In situations of occupation where land, food and identity are intimately linked, planting a tree can become an act of resistance.
In this guest post, Elle Ambler of the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature explores the impact of the Israeli occupation on agriculture and food security, and the role that tree planting plays as an act of resistance, and in protecting environmental rights and building community cohesion.
In Palestine, the struggle for land cannot be separated from the fight for agricultural and environmental rights. Restrictions and attacks on agriculture are used by Israel to maintain and expand control over Palestinians and their lands. This strategy is enforced through a web of military orders, and by environmental damage inflicted by the state and its citizens.
In 2001, a group concerned with the Palestinian struggle for justice formed to launch the Million Tree Campaign (MTC) in response to these pressures. In the past 20 years, the campaign has planted two and a half million trees, bolstering Palestinian foodways and preserving Palestinian land rights.1 The group that started the MTC later became the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature, which now works to achieve food sovereignty across the region, with an emphasis on areas experiencing war and occupation.
Palestinian agriculture under Ottoman land law
The onslaught against Palestinian agriculture originates from a distorted legal history. More than 70 years of settler colonialism, occupation and ethnic cleansing has resulted in the widespread dispossession of Palestinian farmers. In the West Bank, Israel has sought to formalise its control over the land through the declaration of “military zones” and “state land.” To make it difficult to reverse these land grabs, the state supported the creation of settlements, whose jurisdictional areas now cover over 40% of the West Bank. The only issue was how to justify the transfer of Israelis into the territory, a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention as it relates to occupation.
Initially, the occupation argued that settlements answered a pressing security need, cursorily and unsubstantially gesturing to an exemption in the Fourth Geneva Convention that allows the temporary seizure of land. However, in 1979, after years of avoiding ruling on the legality of this practice, the Israeli High Court of Justice issued a narrow rebuke on the establishment of a particular settlement on privately owned land, following several settlers’ testimony that their right to the land in question was permanent and religiously ordained. This decision shocked the occupation strategists who were unaccustomed to any legal censure, however minimal. Though the settlement was eventually built on a different piece of Palestinian land, this decision triggered the development of a new land seizure strategy that would place agriculture in the crosshairs of the state and its settlers.
The Jordanians, the previous power in the West Bank, had never repealed the Ottoman land laws passed down through the British Mandate in Palestine. The Ottomans had classified land based on its use. One of these categories was miri land, or agricultural land. Wanting to encourage agricultural production and the tax revenue it generated, the Ottomans had decided that after three years, unused miri land would be reallocated to another farmer who would cultivate it. Israel looked at these 19th-Century laws and saw an opportunity. It would reinstate the miri laws along with a spate of military orders. Now, fallow land could be seized by the Israeli state and designated “state land.” Farmers would not be incentivised to cultivate their lands, instead, production would be restricted as much as possible to force the transfer of farmers’ lands to the settlements.
The campaign to strangle agriculture
Despite the many legal issues this corruption of Ottoman law raised, the plan was put into action. The occupation began to survey farmland from the ground and sky, looking for any pause in cultivation that could justify the “state land” declaration. At the same time, a multifaceted campaign was launched to make cultivation as difficult as possible. The soil had become a primary site of colonisation.
A range of actions taken by the Israeli state, citizens and settlers reduces the fertility of Palestinian land. Some, like military campaigns that bulldoze crops and spray herbicides, are designed only to maintain and expand the boundary of state land taken from Palestinians. Other forms of agricultural devastation are produced alongside Israeli profit and convenience.
For example, the Israeli state gives financial incentives to process hazardous waste within the West Bank, where it applies a less rigorous set of environmental safety standards. These exported Israeli toxins leach into groundwater reserves and into the soil surrounding treatment sites. Along with the release of sewage from settlements directly onto farmland, this chemical inundation kills crops and leaves harvests too dangerous to eat. Whether out of expedience, spite, political strategy, or a mix of each, this practice achieves the same end as the bulldozers: crop failure and a heightened risk of land expropriation.
Likewise, Israeli water policy desiccates Palestinian cultivation through the systematic theft of natural resources for Israeli benefit. The West Bank is not poor in water: it sits above a large aquifer and to the west of the Jordan River. However, Israel takes more than 80% of the water in the aquifer and militarily blocks Palestinian access to the river. To maintain its strict control over water, Israeli military orders prohibit Palestinians from digging wells or constructing water infrastructure. This water policy impacts the average Palestinian who receives less water than the minimum standard set by the WHO. The policy also forces many farmers to carry out the expensive and exhausting work of purchasing water from the Israeli water carrier, when such water is available to them, to haul long distances to their fields.
The general architecture of the occupation also devastates the agricultural sector. The erection of the Separation/Apartheid Wall surrounding the West Bank annexed about 9% of its land, severed families from their farmlands and orchards, and uprooted an estimated 100,000 trees. Palestinians are banned from 40% of the West Bank as a whole due to the establishment of settlement jurisdictions, military zones, nature reserves, and other spaces kept exclusively for Israelis. Within the remaining area, the hundreds of checkpoints and roadblocks littering Palestine prevent farmers’ movements and the regularised distribution of agricultural products, while import restrictions limit the use of agricultural machinery and necessary goods like fertiliser. Palestinian crops must also compete with Israeli surplus, government-subsidised produce dumped into the West Bank market.
