want to steer away from this, maybe sometimes defining something by saying what it is not is very important. So when we steer a little bit away from that, we’re talking about basically the capacity to decide on what foods are important to you and plant these foods and consume these foods in ways that are socially, economically and ecologically viable for your context. And that’s what’s important to sort of see in the context of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

And honestly, this is the harder – like when I visited, just to give a context as part of my work in Palestine has been 2015, 2016, working in Om Sleiman Farm in Bilin, and starting it, when I visited back to the Gaza Strip I had a frame of in my mind was like, Okay, we’re gonna take the model that we have on hand and sort of try to find through that blueprint, you know, context for the work in Gaza Strip. And we’ve been searching for basically an ideal, you know, ecological, social and economic intersection where we can actually operate, you know, maybe a consumer co-op was a good starting point for us in Gaza Strip. But what astonished me when I went after 10 years of updating regularly, going back to visit family and so on, but I wasn’t able to. And when I was there, I just realized that, especially the Gaza Strip, like at the moment that it is today, it is basically creating this very different sort of blueprint, or prototype.

A pseudo-sovereign prototype [it] is called because it has this sense post-2007, post the separation of Palestinian politics, in a sense between, Gaza and the West Bank, Gaza was afforded – I know it is seen in a negative light, most of the time, and most of, you know, most of the time, we’re talking about like, bringing unity together. But unfortunately, sometimes unity or like bringing things together means settling for a lower bar in a very important liberation experiment that you’re going through. And I feel like the separation post-2007 afforded Gaza the space to actually reimagine and see things related to politics with economy and things like food sovereignty. And you touch that and feel that in a very different way. And I feel like I would love to see politics going in the future in Palestine, but I would love to see sort of a Gaza first kind of politics to actually reimagine the sort of ecosystem that we can operate within politically and economically, by actually taking that blueprint in reverse and actually applying it in other spaces. So an example of this was – I had a chance with a friend to sit with Dr. Mohammad al-Agha who was the agriculture minister between 2006 and 2012. So it was basically a period when the unity government was formed, and another government was formed afterwards. And then basically, the separation had been continued, basically pushing towards the dimension that he was working on as an agricultural minister.

And you will see – you see from the approach and the strategy that they put in place what I would call a Gaza first sort of approach, a sort of resistance in mind, sort of approaches that are basically continuously being attached to the Israeli ecosystem and agriculture. So you, actually, even when you drive down Salah al-Din, the main road in Gaza and so on, you see big chunks of that street being replaced with olive trees and palm trees, where they had eucalyptus in the past, basically. And that was what is really useful, even the British probably planted at one point when they came to Palestine, and I feel like whenever you see eucalyptus you see foreigners in a lot of places including Palestine, including in the US when I drove to LA and so on, like wow –

Nora Barrows-Friedman: We have a whole eucalyptus grove right outside my window that was planted by the European settlers about, you know, what, 150 years ago that are still here and completely destroying the native landscape. Yeah, that’s what happens.

Mohammed Abujayyab: So you basically see, even touch and feel, like different systems and ecosystem and what they want to start with and like you talk more about things like smaller scale like watermelon economy for example, when most of watermelons – and there’s a long history of watermelon, Israelis planted a lot of watermelons and then decided it consumes too much water and citrus is the same way, they’re reducing their you know, amount that amount they plant and then Palestinians kick in when, you know, when there’s a reduction in Israeli production. So it’s like a back and forth but most of the time, because Israel has a lot of subsidies and, you know, farmers enjoy a lot of stuff, especially in water terms in Israel, like Palestinians cannot compete with, you know, these cheaper conditions of production.

So we end up – the watermelon that ends up in Gaza Strip or West Bank ends up being produced in bigger watermelon farms in Israel. So it was like one of the experiments and other experiments followed, onions and other things where basically they sort of created this plan of like, hey, let’s, let’s see how can we replace the entirety of this, you know, crop that we’re importing by replacing other crops, like tomatoes and things that we have a surplus of. And since then, you know, and these, of course, like, talks about all the other intermediary, like there were smear campaigns saying, Oh, these watermelons that are planted here, they’re fed with sewage water, or they’re fed, you know, like where, where they’re trying to – like merchants that benefit from bringing these watermelons from Israel, they want to affect the Palestinian sort of consumer behavior.

But since 2006, 2007, I believe, until today, this has completely changed – the sort of coordination that happened at the very top level, like from the ministry, with farmers, and actually address market need, was a very successful approach and actually addressed certain needs like a cash crop and where farmers would need that cash to continue operating. And that wasn’t the only policy that we see actually, in real effect, like we see the fisheries that are new fisheries. And because when, you know, the limitation of the fishing space and so on, that Palestinians have faced, their fisheries that were created and so on to actually replace some of that demand or, you know, answer to some of that demand. And they’re operating until today, very successfully. We see almost – Gaza Strip in 2019 was able to, to produce, I think, 4,200 tons of olive oil that basically completely covered the need in Gaza Strip.

And that was almost 25 percent. And now they’re at 25 percent of the production of olive oil in the entirety of the Palestinian areas. Like, that’s to me, that’s astonishing, because Gaza Strip just is 6 percent in land mass, 6 percent of the Palestinian Authority areas. And it’s a highly populated area too, so to actually be able to produce almost 45 percent of – 20 to 25 percent of the total Palestinian production is astonishing. And that is actually a direct outcome of strategies. The direct strategy was basically to plant a million olive trees in the Gaza Strip and plant almost three million palm trees for date production in Gaza Strip. And you’ll see actually these patterns – and this is why I’m saying the patterns, the palm tree, for example, growth in the West Bank follows the patterns that happen in Israel.

So that’s like the pre-2007 politics in the Palestinian Authority areas. So you’ll find most of them planting medjool dates, for example, for export. But in Gaza Strip, you’ll find most of the palm trees that are planted, they’re targeting the ajweh market. So like making this paste, this paste from the date, so it’s targeting actually the internal manufacturing market, and eventually, that would be exported, but you would manufacture – the idea is to create or pull most of the supply chain internally to employ most people that you could, you know, employ and then end up with a product that you can sell outside, you know, or export. So the mentality or the idea instead of just exporting the crop, and this has been like the sort of the vegetable market where basically you’re literally exporting water and that increases or participates in increasing the salinity of soil and so on and sending it outside, but then, but if you actually use these crops and like extend the supply chain internally it’s a very different outcome than you’re looking at.

So food sovereignty to me looks like these efforts, looks like – in Palestine we really we talk a lot about or criticize the Fayyad economy that was created post the second intifada. I wish we could talk more about the Agha economy, you know, it’s a very different economy, a very different perspective, you know, of how the decisions and policies can be made. And you can actually control and figure out how to deal within a hostile surrounding, you know, even blockade cannot stop you from actually operating. And I can talk on and on, actually part of the things that I am always keeping around and so on, is this like strategy – I kind of flesh it out every time I talk about this. But basically a strategy of that 2010 to 2020 strategy that they’ve created.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: That’s from the ministry of agriculture?

Mohammed Abujayyab: Yeah, that was from the ministry of agriculture. And Dr. al-Agha was part of – the head of the committee that created it. And when you go through and we talk, talking about laying resistance agriculture, talking about, you know, seeing agriculture, from different perspectives, you know, even creating, like the station of organic production, for compost, and so on to reduce the need of Israeli inputs, and so on, because a huge part of the Palestinian agriculture is dependent on the technology, you know, and it’s funny that because always settlers, when the settler-colonists say like, they depend a lot on technology in a sense.

And like the US selling that Green Revolution sort of technology, and Israelis selling the, you know, fertilizers, they’re selling the – and, and yes, they do create, or increase the yields that we get, but at the same time, you are, you’re left with a bunch of environmental crises that you need to deal with. And you can see that actually in agriculture in settlements in the West Bank, where they feel less inclined to deal with environmental problems, and so on. So they, you know, the nitrification of the water table, and other things become more severe in these contexts. So yeah, food sovereignty really looks like efforts, like Dr. al-Agha has actually worked on.

And, yeah, I believe a lot of the smaller efforts that whether we’ve seen in the west of Ramallah, I feel like there’s a small group of, like, highly active group of people that try to work together and actually build from the bottom up a sort of an economy that could eventually become co-ops that work together. And, you know, operate, to answer for the market needs and actually compete in the market against, you know, crops and like heavily subsidized Israeli crops. But at the same time, you see the top down approach on the Gaza side, like when, you know, Dr. al-Agha was around and so on, and I honestly find both approaches viable and, you know, really see a future in both directions, hopefully.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Last year, during the attacks on Gaza, in May 2021, we saw Palestinians all over Palestine inside ‘48, and in the West Bank and Gaza, and across the diaspora really, rising up in what was called a Unity Intifada. And you’ve – we talked about this off air, about, you know, kind of bringing that energy and that strategy into a viable, Palestine-based, Palestine, you know, centered and Palestinian-run agricultural economy. You work with a wheat mill in Jordan, for example, can you talk about what, you know, what like a Palestine – a unity economy could look like, in order, you know, in order to grow the Palestinian economy in a way that Israel can’t control or shut down, and what that could look like?

Mohammed Abujayyab: Right, yeah, I thank you for asking this question. It’s a very important part of what we dream, you know to accomplish, eventually, the work that is in Jordan is basically the milling effort. But it’s more of a social initiative, let’s say, that is trying to act in one face as a social initiative that educates and talks and reproduces the traditions that we have, instead of leaving that tradition to the market to produce. And the other end is an agribusiness that tries to situate itself in a sort of – in a supply chain, where it actually could, through these social objectives and so on, as well like get to a result where people can plant more wheat and consume more of their locally-produced wheat while shaping and reshaping sort of that idea.

