Mufaqara: Reflections and Gifts

Living the resistance in Susya.
After the excitement of the last entry, I think it’s time for some quieter agrarian observations. I’m entering the last quarter of my time here so I’ve been able to see a little bit and can make some comments on some issues that will interest farmers and permaculturalists. Apologies to those of you who aren’t as interested in the technical side of peace and agriculture.

The farming system here has three major crops: grain, olives and sheep/goats. There are some auxiliary things as well like vegetables such as cucumber, tomato and zucchini. Some people in the village keep turkeys, and there are young fruit trees around. Let’s take a look at the major crops, just as a way to examine the system.

I love the olives. From a Permaculture point of view, they are wonderful. They are a native plant, which means they are well used to the area, including the climate, and resistant to local would-be pests. The olives are fairly easy to harvest by shaking the tree. Their oil is really healthy and tasty. The olive while it is on the tree is quite bitter, and therefore resistant to things that would like to eat it. But soaking it in water leaches the bitter substance and the olive becomes good to eat. In other words, the olive is uniquely well suited to human use because none of the other life out there is really able to process the olives into tasty food. This makes it easy to grow because there aren’t a whole lot of others trying to eat it before we do. The farmer here get about one tenth of the harvest per area as US growers do which suggests room for improvement as far as a cash-strapped farmer is concerned. However, olive growing nevertheless seems a popular occupation.
Settlers swim in the cistern of a Palestinian orchardist in order to provoke him while he watches.
Settlers swim in the cistern of a Palestinian orchardist in order to provoke him while he watches.
Olive tree destroyed by settlers.
Olive tree destroyed by settlers.

The grain in this area is often wheat, meant for human consumption. In Mufaqara it is mostly barley, meant for the livestock. In any case, Palestine is part of the Fertile Crescent and grain is, although domesticated and therefore genetically changed, a native crop. There is no doubt that the centuries of breeding have heavily modified the plants but they nevertheless remain deeply suited to this climate. Grains are well matched to the rain cycle; they grow up during the rainy season, and ripen during the dry season. In a place like south eastern Ontario, Canada, there are constant problems with rain during the harvest time, and often lack of rain during the growing period. Not so much in Palestine, although I suppose the yield of both straw and grain could be raised by careful water management. Such management wouldn’t be difficult if the people here could secure sovereignty over their cisterns and water table.

The livestock, I’m not so enthusiastic about. To me, they look like, as Jack Lawton says, maggots picking the bones of the earth. It is impossible for trees to grow. Even the grass is so trampled and overgrazed that it dies. The topsoil, unprotected, washes away leaving a moonscape of exposed bedrock which cannot retain moisture properly. The bedrock is calcium carbonate by the way, which according to John Slack makes this one of the more robust and valuable soils in the world. The majority of the landscape is currently in a very unproductive state, full of the only plants which can defend themselves; those which cannot be eaten because they have a strong aromatic taste and with spikes. When there are no trees, the rain does not come as much. Rain is greatly encouraged by the particulate material that trees are able to put into the atmosphere, which acts as a nucleation point and encourages the condensation of water in the air. No trees, poor nucleation, less rain. To recap; first the plants, then the topsoil, then the rain disappears. What rain does fall quickly leaves the area since there is no normal topsoil. This particular use of livestock is the typical way to make a human-made desert.

Livestock in a situation like this are addictive. They are extremely effective at changing what remains of the dry scrub of grass into tasty and nutritious cheese. From a labor point of view they do a great job, and they perform a miracle of chemistry with their rumen which isn’t otherwise feasible. The situation is tragic to me because I see them as a coping mechanism for a bad situation, which ultimately makes the situation progressively worse as the soil gets blown and washed away.

Retaining what little soil is left in this area is urgent. Careful terracing can mitigate the erosion, reducing it to a very small level. There are some parts of Palestine in which this has been done. In Mufaqara it hasn’t and all of the topsoil has washed into the valleys. Looking at a satellite photo, it is easy enough to tell that this extensive erosion has easily reduced the useable agrarian land to one quarter of what it otherwise would be. This is in a place where people are fighting over space. I would propose that there is enough space for everyone, but human greed knows no such bounds.

