A couple of weeks ago I helped lead a group from the UK on a tour of the West Bank, visiting Fairtrade farmers and learning something about how the Israeli occupation affects the lives of Palestinians.
The tour was organised by Zaytoun, the Community Interest Company that imports delicious olive oil, dates, maftoul and almonds from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Zaytoun celebrates its 10th birthday this week.
We arrived in Jerusalem amidst clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in the city. Almost everyone we spoke to in the Old City tourist shops and restaurants was concerned about the lack of tourists and how this was affecting their businesses. I found the city significantly quieter than I have ever seen it.
In the West Bank these tensions weren’t so evident. We started off visiting date farmers in the Jordan Valley – a lush and fertile area north of Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world, which lies 250 metres below sea level. There we met with Abu Naiem who had recently harvested his dates, which will be sold in the UK through Zaytoun. He is part of the Al-Jiftlik date farmers co-operative of about 20 farmers in this area. He and his fellow farmers face a number of difficulties due to the Israeli occupation. There are many illegal settlements in the Jordan Valley, and one of the major problems is that these Israeli farms flood the market with cheaper dates, making it very difficult for the Palestinian small farmers to sell theirs.
They also face difficulties accessing water and agricultural inputs – the occupying forces restrict what they are able to buy in terms of fertilisers, though the farmers are experimenting with manures and natural fertiliser. Water for irrigation of crops is a major issue. The local spring is running dry and the villagers are not allowed to dig new wells without permission from the Israeli authorities. This permission is almost impossible to get and sometimes farmers dig a well anyway, at great cost, only for it to be concreted up by the Israeli army weeks or even days later. Roadblocks and checkpoints can also prevent farmers from delivering their dates and other crops to the processor or to the city.
However, the farmers we met were optimistic and are keen to increase their production. They talked about buying chilling facilities in order to store their dates and sell them when the market is not flooded. Selling their dates to Zaytoun also gives them a guaranteed market – one which is increasing in the UK. And we could taste why, as Abu Naiem handed round freshly harvested dates for us to try!
Later in the week we helped pick olives on Nahed Rajab’s farm in Sebastiya, near Nablus. Most of the olive harvest was already over but Nahed welcomed our group’s help, despite our lack of skill at hitting the branches to get the olives to fall onto the sheets below. The olive harvest in Palestine is a family affair – some schools even close for a few days so that children can join their parents and grandparents in the olive groves, picking through the day and sharing tea and food prepared on a fire under the trees.
Buying Zaytoun Fairtrade olive oil is one easy thing we can to show solidarity with these farmers. You can also consider going to visit them yourself on a harvest tour. I’d highly recommend it!
Zaytoun is a UK Community Interest Company selling fairly traded Palestinian produce. Harvested and prepared by hand, the products are both testament to the proud heritage of the Palestinian people and a creative response to the loss of land and livelihood under occupation. In the last 10 years, Zaytoun has brought the world’s first ever Fairtrade certified olive oil to our shelves, sold nearly 300 tonnes of olive oil, and bought £3.5 million worth of products from Palestine. Happy birthday Zaytoun!