Om Sleiman couldn’t be further from the popular imagination of an organic farm. The dirt road leading to the property traces the route of Israel’s Separation Barrier, built in 2004 in the village of Bilin in the occupied West Bank. Eight-meter high concrete blocks tower above—so close you could almost reach out and touch them, if it weren’t for the never-ending fences of barbed wire. The property itself looks directly out at Modi’in Illit, one of Israel’s largest West Bank settlements, where expansion and construction has not ceased since its 1994 establishment. The jarring hum of bulldozers is the ubiquitous anthem to which the abundance of organic produce at Om Sleiman greets the sun each day. Yet beyond these ugly reminders of violent occupation grows hope.
Muhab Al Alami and Mohammad Abu Jayyab established Om Sleiman Farm in January 2016. Their vision was twofold: They wanted to both connect Palestinians back to the produce they consume as well as strengthen fading indigenous agricultural identity. The farm is based on a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model—the first of its kind in Palestine. “It’s about connecting the farmers and the consumers back to the land. The families we feed are not customers, they are members of the farm,” Al Alami says. The model is simple: Members put their trust in Om Sleiman’s vision by paying for their share of produce at the beginning of each season. Fundamentally, this ensures food production is secure, environmentally friendly, and fair for both consumer and producer. In the two years of its existence, Om Sleiman has doubled its capacity, and now feeds eighteen subscribing families every week with fresh and organic produce.
The ancient land holds deep spiritual significance for Palestinians. Yet after 50 years of brutal and repressive military occupation, almost a quarter of the Palestinian population suffers from food insecurity and the once vibrant collective knowledge of how to live in harmony with the land is in danger of being lost.
Standing under an olive tree at Om Sleiman, Al Alami explains that the groves characteristic of the landscape are evidence of self-sufficient farming practices refined over thousands of years. He says that reviving these practices has many benefits: “You protect the land, you reclaim your identity, you create employment opportunities, and you are being independent. That is the most peaceful way you can possibly be.”
The land on which this produce grows is symbolic. “It used to be behind the wall,” Muhab explains as he tends to the tomato vines. The wall, built far beyond the ‘Green Line’ that demarcates the internationally-accepted border of Israel, confiscated over half of Bilin. Its construction effectively denied local farmers access to the lands that generations upon generations of their families had cultivated.
However, Bilin quickly became one of the most significant icons of the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement when a group of global leaders (including Richard Branson and Jimmy Carter) called ‘The Elders’ brought the situation to international attention. In 2007, Israel’s highest court ordered the military to move the route of the wall back toward Israel, and thereby return roughly half the lost farmland to its rightful owners. A village local from Bilin reclaimed his land and donated it for the establishment of Om Sleiman Farm.
Yara Duwani is a 25-year-old Palestinian woman who has been participating in the management of Om Sleiman for two months. She believes self-sufficiency is the first step to freedom. “We’re so dependent on the occupier—for the electricity, water, housing, food, movement, with the air almost. If we as Palestinians cannot produce our own food, build our own shelter, have our own energy—how can we get rid of this occupation?”
Education is the form of peaceful non-violent resistance she chose to pursue. Passionate about food sovereignty and sustainable farming, Duwani dreams of transforming Om Sleiman beyond just organic vegetables. She wants it to be a center for people to learn, teach, and share ideas.
Undoubtedly, there are inherent challenges to operating on land rife with evidence of occupation. Tear gas canisters line the dirt road leading to Om Sleiman Farm. The parking area is marred by the black residue of rubber tires, burnt to a create a smoke screen for protection from Israeli snipers at Bilin’s weekly Friday protest. The kale stretches towards the sun as it sets over the Separation Wall.
“Every day you work in the farm, you see that they’re building settlements on your own land with your own resources,” Duwani says. “What’s interesting is that this gives you the motivation to work towards creating a self-sufficient, independent, and productive community.”
The organic farming sector in Palestine has taken off since it was first introduced to the West Bank in 2004. Today, at least $5 million worth of organic olive oil is exported from the Occupied Territories every year. However, the realities of local economics mean that companies responsible for selling fair-trade organic Palestinian products to distributors, such as Canaan, appeal strictly to an international market.
According to the World Food Program, just under one quarter of the population does not have the means to afford nutritious food. For Palestinians living in the Occupied West Bank, this generally means they don’t get to reap the benefits of the surge in organic farming practices. Strapped for cash, Palestinians purchase produce from fruit and vegetable markets (called hisbeh). Some of it is seasonal, but much of it is not, and some of it is considered not suitable for human consumption. “People here think what they eat from hisbeh is the best quality food,” Duwani explains. “They don’t understand that Israel gives us the worst quality produce, the stuff they can’t sell in the Israeli market.”
The overrepresentation of Israeli products is the result of the Paris Protocol of 1994, which gave Israeli goods preferential status and free access, deepening Palestinian dependency, making it impossible to boycott Israeli products in the West Bank, and making the Occupied Palestinian Territories to a captive market. “This was one of the most catastrophic things that ever happened in Palestinian history…it protects only the Israeli products and forces Palestinians to buy them. It’s just another way to be slaves to Israel,” Al Alami explains as he nurtures strawberries in the greenhouse.
Al Alami says that “Israel doesn’t want you to be productive. They are always focusing to change the Palestinians to a consumer society, dependent on the Israeli economy.” And dependent they are; United Nations economists have projected that if it weren’t for occupation, the economy would be twice its current size.
Herein lies the problem: Palestine’s economy is inextricably intertwined with Israel’s, but the development of an agricultural model not based on imported Israeli produce is crucial for Palestinian farmers. Om Sleiman Farm offers a solution.
The Farm has expanded much faster than Al Alami expected. In a short 2.5 years, they have doubled their capacity, and now have 50 raised beds. Rows upon rows of every vegetable you could imagine cover every corner of the property. Both managers and members are happy. The success of Om Sleiman has encouraged another 20 farms throughout the West Bank to follow suit and adopt the CSA model.
Don’t be fooled, however, into believing that this indicates they are immune from the effects of military occupation. Harvesting the zucchini for this week’s distribution, Al Alami explains that “existing on your land is one of the most important ways to resist the occupation. Yet it is still looking towards you in all of its aspects.” Six months after they established the farm, the Israeli army came and warned them not to continue working in the greenhouse and on the fence. This was one of 14,000 outstanding demolition orders in the West Bank. Whilst his property still stands, Al Alami has been witness to the Israeli army’s destruction of five other farms within a 500-meter radius over the past two years.
Why? Simply existing in the wrong place. Since the broccoli and Brussels sprouts at Om Sleiman Farm are grown on land in Area C, development is completely restricted. This land is under full Israeli military control and makes up roughly 61% of the West Bank. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) it’s almost impossible to live in this area, due to the implementation of policies and practices that restrict Palestinians’ use of land and resources.
As such, Palestinians in Area C live in a constant state of pervasive insecurity. Al Alami says that recently “Israel announced that they were going to start implementing demolition orders in Bilin.” Since he has already been received a warning, that means that at any point in time he could arrive at Om Sleiman to find the entire property destroyed: the plants uprooted, the greenhouse demolished and the irrigation system cut.
Despite this harsh reality, Al Alami remains optimistic: “If they demolish it, you rebuild something new,” he says.
One thing is for sure in this life characterized by chaos: no matter how many obstacles he has to You will always find Al Alami working towards a self-sufficient future at Om Sleiman Farm no matter how many obstacles he has to face. Producing food, deepening his connection with the land, and inspiring farmers throughout Palestine to use farming as peaceful, nonviolent resistance gives him a sense of purpose. Structures can be destroyed, but the seeds of hope generated at Om Sleiman Farm can’t be.