Terracing is obviously a great deal of work, and a group of people who are in survival mode have obvious difficulty in sparing that labor. However, I was pleased to learn about some agencies in Palestine (like PARC) who are doing a great deal of work to terrace, capture water and otherwise build places like the Gaza Strip into an intensively productive area. In fact, I was impressed enough with groups like PARC to come to the conclusion that if they continue on this scale the Gaza Strip will be turned into a veritable garden. As long as the construction isn’t bombed.

It is possible to raise livestock in a sustainable way. Joel Salatin is a farmer in the US who uses careful rotational grazing to encourage grass to grow very quickly and thereby use grass’s natural ability to build soil. The principle is that if you interrupt grass at the right time during its growth cycle, and don’t trample it to death, then this actually makes the soil and grass more vigorous instead of dead. He has been able to rebuild vanished topsoil to a reasonable level within one human lifetime, which is quite an achievement. Maybe his way is a technique applicable in Palestine that could fit with a way of life that centers around livestock. But at the same time, I suspect that the landscape situation around Mufaqarah is in even worse shape that Salatin’s farm was in when he started rehabilitating it. I don’t know if it is too late or not. Before rehabilitation, Salatin’s father had to use hubs from car wheels to hold up the electric fence posts, because there was no soil to put them into. They do the same thing here, except the fences aren’t electric.

One family in Mufaqara has a remarkable garden with which they have used the ground stone from their cave to create and fill terraces. I think this is one of those ideas that is both brilliant and obvious. I love this kind of idea so much that I want to coin a new term for it. Brobvious? Post a comment if you can think of a better word :-).
Garden made from rock dust from a dug cave.
Garden made from rock dust from a dug cave.

To be fair, the rubble is often used as fill for landscaping in the creation of pathways so it is not completely wasted. It’s natural to want some sort of level landing outside your cave, but I would choose a garden instead, as did this particular family.

Any permaculturalist who visits this area will immediately think about the potential for wind power. The hills funnel the wind into high intensity zones which are very noticeable as you walk around the countryside. And indeed, some Palestinians are using small wind turbines. Solar panels as well. One of the first priorities is often a small electric LED light for studying. One of the next is a more powerful spotlight for scanning the hillside, and I have no doubt that a mobile phone charger is high on the priority list as well. Most people in this area cannot afford a generator for their own use and collective solutions are destroyed punctually by a misguided driver in a Caterpillar D9 (military bulldozer). Israelis colonies often have larger windmills visible.
Ibrahim's sons stand next to their wind powered LED lamp.Ibrahim’s sons stand next to their wind powered LED lamp.

No notes about sustainable agriculture are complete without addressing attitudes and practice with regard to the core of organic practice; the nutrient cycle in which old plants are used to grow new plants. I was surprised and a bit disappointed to see Mahmoud’s family disposing of animal shit as if it was genuine waste, putting it in with rubble in order to use as fill for pathways. But the family was certainly open to comments about it and seemed to have a different understanding than I did, saying that some animal shit is good for the garden, and some isn’t. The neighbor uses his livestock’s feces in what I would call a much more conscientious manner, and was more enthusiastic about putting it in his garden. Goat feces is used as insulating material to surround the oven while making bread. This does make excellent bread but roasts away a lot of good carbon and makes the village stink of roasting goat shit. I can imagine a mineral fiber, glass wool, or some other insulating material to replace it and the goat poop used towards agriculture.

Although the food insecurity in the South Hebron Hills is high(1), Mahmoud’s family did seem to have enough to eat. When I could see this, I naturally began to think more about business to generate monetary income. I should clarify here that the people of Mufaqarah clearly state that they are primarily not materially poor, but colonized. They have enough education, willpower and resources to build their town and businesses into something they are happy with if the military would simply stop harassing them. Keeping this in mind, I continued to dream of entrepreneurial projects which could work within a colonized context and provide people in these hills with more purchasing power. Mahmoud is quite enthusiastic about this sort of thing as well, very open to new ideas for small business. Recently one of his sons was put in prison for working in Israel illegally. There is the typical economic pressure for people to leave the homestead and work in the city, with the added difficulty that it is generally illegal to work in the surrounding cities. Many people sneak across the Wall each day to work in Israel (which shows how it doesn’t currently function to prevent suicide bombings but rather as a land grab).