And basically, what got us or at least some of the work that Om Sleiman and I was participating in and got us working in Jordan on were like, if the idea of solidarity cannot flow in easily a sort of, like, idea of solidarity for resistance and so on, doesn’t easily today flow in from outside to inside, we might as well start working on these prototypes and blueprints of liberation – sort of blueprints that embed themselves in economic forums and businesses and, you know, in ways that we actually operate and do these things in other countries. We could, as Palestinians, present ourselves in our work in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, other places, where these become the seeds for a future, you know, so they’re, you know, what I mean, like that liberation work can be exported in that sense. And that’s the work in Jordan like creating of a blueprint that we could take and go somewhere. I’m hoping, I’m really hoping that the next station for us is somewhere in ‘48. Where a Palestinian in Nasra or Haifa or Yaffa, for like that we can, that we can put together a sort of enough resources to, for planting wheat, for milling our own wheat, and maybe for selling that wheat eventually in the West Bank, or Gaza, or in ‘48 areas.

So this is what it really looks like. And this is where the ideas of food sovereignty are thought of when organizations come to Gaza and talk about self-sufficiency and food sovereignty or go to West Bank and talk about these things, they completely cut out Palestinians in ‘48 and their need for resources and their need for participation in that ecosystem. Because as Palestinians like we have – there is trade that is happening, most of the agricultural products are either imported or exported to Israel. Why isn’t wheat, you know, planted and imported and exported? Or like, you know, making it through from ‘48 areas to Gaza and West Bank? There’s a ton of plans that are possible to actually plan and provide a good chunk of the wheat that is needed. And that sort of answer to the historic – because there is this fragmentation politically that is happening and so on.

And they feel like if we weren’t inspired by the Unity Intifada, and so on, to actually create these unity economies, like I don’t want to think, you know, I don’t want an organization to come to Gaza and just have these piecemeal solutions to the problem of wheat by basically saying, oh, let’s plant more of the lands that we plant as vegetables and plant them with wheat. I would like them – I’d like to hear you know them saying, Oh, we’ll develop a market in Gaza Strip and we’ll develop and move resources and lands into the hands of Palestinians in ‘48. And this is important to highlight like the settler-colonial agriculture is settler-colonialism. So at the base of it is it’s based in geography and in land. And one of its main objectives is to keep these lands in the hands of the farmers that usually have a specific profile. In Israel, it’s like Zionist, you know, Jewish, white European farmers that, you know, should continue doing the farming and in the lands that they have a hold of.

And in the US, it’s like white European settlers. And so you’ll find most of the subsidies that go to agriculture and so on, their real objective at the core is to keep agricultural lands in the hands of settler farmers. So one of the main and very important objectives is to actually make a shift in land ownership because Palestinians in ‘48 are faced with displacement as much as Palestinians, you know that were expelled to Gaza, or to the West Bank, or outside of Palestine, but they were displaced internally and so a lot of the agricultural lands and so on, they’re no longer in their hands, but we could develop. And there could be strategies that could look like Land Back in Palestine too and in ‘48 areas where basically Palestinian farmers can, or Palestinians can create agribusinesses that could plant wheat, barley, millet, and like our traditional foodstuffs, they could create flour through milling, that’s the second layer of investments and investing in the process in the supply chain.

Where this becomes, you know, a source for the markets, because we already go walking in Gaza, like some of the areas and so on, if you go to a fancy store, like the Carrefour, you’ll find actually Haifa mill flours that came from Haifa grain mills. Like, you know, it’s not something I would like that to be, you know, to become, I would like to see flour that was milled by Palestinians in ‘48. And so we have to bring in all conversations and resources that are poured into the food sovereignty conversation in Gaza and the West Bank, so we have to bring Palestinians in ‘48 to be part of the conversation. So that actually extends and creates the resilience and an ecosystem that we need in the future. And that becomes more natural to talk about when we’re talking about it in the Palestine context, because we will eventually – whether in Gaza or the West Bank or other areas we’ll be consuming wheat that is planted in ancestral lands. So that the ecosystems look a lot more natural and realistic to me, although today in the environment of like, organizations and activists and so on, it’s completely overlooked.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Mohammed Abujayyab, you are a farmer and activist speaking to us from Utah where you live and work, but originally from Gaza. If people want to learn more about the work that you do with Om Sleiman Farms in the West Bank and the wheat mill in Jordan, what’s the best way to do that?

Mohammed Abujayyab: They can always reach out to Om Sleiman Farm, whether on Facebook or send us an email or Instagram, whatever your choice is – I’m still part of the board on Om Sleiman Farm, or you can reach out to Al-Barakeh Wheat, which is a project in Jordan, currently functioning and run by Zikra Initiative folks. You know, just mention that you want to get in touch and there will be folks that will forward these, you know these conversations, because we are like, honestly, we are, and I’ve mentioned this in previous conversations, we’re very under-resourced when it comes to this work, but the work of creating and recreating agricultural businesses that reimagine and recreate the culture around old food and with doing that, not ignoring the ecological, economic and the social aspects of it. So we will and we are like doing projects that require help, require investment, require uplifting in many ways. So, I hope if a few people listen to this that actually they will find it in themselves to actually reach out and ask how they could help and I will find you a ton of work to do if you’re interested.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: We’ll have all the links on the podcast post that accompanies this episode. Mohammed Abujayyab, thank you so much for all that you do and for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Mohammed Abujayyab: Thank you so much, Nora. And thank you to The Electronic Intifada for all they do.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).