For Palestinian Murad Sartawi, the watermelon is symbolic for its colours: red, green, black and white, resemble those of the flag of his country.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and in the northern Jordan Valley produced around 100,000 tonnes of watermelons each year in the 1980s, but this figure has steadily declined to 13,000 tonnes this year. Making up just a quarter of the annual domestic demand for watermelons, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
The reduction of land available for cultivation represents the suffering of Palestinian farmers under Israeli occupation and the unjust distribution of water in the occupied territories.
Now, the Israeli occupation authority is planning to annex the Jordan Valley, leaving watermelon famers with an uncertain future and with no recourse to protection from the Palestinian government.
For decades, Israel has confiscated land owned by Palestinian farmers and allocated it to illegal settlers and deprived the remaining Palestinians of access to water, which is pumped without limits – and for free – to settlers.
Sleiman Sawafta is one of those small-scale Palestinian farmers who planted about 60 dunums (15 acres) of watermelon in the village of Bardala in the northern Jordan Valley, but didn’t harvest most of it, losing 150 tonnes of the crop.
All the watermelons ripened, but I couldn’t find the boxes to package them in because all the boxes were reserved for the Israeli watermelon which floods the local market
Watermelons are harvested in mid-May, during this time the crops’ price drops as the West Bank market is flooded by second-grade Israeli produce. Israel’s best watermelons are reserved for the Israeli market and not sold in the occupied territories.
“Most of our watermelons remained in the fields, very few went to the market. It was estimated that the price per kilo was three shekels [$0.87], but the price suddenly fell to about one shekel [$0.29] only,” Suleiman explains.
Muqbel Abu Jaish, director of the Land Rehabilitation Department at the Palestinian Agricultural Development Association (PARC), stresses that this is a deliberate policy of the Israeli occupation authorities. “The Israelis are flooding the market with watermelon because they want to displace farmers, especially when they see that many Palestinian farmers have returned to cultivate the targeted areas in the Jordan Valley,” he says.
The cultivation of watermelon in the area, he adds, was a conscious Palestinian effort to counter Israel’s attempts to confiscate and annex land in the area, putting farmers in plain sight of occupation forces.
Israeli policies to displace farmers
Although the Jordan River provides Israel with an estimated 450 million cubic metres of water per year, Palestinians in the Jordan Valley are denied access to and supply of its water.
Suleiman says, in 1976 Israel made an agreement with farmers stipulating that water should not be extracted from the village wells “in exchange for the Israeli authorities giving them water at a reduced price”.
“After the villagers implemented the agreement and stopped using their water wells, the occupation authorities gradually began to reduce the amount of water granted to them putting their cultivation at risk.”
According to Abu Jaish, the objective of this agreement was to make farmers dependent on the Israeli water company and later to leave them at the mercy of the occupation. One day Israel will stop providing the farmers with water to force them to leave, he warns.
Abu Jaish says another tool used by occupation forces to keep Palestinians away from their land is by declaring it a “closed military zone” and prohibiting Palestinian farmers from cultivating it.
No protection for Palestinian farmers
Palestinian farmers feel they are alone in facing the Israeli occupation, while the Israeli farmers are well protected and supported by the occupation authorities. This makes the situation unfair and unequal. The Israeli authorities provide Jewish farmers free land to cultivate, as well as supplying them with free water, fertilizers and pesticides. At the same time, it compensates any loss or damage which might occur to their harvest.
Mohammad El Fayez is a Palestinian watermelon farmer from the village of Ein Al-Beida in the northern Jordan Valley, he says his watermelon is “much better than the Israeli one in regard to the quality, but there is no protection whatsoever from the deliberate dumping of Israeli watermelon onto the Palestinian market”. He adds that the Israeli farmers in the nearby settlements are supported and protected by the occupation authorities, enabling them to sell their produce at lower prices on the Palestinian market. Forcing out the Palestinian competition.
To prevent Israel’s planned annexation of the occupied Jordan Valley, Abu Jaish says, “we should enhance the steadfastness of the Palestinian farmers, consequently, Israeli melons should be prevented from entering the Palestinian market at least during the season from 15 May to 15 June, allowing the Palestinian farmers to market their products.”
Assistant Undersecretary for the Economic Sector at the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, Tariq Abu Laban, admits that “despite the successive Palestinian governments’ decisions to prevent the import of watermelon from illegal settlements, this still exists because some merchants have commercial ties with Israeli suppliers and they smuggle it into the local market.”
Abu Laban described this as a “watermelon war” declared by Israel, referring to the Israeli efforts and policies to abort the attempts of the Ministry of Agriculture to protect farmers. He thinks that the Israeli plan to annex the Jordan Valley has already started on the ground and that the Palestinian farmer will be the first victim.
Villagers of the Jordan Valley’s Bardala say Israeli occupation forces came last week and removed the signs on the main road which indicate that the area is a Palestinian-controlled region and forced residents to take down the Palestinian flag above the village council. They believe this to be an introduction to enforcing Israeli sovereignty on the area.
Farmers’ inability to harvest and market their produce has left them unwilling to continue to plant them. Forced to consider a change of career because of the occupation’s actions, many will leave their homes and facilitate Israel’s annexation of the vital region.