Community-based land management in the Israeli-occupied state of Palestine

Palestinians have a long history of community-based natural resource management. Since 1967, Israel’s military occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem (the State of Palestine recognized by 193 countries and the United Nations General Assembly), has threatened these traditional management approaches and endangered Palestine’s natural resources. This article argues that the Israeli occupation has denied Palestinians the sovereignty to manage their own land and other natural resources, resulting in negative consequences for their livelihoods and well-being, along with harmful impacts to the land itself. The Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ) has therefore focused on investing in CNBRM initiatives in Palestine aimed at increasing the sustainability of Palestinian agriculture in the face of an Israeli occupation regime that denies Palestinians sovereign control over their natural resources.

Historically land management in Palestine was practiced by local communities according to customary traditions. In 1918 communal land represented 70% of historical Palestine (what is now the state of Israel and the occupied territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem). Most land thus belonged to local communities, meaning that land was managed in the common interest by a group of people, usually the whole population in a given village. Rights for grazing, access to water resources and wood harvesting were shared. Village elders had the right to divide land into portions and distribute it among farmers.

Following the onset of the Israeli occupation in 1967, however, land ownership patterns, particularly of communal land, witnessed a total transformation. The Israeli occupation authorities ordered a halt to land registration and started confiscating Palestinian land and resources. In the West Bank, for example, Israel confiscated 43,100 hectares of land under the pretext of absentee land ownership (i.e. owned by Palestinians not present in the West Bank). Additional land was confiscated for security reasons and public use. This land confiscation paved the way for the construction of 196 settlements and 232 outposts in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

The Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization divided land in the West Bank according to a division of territory into areas A, B and C. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), created by the Oslo accords, was to have civil and security control over area A, while in area B the PNA assumed full control in civil matters, with Israel remaining in charge of security. In the areas classified as area C, Israel retained full control over land, security, civil affairs and natural resources. In Gaza, meanwhile, 24% of land is declared a prohibited border zone from which Palestinians are blocked from access to land and other natural resources.

While the United Nations envisions the State of Palestine encompassing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, this territory has been carved up by the Israeli occupation into discontiguous islands. The jagged distribution of areas A, B and C, coupled with the 771 km long wall constructed by Israel in the West Bank, turn West Bank lands into isolated cantons, physically separated from each other and from the Gaza Strip. Prolonged years of Israeli occupation have disconnected Palestinians from the majority of natural resources in Palestine. Area C in the West Bank, to which Palestinians have extremely limited access, contains 87% of the West Bank’s nature reserves, 90% of its forests, 48% of its water wells and 37% of its water springs. Lack of sovereignty over land and natural resources has denied Palestinians the right to manage those resources.

The lack of Palestinian land sovereignty has also resulted in ecological decline and prevented effective natural resource management. For example, indicators of desertification appear clearly in the eastern slopes of the West Bank, an area characterized by steep hills where agricultural activity is limited to animal grazing. The closure of 85% of this zone by the Israeli occupation authorities for military purposes has led to severe overgrazing of the remaining areas accessible to Palestinian herders. This overgrazing has resulted in the loss of the vegetation cover, along with soil erosion and desertification.

Within this context Palestinians continue to practice agriculture, mostly on small land holdings, 90% of which range between 0.5 and 5 hectares. Palestinian farmers face numerous constraints and challenges in their attempts to manage natural resources effectively in the context of occupation. Lack of access to water means that rain-fed farming is the dominant type of agriculture in the West Bank. Farmers are subsequently vulnerable to fluctuations in rainfall and to changing climate patterns. To protect their lands from confiscation by Israeli military authorities under the pretext that land is not cultivated, Palestinians began planting olive trees in the 1970s to replace field crops. In response, however, Israel engaged in a massive campaign of uprooting trees. ARIJ estimates that since 1967 more than 1.8 million trees have been uprooted in the West Bank and Gaza.

Together with local communities, ARIJ is working to promote sustainable development in Palestine through community-based natural resource management. ARIJ partners with local communities to prioritize small and smart interventions, ranging from rain harvesting systems, land reclamation, field crops improvement, climate change adaptation and the promotion of urban agriculture. Additionally, ARIJ works to help small-size farmers protect themselves by organizing into cooperatives. One successful example of a social business intervention is Al-Jalemeh Women’s Cooperative, where ARIJ worked with the cooperative to improve its production, management and good governance capacities. Some women planted home gardens with luffa (commonly referred to as loofah), sweet pumpkin and safflower, while others worked to produce jam, dried safflower and loofah scrubbing sponges. Consequently, each woman managed to generate additional income of $560 per year. ARIJ has also worked with local communities to introduce plant-water production systems such as hydroponics and wicking systems, new agro-technologies suitable for both rural and urban areas. These systems take up limited room (10 square meters) and use less water, making them appropriate for small household farmers. Farmers who have adopted such systems can produce four or even five seasons of vegetables per year, fertilizing and managing their crops with natural solutions and fertilizers. These new plant-water production systems utilize half the water resources used by traditional irrigated systems and increase crop produce three times more than conventional agro-systems, with less effort. Such systems help improve food self-sufficiency, give opportunities to poor families to generate more income and help communities manage what limited resources are available to them. While the Israeli occupation places severe constraints on Palestinian access to and management of natural resources, ARIJ is committed to supporting rural and urban Palestinian communities in sustainably conserving and managing the resources to which they still have access.

Jad Isaac is director general of the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ), an MCC partner organization.

Learn more:

Hrimat, Nader and Munif Doudin. “Adopting Hydroponic and Wicking Agro Food Production Models in Palestine.” Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem, 2014. Available at http://www.arij.org/files/arijadmin/adopting_hydroponic.pdf

Bassous, Roubina. “Biodiversity and Human Rights from a Palestinian Persepctive.” Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem, 2014. Available at http://www.arij.org/files/arijadmin/biodiversity.pdf

“Agriculture in Palestine: A Post-Oslo Analysis.” The Council for European Palestinian Relations, 2012. Available at http://thecepr.org/images/stories/pdf/memo%20agriculture.pdf

Reynolds, Kyra. “Palestinian Agriculture and the Israeli Separation Barrier: The Mismatch of Biopolitics and Chronopolitics with the Environment and Human Survival.” International Journal of Environmental Studies 72/2 (2015): 237-255.

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