PA Farmers Hung Out To Dry While Israelis Flourish In Jordan Valley

A large portion of the bananas sold in produce stores in Ramallah and Nablus are grown on relatively young fields in the northern Jordan Valley, about a kilometer south of the 1967 green line border. That is not surprising, since the Jordan Valley possesses abundant water, and bananas need considerable water. The Jordan Valley is part of the West Bank.

One banana grove, which stretches over an area about 60 acres in size, belongs to Kibbutz Ginosar, in conjunction with the Shadmot Mehola settlement. Residents of the nearby village, Ein al Beida, with whose land the settlement's groves and orchards are intertwined, don't even dream about cultivating bananas. The quota of water allocated by Israel to the village's farmers barely suffices for the cultivation of vegetables on the scanty area left by the state to Ein al Beida, following a post-1967 series of expropriations and declarations about the creation of closed off military spaces (out of the 2440 acres of land possessed by the village before 1967, these expropriations and military closures have applied to 490 acres.

The total area on which Kibbutz Ginosar members cultivate bananas comes to about 317 acres, most of them within the green line. Uri Shamir, Kibbutz Ginosar business manager, said in a phone conversation: "On our own initiative, we have appealed to Shadmot Mehola. We are in contact with most of the communities, and we look for all relative advantages (in the entire region ). We look for ways to get past the restrictive frameworks imposed upon us, and we would like to utilize our knowledge in cooperation with others."

Farming in the Jordan Valley is not new to Ginosar. In the past, the kibbutz cultivated watermelon in conjunction with the Naaran settlement. Now, Shadmot Mehola supplies the water and land, and the kibbutz pays for their use, Shamir says; he prefers not to discuss the business details. At the end of the year, Ginosar and Shadmot Mehola calculate income and expenses, and share the profits. The grove's location ensures profitability.

Since the Jordan Valley is a warmer region and fruit there ripens earlier than in other parts of the country, it can be sold when prices are at their peak, Shamir explains. "Sometimes, being a month earlier suffices, and this makes the business more profitable," he adds. Ginosar's bananas are marketed primarily in Israel, and are not slated for export. Shamir estimates that most of what is grown in the Jordan Valley "is marketed in Judea and Samaria, and the Gaza Strip."

Ginosar: Where water conservation does not pay

Travelers journeying northward from Beit She'an toward Tiberias can observe banana groves covered by greenhouse netting. The nets reduce the banana saplings' exposure to the sun's rays and keep the air still within the grove. This method reduces water consumption by 20 to 40 percent. However, the Ginosar/Shadmot Mehola groves do not utilize this conservation method. Shamir says that part of the grove is expected to be covered by nets. "It's a question of budgets," he explains. "There are many open groves, and this depends (upon many factors ). We decide on the basis of our own calculations. The nets cost a lot of money, about NIS 7000 for a quarter acre, and the state only subsidizes a fraction of this. There are few extreme situations – a chill can descend suddenly – so investing a lot of money constitutes a gamble."

Shamir told Haaretz that each quarter acre of the banana grove requires 2000 cubic meters of water each year. That is, 61 acres need 0.5 million cubic meters of water a year (this calculation includes neither 165 acres on which Shadmot Mehola cultivates citrus fruit, which requires water, nor the water consumption of a large cowshed, which holds 750 cows and calves ). In an average monthly allocation, Ginosar's bananas receive 41,000 cubic meters of water. That is equivalent to 25 to 40 percent of the water quota that Israel allocates to the Ein al Beida village as a whole, and which is supposed to furnish the consumption needs of its 1900 residents: drinking, bathing, cleaning, not to mention water for livestock herds and farming.

During a period of peak heat, last September, 103,074 cubic meters of water were supplied to Ein al Beida residents. This datum is displayed on a water use bill sent to the Palestinian water authority by Mekorot, Israel's national water company. In August, the situation was better. The water bill shows that owing to drilling performed in the vicinity by Mekorot, 106,438 cubic meters of water were allocated to the Palestinian agricultural village. In May, residents of Ein al Beida received 128,350 cubic meters; in January, 133,380 cubic meters were allocated; and this past October, a record 168,550 cubic meters were allocated.

The lack of control over the amount of monthly water sent by Mekorot, along with the lack of consistency in the amount allocated, constitute some of the biggest problems faced by Ein al Beida's farmers, explains one of them who, en route to his fields, passes by one of the Shadmot Mehola's fruit-filled orchards and Ginosar's flourishing banana groves.

The second problem is, of course, the quantity of water itself. First of all, the quantities cited here are not the actual amounts of water that reach Ein al Beida. The water bill calculation is carried out at the site from which the water is diverted toward the village; the amount is calculated by a water meter located in a closed off Mekorot well, at the Bardala drilling site.

Natural spillage of at least 15 percent should be deducted from the totals, as should be water used for home consumption (calculated at 5,700 cubic meters per month, according to the minimal acceptable figures of 100 liters of water daily for an individual cited by the World Health Organization; this baseline calculation is much lower than per capita water consumption for Israelis in general, and for Jordan Valley settlers in particular ).

The amount of water allocated by Israel to Ein al Beida dictates reductions in the village's agricultural branch. This is illustrated by the choices of products cultivated. Ein al Beida farmers prefer to grow crops that require only 300-600 cubic meters annually per quarter acre: corn, fava beans, okra and zucchini, for example. Another example of agricultural reduction are the large fallow areas, which produce thorns and thistle. "Each farmer makes his own calculation; he cannot irrigate all of the land he possesses, and so he always leaves fallow a large portion of his land," the village farmer explains.

Moshavim grow bananas on illegally seized land

Dror Etkes, who investigates Israeli expropriation of West Bank lands, came across Ginosar's banana grove a few months ago (since then, some of the grove's saplings have been uprooted and new saplings planted in their stead, which are growing rapidly ). Etkes notes that large areas (to date 365 acres ) that were given to Mehola and to Shadmot Mehola, which split from it in 1978, constitute private Palestinian land which was taken "illegally, away from parties defined as 'absentees' or from residents who were forced to receive replacement land, plots taken from 'absentees' that replaced the fertile soil expropriated from them." During the 1960s and 1970s, Etkes says, "lands were expropriated without even the legal pretext of a writ of seizure."

Up to the early 1970s, Ein al Beida had a bountiful supply of eight water wells. All of them were, in plain language, destroyed, just like wells where water flowed at the nearby villages, Bardala and Kardala. The reason: the two Mekorot water drills at Bardala (out of 28 Israeli water drill sites in the Jordan Valley; some 32 million cubic meters from these facilities are allocated each year primarily for the agricultural settlements, which are sparsely populated ). As compensation for the drying up of the wells, it was agreed that Mekorot would supply water at low cost to these three villages. As the years went by, the amount of water allocated to Ein al Beida steadily decreased (according to village residents, the initial amount allocated was less that what the wells had provided ).

According to village residents and Palestinian water authority officials, less than four years ago, Mekorot officials came and announced a 22 percent reduction in water allocation levels, "due to the drought" – instead of 240 cubic meters per hour, the allocation dropped to 187 cubic meters.

Owing to low water pressure, water does not reach some village homes during the summer, residents say. Since the pressure is weak and not uniform, residents fill up water canisters, or dig holes and fill them with water, and draw water from these makeshift wells every few days. Lacking land and water, some residents have left the village to seek employment elsewhere in the West Bank. There was a time when many worked in Israel; but now this source of income is blocked to them. As a result of the water allocation levels, the land appropriation, restrictions on the marketing of products and unequal competition with Israeli products, Ein al Beida's population is not growing according to its potential. What could have been a produce storage silo for the West Bank is a scarred, dwindling village.

Around the time when Ein al Beida was informed of the reduction in water quota allocations, Ginosar and Shadmot Mehola planted their banana groves. This happened "about three or four years ago," Shamir told Haaretz. Asked whether he is aware of Ein al Beida's water situation, Shamir responded: "That's what all this interest in our grove is about? I don't know anything about the water at Ein al Beida. How should I know about that? I don't speak with the people there. We have a water quota, and we use it. We ask our partner whether it has an orderly quota consistent with the laws of the state of Israel, with the agriculture law, and we go into partnership. We don't do anything covertly. This is orderly cooperation and is recognized by the agriculture ministry. We have bananas on the other side of the fence, at Ma'ale Gilboa. There's no difference. At (Shadmot ) Mehola we have Palestinian workers, because there's no problem employing them. We would be very happy to employ Palestinians on our side." 

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