RAMALLAH, November 7 (JMCC) - Former Palestinian governor Zuhair Manasreh is trying to make a go of farming and exporting dates. But in the Jordan Valley, where Israel controls most of the land and resources and there is little Palestinian support, he is finding it an uphill battle, reports the
In 2006, a year after retiring from politics, Manasreh hit upon the idea of dates. They take longer to spoil than olives and have a relatively high rate of return, he reasoned. The sweetest, plumpest majul dates flourish in the Jordan valley, not far from the Dead Sea. So he planted 7,000 trees there.
Initially, Manasreh relied entirely on his own capital but in 2011, when the bank refused to give him another loan, he merged with Palestinian business giants Padico, and Nakheel Palestine was born. The business now owns six farms, with 20,000 date palm trees, and employs 100 people (rising to 150 during the harvest). They also grow and export dates. They are yet to turn a profit. Manasreh's farms are surrounded by 28 Israeli settlements, occupying 90% of the Jordan valley.
A recent report by 21 NGOs found that the EU imports £185m worth of goods from Israeli settlements every year, mostly dates and citrus fruits – 15 times the value of European imports from Palestinians. Israeli dates are cheaper. Palestinian farmers aren't able to travel to Israeli ports to oversee their exports, so they hire Israeli middlemen. Their pesticides, boxes and shipping pallets are all bought from Israel.
According to Human Rights Watch, half a million Israeli settlers in the West Bank are taking more than their fair share of scant water resources. In the Jordan Valley, an estimated 9,000 settlers in Israeli agricultural settlements use one-quarter the total amount of water consumed by the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank, some 2.5 million people, says the report. Israel has drilled deep wells in the Jordan valley to supply its settlements. Palestinian farmers pay for extra water to be trucked in to irrigate their trees. All these extra costs mean that Palestinian dates are 25% more expensive than the settlement alternative.
Manasreh's date farms are in Area C, land under full Israeli military control. He is fighting a demolition order on a well vital for the irrigation of his trees. He claims the pump is in Palestinian-controlled Area A, but Israel insists that it is in Area C, was built without an Israeli permit and must be destroyed. The discrepancy over the zone boundary is a matter of several trees.
But the critical issue, according to Manasreh, is a lack of support from the Palestinian government. The Israeli government offers generous subsidies to its settler producers, even reimbursing farmers obliged to pay EU import duties. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, has proposed a new tax on agricultural produce.
Waleed Assaf, the Palestinian Authority's agriculture minister, admits the government has not done enough for its farmers. Only 1% of the annual budget, and 4% of the development budget, is invested in agriculture. This is a conflict about land and we have been slow to come to this issue, Assaf concedes. He insists that agriculture, industry and tourism are set to become the government's new priorities.