Trees, the most visible sign of the cultivation that protects farmers from expropriation, have become particular targets of the occupation. The Israeli state and citizens have destroyed more than three million trees since 2000. Today, the ghostly spectre of charred olive trees can be found all across the Palestinian hills, where settlers burn, poison, and hack down these ancient symbols of Palestinian presence, culture, and resilience.
How the Million Tree Campaign responds
The occupation’s land seizure strategy means farmers are not only food providers, who help maintain Palestinian independence from Israeli markets, but they are also land protectors. This is not a new role. From the beginning of the 20th century, the fellaheen, or peasants, have sustained the opposition to British and Zionist colonisation. The Million Tree Campaign recognises Palestinian farmers’ continued struggle and works to bolster their resolve in the face of unrelenting threats by providing fruit tree saplings.
Whole communities arrive for MTC planting days, enjoying the work, rooting themselves still deeper in the land and growing ties between one another. The MTC model of community plantings is a rejection of colonisation reaching back to the British Mandate. Then, Mandate officials worked to eliminate the traditional system of musha’a land holdings, where land was rotated between communal owners. They claimed that shared property rights were a barrier to development. The British either could not conceptualise that Palestinians would value and seek to improve shared property, or were threatened by the collective power these arrangements instilled in the peasantry.
The Israeli occupation carries on the legacy of this outlook, preventing family members from farming together in areas declared at will to be “closed military zones.” In these areas, the annual harvest, traditionally a period for different generations to come together in the orchards, is now a solitary and overwhelming time for farmers racing to reap their full harvests.
The MTC stands against the efforts to break apart the collective agricultural tradition that has forged communities’ strength. MTC trees are supported by villages’ efforts, and in turn reinforce their resilience, growing anti-colonial resistance from the soil up. In this spirit, the MTC does not accept funding from foreign states, but raises money from individuals and Arab civil society groups and businesses, building active regional support for Palestinian liberation and rejecting the political influence of outside donors.
The MTC promotes food sovereignty – the idea that those who eat, grow, and distribute food must control its systems of production – as a fundamental element of Palestinian liberation. Species native to the land and the Palestinian diet are planted to foster independence not only from Israeli-grown crops but the advance of international agribusiness. Reducing Palestinian food dependency is part of the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature’s wider goal of bolstering the region against the exploitation of food insecurity for external economic and political gains.
Agriculture in Gaza
Palestinians in Gaza also face immense agricultural restrictions and environmental destruction. While the occupation no longer has settlements in Gaza, and does not apply the Ottoman Land Code, agriculture is severely limited. These limitations keep Gazans dependent on the few imports Israel allows through the blockade imposed since 2007.
Years of bombings on the 360 km2 strip, where two million people live, have destroyed much of Gaza’s water and agricultural infrastructure, and left substantial environmental contamination. Rebuilding is nearly impossible given the embargo on construction materials. The occupation also enforces a militarised “buffer zone” on 40% of the Gaza Strip’s fertile land, where farmers risk being killed for planting. Low flying planes spray herbicides on the buffer zone to enforce its sterility. Gaza’s coastline has also become militarised. Historically, fish made up a large, protein-rich part of Gazan diets, but a nautical buffer zone has left fishers with access to just 15% of the Mediterranean.
The destruction of the agricultural sector and the blockade on imports have eroded any sense of food sovereignty and forced 47% of Gazans into food insecurity. The MTC provides fruit trees to Gaza and also works to supplement the macronutrients missing in many Gazans’ diets by distributing flocks of chickens and pigeons.
Million Tree Campaign as a model for linking food and justice
The MTC’s response to the political reality at the root of these issues is unique among initiatives working against hunger and environmental degradation in Palestine. The campaign shows not only how war and occupation must end for the right to food to be achieved, but provides an example of how agriculture can advance political justice. Through its experiences with the MTC, the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature now plays a leading role in discussions on regional conflict and the right to food.
The MTC’s partnerships with individuals and collectives on the ground allow for quick responses to the developments of the occupation, including a new initiative to revive the agricultural sector in Gaza following the devastation brought on by 11 days of intensive bombing in 2021, which targeted fertile lands and food production and storage facilitates, and caused an estimated $200 million in agricultural losses.
In 2019, Israel threatened to formally annex the Jordan Valley. This valley contains some of the most fertile lands in Palestine and is home to many of Palestine’s vineyards, citrus orchards, and date palms. The MTC, seeing the act of annexation that every uprooted tree and demolished home represents, is not waiting for this disaster to fully materialise. This year’s MTC was launched with a special emphasis on protecting this valued area. Its slogan remains, “they uproot a tree, we replant ten.”
Elle Ambler is an Advocacy Officer at the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature.