Above photo by Mike Baird. All other photos by Ben Hattem.
“I plant three times and they tear it up,” says Jamal. “After that, I can’t do anything. I just sit and wait…”
“And pray,” Rashid adds.
“Yes, pray to God to get rid of these pigs. But that’s not a practical thing to do. The only practical thing I can do is shoot them”—he mimes a pistol with his thumb and forefinger—“and that’s not allowed by the Israelis or the Palestinian Authority. No one is doing anything.”
I came to Salfit, a large agricultural village south of Nablus in the West Bank, to speak with Saleh Afaneh, head of the Engineering Department here, about sewage being dumped into the town from the Israeli settlement, called Ariel, sprawling across the nearby hills. Saleh is a squat, bald fellow with rectangular glasses who smokes Gauloises like a French chimney. At one point while talking with him, I scribble “benevolent bureaucrat” in my notebook.
Saleh tells me that Ariel has one small sewage treatment plant, which was built to handle the 7,000 people who lived in the settlement twenty years ago. After Ariel expanded to almost 20,000 people, the plant got overwhelmed—it started breaking down constantly and provided insufficient treatment levels even when it was running. In 2008, it cut out altogether; since then, raw wastewater from Ariel has flowed freely into Salfit. Here, the shit quite literally rolls downhill.
Saleh introduces me to Rashid, who has been tasked with taking me down to see the wastewater flow. “Hopefully you will be able to see it,” Saleh says. “Sometimes they store the sewage during the day at the treatment plant so that no one can take pictures, and then at night they let it out.”
Rashid and I climb into his white SUV and head down to the wastewater stream just outside of town. It runs like a small creek along the side of the road. I snap pictures of each reservoir we pass, Bedouin-looking tents on the hills, cows standing by the water. Stopping briefly to view a site where the town is trying to build a new reservoir, we run into Jamal Al-Hamad, an old friend of Rashid who farms the land around this area.
Jamal is eloquent and funny with bad teeth and excellent English. He worked for several years with an American company in California that cleaned up landmines in Kuwait after the first Gulf War. He reminisces about the parties he used to go to in Tel Aviv, and he claims that at one point he spoke English with an American accent. He calls the stretch of land between Salfit and the settlements the DMZ, like North Korea’s Demilitarized Zone.
Rashid explains that I’m a journalist doing a story on the sewage. Jamal smiles warmly and says, “We have two problems here. The first is the sewage, which causes diseases and smells and things. The second is the pigs.”
Back at the office, Saleh had mentioned almost offhand that some farmers in the area were having issues with pigs, so I say, “yeah, I’ve heard that’s been a problem here.”
Jamal grins again and motions for me to follow him.
At the farm, I kneel down between the bushes to touch the trampled and upended earth and the small, immature onions lying on top of the dirt. Every field we see is like this, torn apart.
“They show up at night,” Jamal says. The pigs jump over the small chain-link fence that he erected in the vain hope of keeping them away from his crops, and then they tear everything up, hunting for small insects and other creatures living in the soil. By the time he arrives in the morning, entire plots of land are destroyed.
The pig population in Salfit has ballooned recently. Jamal claims that the number of pigs invading his farm has increased twentyfold in the last two years.
“We used to find two or three pigs getting in, but now when you follow their tracks you find fifty or sixty,” he says. “I’ve never seen destruction like this.”
Of course, calling these creatures “pigs” may make them sound too cute; these things are three feet tall and weigh 200 pounds, according to officials here—more Great Dane than Dachshund.
They’ve made some farmers in Salfit give up on cultivating their lands, relying solely on olive production for their yearly income. “Every year forty farmers become thirty, people are stopping farming, trying to find another way to get their income. Every year, the number of people that stop farming increases,” he says.
He tells me he doesn’t know where the pigs came from, although Saleh believes that the pigs were released by Israeli settlers to drive the Palestinians away from their farms. Officials from other towns in the area have made similar claims. In an interview with CNN in 2012, Mayor Nazmi Salman of Deir Istiya, a small town in the central Salfit governorate, said that Israeli settlers had released 300 pigs into the area’s farmland to destroy crops.
In August 2012, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said the same thing during a speech in Ramallah, claiming that “settlers [are]… training dogs to attack us and sending wild boars to spread corruption on the face of the earth.”
However, information to corroborate those claims remains anecdotal. “We have no evidence [of settler involvement],” says Reut Mor, a spokeswoman for Yesh Din, an Israeli organization which documents settler attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank.
“We have heard rumors, but nothing more concrete,” Mor says. A 2009 report from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem disputes the settler theory and attributes the spread of the pigs to the extinction of other wildlife in the area because of the sewage pollution from Ariel.
No matter how the pigs arrived, getting rid of them is Jamal’s bigger concern. “Since two months ago,” Jamal says, “we are planting and they are destroying. Planting and destroying. No one helps—the Palestinian Authority, the Agricultural Ministry. What can I do?”
Jamal says that both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Civil Administration, which jointly oversee the Salfit municipality, forbid farmers in the area from killing the pigs. “We cannot kill them, we cannot poison them—it’s not allowed,” Jamal tells me.
When I speak later with Abdullah Lahlouh, Deputy Minister of Agriculture for the Palestinian Authority, he disputes the claim that the PA restricts killing the boars, placing blame for the policies squarely on the Israeli government. Lahlouh says that officials of the Agricultural Ministry had used strychnine to poison the pigs, but now “Israel doesn’t allow that material to be used in Palestine.”
Lahlouh says that the Civil Administration also stopped attempts by Palestinians to use tranquilizers or hunting to circumvent the restrictions on strychnine. He tells me that Israel banned the import of the tranquilizers along with strychnine and introduced regulations to make hunting boars illegal, citing a threat to biodiversity and the possibility that other animals in the area would be harmed.
“We told them that Palestinian humans are more important,” says Lahlouh.
Given the injunction against killing the pigs, the only option left to farmers in Salfit is to erect fences guarding their lands. Jamal has tried to use chain-link fences and piles of tires to protect his crops, but the pigs jump over or trample them. When I arrive, his fence is crushed and the tires on top of the pile have been knocked around.
Jamal says he would need a larger steel fence to keep the pigs away, but building an adequate fence would cost more than he can afford. Ashref Zohod, head of the Environmental Department of Salfit municipality, says in an email that no one could pay the “exorbitant” price of constructing a fence around the farmland in Salfit. “We do not have the power to pay those kinds of costs,” he says. “Not us, nor the [Palestinian Authority] government, nor the farms.”
While aid flounders, the farmers of Salfit continue to lose their crops and livelihoods to the pigs. “It’s a very big loss,” Jamal tells me, “compared to our income.”
"We've lost everything," he says.