Food As Resistance, Freedom as Heritage

“The story of the olive tree in Palestine is a tragic one. It is a tree that has survived for thousands of years. In Jerusalem, for example, you can still see the tree that Jesus sat under over two thousand years ago. That is how deep it runs in our history. Sadly, Israel actively cuts down these trees — uprooting them with machines sent from the West. It is the maximum crime, in many ways, to human history and to our Palestinian heritage. There is no logic behind robbing us of that.“ — Ali Abd El Rahman
Ali Abd El Rahman speaking at the Jane Addams Hull House. (Photo Credit: Sherwin Ovid 2014)

In the wake of the most recent assault on Gaza this summer by Israel, the majority of Gaza has “lost its productive assets” according to a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The OCHA report details the impact of a crisis further complicated by the ongoing work of trying to develop and sustain food production for an area where 66% of people receive food assistance and 45% are unemployment rate:

“[Recent] hostilities forced farmers and herders to abandon their lands, and resulted in substantial direct damage to Gaza’s 17,000 hectares of croplands as well as much of its agricultural infrastructure, including greenhouses, irrigation systems, animal farms, fodder stocks and fishing boats.”

As a result of years of shelling, drone attacks and crop burning, the Israeli army has effectively rendered huge swaths of Gaza’s agricultural land deadly and inaccessible. Palestinian farmers have faced Israeli attacks even as they’ve attempted to work on their land. Even when the crops are doing well, much of it goes unharvested due to its inaccessibility as a result of the illegal border wall built by Israel. For most farmers, the land is the sole source of income and food for their families.

During his visit to Chicago where he presented at the Jane Addams Hull House, Ali Abd El Rahman shared these personal experiences of this crisis:

“Even if you are poor, if you have land this allows you to grow your own food and escape hunger. That is what is being taken away from us. Sure, having a big income is nice. Who wouldn’t want that? But for the farmer it’s important to remember that this is a way of life, a philosophy. Agriculture is life, its history and it is our heritage.”

Ali is chairman of the Board of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) of Palestine, an organization established in 1986 to “improve the social and economic situation of Palestinian farmers that is a result of the marginalization of agriculture and confiscation of land and water resources under Israeli occupation.” Ali described the current situation of farmers he collaborates with:

“After the recent war crimes by Israel in Gaza, the soil was heavily polluted, farmers were destroyed and even the animals were slaughtered by Israeli missiles. Over 50 tons of bombs per square mile were dropped on Gaza. Farmers are still trying to estimate the damage that was done to the agricultural production.”

According to a document Ali shared with attendees of his lecture, UAWC’s recent and past projects have included “water and land reclamation and development, income generation projects, digging and rehabilitating wells, and grey water education.” UAWC also “helps build farmers cooperatives, seed banks, and supports women’s leadership development” within a territory that is increasingly reduced in size by illegal Israeli settlements. He explained that after the Oslo Agreement the West Bank was “divided into three areas (A,B,C). It is not a very big piece of land but we do have rich bio-diversity and a wide range of agricultural products.”

Months after Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” assault, Palestinian farmers struggle to recover from trauma and rebuild their lives while they also engage the task of rebuilding the infrastructure to feed their communities. Israel’s latest attack destroyed homes, hospitals, industrial infrastructure and more. This further complicates the situation created by the economic/material blockade imposed by Israel. Some of the items that have been restricted by Israel include: pasta, flour, yeast, rice, salt, sugar, garlic, cooking oil and tea.

It’s known that this policy was designed “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

In 2012, it was revealed that Israeli authorities devised a plan that calculated the minimum caloric intake necessary for Palestinians to survive at the same time that Israel carefully managed food imports to barely avoid causing widespread starvation.

“We are in a very sad situation. We lost many things and it will take years to recover. But Israel lost the most from this latest assault — and I’m not speaking about the $6 billion they spent on the military operations. They lost the moral and ethical foundation of their nation.”

Ali explained that UAWC’s current campaign is unique because it is uniting Palestinians across the Occupied Territories and surrounding countries, too. They provide emergency food to the hungry and redevelop infrastructure for food production. So often, he said, Palestinians find that they cannot wait for the UN or NGOs to “figure out their budget, their capacities or how they will launch their campaigns. We have to be there to respond immediately.”

He was in the United States to accept the Food Sovereignty Prize, an honor awarded by the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, a US-based coalition of food justice, anti-hunger, labor, environmental, faith-based and food producer groups. According to their website, the Alliance “works to end poverty, rebuild local food economies, and assert democratic control over the food system.”

Ali visits Sweet Water Photo Credit: Sherwin Ovid 2014)

Khaled Hidan, General Director of the UAWC said the prize inspires the union “to carry on its work in defending Palestinian farmers’ rights against the brutal Israeli violations, both through supporting small-scale farmers and fishermen toward their food sovereignty and rights to land and water, and also through coordination with local and international movements for social justice and human rights.”

Ali with Emmanuel Pratt (far right) from Sweetwater Foundation (Photo Credit: Sherwin Ovid 2014)

Before his presentation at the Hull House, Ali joined Amy Mall from Family Farm Defenders to visit some Chicago’s leading environmental sustainability and urban farming institutions such as The Plant and the Chicago State Aquaponics Center.

During his presentation, Ali made connections between the struggle of Palestinian farmers and the global movements for climate justice and food sovereignty. Indeed, UAWC recently became a member of La Vía Campesina — the worldwide movement representing over 250 million small farmers, peasants, and other food producers.

“Beyond its price in the store and its position as a commodity in the market, food is first a source of nutrition, heritage and life. That is why the work towards building food sovereignty is a way of resisting the occupation. Food is freedom.“
“Peasant Solidarity” (Photo Credit: John Peck, Family Farm Defenders)
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