Permaculture and the sustainability of resistance in Palestine

One man’s struggle for sustainable farming on his land in the occupied West Bank is not only a fight against occupation. It suggests that international environmental law provides a legal avenue for Palestinians to sue for their rights.

Alice Gray. alaraby. 12 February, 2015

Fayez and Muna Taneeb harvesting beans in one of their polytunnels (photo Alice Gray)

Fayez al-Taneeb is an energetic man with a vision — of community resilience and sustainability.

He is an organic farmer, a union member and an activist with the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, who has steadfastly resisted displacement from his farm for several decades.

He believes that Permaculture, a comprehensive design strategy for sustainable living and farming that originated in Australia in the 1970s and has a growing global following, forms an important component of any Palestinian non-violent resistance strategy.

A long journey

Hakuretna Farm (which loosely translates to ‘Garden Farm’) is located in the northern West Bank city of Tulkarm and is bisected by Israel’s Separation Barrier — the complex of concrete walls, barbed wire, military roads and ditches that runs up and down occupied Palestinian territory often separating Palestinian communities and families from each other, or, as in this case, farmers from their land.

Today, Fayez is developing it as an experimentation and demonstration site for techniques in organic farming and sustainable technologies that he believes are important for Palestinian farmers.

He also hosts international gatherings of permaculture practitioners and Palestinian youth, providing a forum for information exchange and learning — a project called ‘Global Campus’.

Fayez’s story illustrates the role of farming in Palestinian resistance culture, as well as highlighting the struggles that Palestinian farmers face on a daily basis.

“I didn’t want to be a farmer when I was young,” Fayez told al-Araby al-Jadeed. “I wanted to study. I got a scholarship to go and study in the USSR in 1979, but when I tried to take it up, the Israelis arrested me at the border and prevented me from leaving the country. So I got a job in a factory instead.

“I inherited the farm in 1984. At first I didn’t care about it — for 6 months I did nothing. But then Israeli soldiers moved onto the land and started using it as a training ground. I realised I would lose the land if I didn’t work it. So I bought some basic equipment and started.”

Sabotage and occupation

The Israeli chemical factory that abuts Taneeb’s land (Alice Gray) “For the first six months, the army sabotaged my equipment every day. But I persisted, and at the end of this time, when I brought in my first harvest, I realised the power of planting. I fell in love with farming!”

But Fayez’s problems were not over. During the same period, Israeli bulldozers worked beside his land every day to build a factory for the Geshuri Advanced Technologies company manufacturing agrochemicals.

“They moved it here because it was too dangerous and people in Israel complained,” he says.

The practice of locating polluting industries on Palestinian land is a common one. Permits are easier to come by and the Israeli government is keen to promote business on the other side of the Green Line, which demarcates the 1948 ceasefire line. Local Palestinian labour is also cheaper.

There are currently 12 Israeli industrial zones and hundreds of factories located inside the West Bank. This is because the majority of Israeli Environmental Law either does not apply or is not enforced in the occupied territories, making it “a paradise for environmental crime that affects life on both sides of the Green Line,” according to Gidon Bromberg, the executive director of EcoPeace Middle East.

“We didn’t realise how bad it was until 1989, during the khamseeni when the wind direction reverses,” Fayez told al-Araby al-Jadeed. “We came down to the farm one morning and saw all the ground white with powder blown in from the factory. All our crops died.”

After this, Fayez started working with his neighbours on both sides of the Green Line to sue the chemical factories. The action was unsuccessful, but he realised something important:

“If I couldn’t change the factories, at least I could change myself and my farm,” he says. “That was when I stopped using chemicals. The Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees helped me to put up greenhouses to protect my crops from pollution and by 2000, all my production was organic.”

But then the second intifada started, and a whole new set of problems began to plague the Taneebs and their farming enterprise.

“The farm was demolished by the Israelis three times during the Intifada, and then in 2003 they fenced it off with razorwire. It took us until 2005 to get back onto the land, and by then the Wall was being built right across the farm. We lost 20 dunums of the 32 we had — 60 percent of our land! Now we have to rent land from our neighbour,” says Fayez.

The case of the Taneebs is not unique. The barrier, 85 percent of which is constructed on Palestinian land rather than following the Green Line, isolates thousands of Palestinian farmers from their land. Stop the Wall estimate that, when the Wall is completed, 78 Palestinian villages and communities will be isolated in various ways, affecting over 266 000 people.

The permaculture of resistance

Israel’s separation wall, here around Abu Dis near Jerusalem (Getty) But the battle is far from over as far as Fayez is concerned. In 2005, he became active with the local Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements and ended up working with a number of partners to coordinate a ‘Walk Along the Wall’ for international peace activists. Many of those who attended came from the ‘peace village’ of Tamera, a sustainable community based in Portugal.

“That was when I started to hear about permaculture, and to realise its potential. From Tamera I received the message that water, food and energy are available to all humanity if we work with the laws of nature,” Fayez told al-Araby al-Jadeed. “That’s a powerful resistance tool, because water, food and energy are things that Israel does not want us to control.”

Fayez, inspired by the ideas he was hearing, embarked on an international odyssey to learn more about sustainable technologies. He visited Japan and the USA as well as 15 European countries.

“I learned a lot on that trip,” he says. “And I became part of an international network that is evolving every day. Now I am working to bring these ideas to Palestine and share them.”

As well as becoming a permaculture activist, Fayez continues to be active in the legal struggle against Israel’s violations. He was part of the Palestinian delegation to the Hague in 2004, helping to obtain the ruling on the illegality of the Wall.

He also successfully brought a case against the chemical factories to a London court, which ruled that they are illegal and should pay compensation. But the factories did not accept the ruling.

“Israel considers themselves above the law — but we will keep trying,” he said.

On that front, it seems there may be some cause for cautious optimism. According to legal experts participating in a study on environmental injustice in Palestine organized by al-Haq (a legal NGO) and the Heinrich Boell Foundation, international environmental law may provide a potential avenue for successful prosecution of Israel through international channels.

According to Benjamin Pontin of the Bristol Law School, recent Palestinian moves to gain membership of UN institutions such as UNESCO, and their recognition as a non-member state by the General Assembly, provide a legal basis for prosecuting Israel that has previously been lacking.

“Israel is a signatory to many environmental treaties that they are not upholding,” he told a conference in Ramallah on December 1st of this year. “They have become used to being prosecuted for infractions of Human Rights Law, but they are not ready to defend themselves against prosecution under environmental law. That provides a possible vehicle for obtaining Palestinian rights.”

Whether or not that is true, Fayez remains optimistic that his resistance strategy will triumph in the long run.

“Israel are killing themselves by their own hands,” he said with conviction. “We Palestinians are many — too many to drive us away. When they are violent towards us they perpetuate a culture of violence; and when they attack our connection to our land, they destroy the environment along with the culture that they are smashing. It’s just a matter of time.”