One of the most obvious business issues is what happens to the sheep wool and goat’s hair. At the moment it is mostly sold to produce mattresses, which most people I’ve spoken to agree are uncomfortable. The goat mattresses face stiff competition from more comfortable foam mattresses, which even shepherds use and seem to prefer. Felting is a low-tech process that shows promise for adding value to the wool, and could be an alternative. Felting is good for producing many things, from slippers and bags to cell phone covers. The Nepali tourist industry has adopted this idea, making some very cute items.
Felt childrens toy, sold by Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans. They are little balls of felt linked together into a caterpillar.Felt childrens toy, sold by Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans. They are little balls of felt linked together into a caterpillar.

It occurred to me also to do something with the stone which has so unfortunately been exposed through erosion. Some of it is a beautiful and hard agate which would make a nice little coffee cup like those so popular in Palestine. Nice glassware for guests is one of the first things that people in many parts of the world buy when have a little extra money. Mahmoud always brings out his gold-rimmed coffee cups when special guests are here. In Egypt I came across stone cups being sold in the tourist industry. This would be considerably more high-tech than felting but lathes have been used productively long before electricity was around.
Rock cups for sale, in Dahab, Egypt.Rock cups for sale, in Dahab, Egypt.

I love soap making and it is traditional in Palestine to make soap from olive oil. Most of the
factories, which used to be in Nablus, have closed because of the difficult business environment that an occupation causes. It nevertheless stands in my mind as a fundamentally useful product that can be locally produced and consumed as well as sold abroad. At the moment the families here don’t use soap but an industrial product called sodium laureth sulphate, an industrial degreaser that comes in a bar which looks like soap. It’s better than some of the concoctions I came across in India but a far cry from the local olive oil soap I’ve tried. I wonder if it would be possible to have a project that makes a soap from ashes, which would produce a liquid soap more friendly to plants in a grey water system. My experiments with this idea in Australia were promising.

I was pleased to find that all three of these ideas, and much more, have already occurred to the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans and their partners. Na’an lil-Hayat (“Together for Life”) works with the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans ( to sell their felted items: toys, christmas tree decorations (of course, christmas tree decorations from Bethlehem!) and beautiful olive oil bottle covers. The fair trade artisans produce a number of other very nice items as well including some lovely silver olive leaf jewelry. This particular group follows the old Ten Thousand Villages model of small crafts for a high (priced) end export market. They assure me that they are able to export small boxes of things fairly easily. It is illegal to drive a package-containing truck across the border of the West Bank and Israel which makes it excessively expensive to transport bulk, low-value, products because the entire truck has to be unloaded and reloaded at the border. But for small, high value, thing like earrings there is no problem. I am a little more interested in local, practical use and I get more excited about things like cellphone covers which would be useful to extend the life of a cellphone. But each to their own.

While the Israeli soldiers were attacking us over in Susya I decided to collect some of the leftover ordinance. Normally I would hesitate to pick up any sort of grenade on the ground. But since the nice green-dressed men (yes, they were almost exclusively men) obliged me by demonstrating their devices, I was able to collect some that I can personally vouch for being discharged. To be honest, I wish they had demonstrated their devices by throwing them in the opposite direction, but they are a bit careless that way, and have a habit of throwing them into crowds.

The only thing the Israelis as a country give the people here, besides a whole lot of grief, is the spent shell casings of the weapons they throw at them. I think there is a certain poetry in doing something useful with them, and I have long been attracted to the “swords to ploughshares” idea. Besides, using what you have around you is an important part of permaculture and I can’t help but feel that these solid, spent heavy grenade casings could be useful in a durable tool. When I discovered that the ends can be worked loose and spin like wheels, then I had to look further into it :-).

I’m quite sure that you could make a small seed drill for planting vegetables with an old flash grenade casing, some spent smoke bombs, and some of the rebar from the destroyed house here. The old fuse mechanism would make a perfect little hopper, the grenade casing a good rolling drum, and the empty smoke bombs the wheels.
Seeder made from old weapons casings. The hopper is made from a used fuse mechanism.Seeder made from old weapons casings. The hopper is made from a used fuse mechanism. I think the seeder would be especially suited plants of the Brassicas family; small, round seeds.

Besides garden tools, the old smoke bombs also make serviceable rubber balls, either for juggling or just playing catch with. It is a bit difficult to wash out the old CS gas though, and I learned that the hard way by rubbing my eyes with contaminated hands. Some of the boys took a stab at building different structures with them, kind of like lego.
Old tear gas bomb converted into a juggling ball.Old tear gas bomb converted into a juggling ball.
Playing with old weapons casings; making lemonade out of lemons.Playing with old weapons casings; making lemonade
out of lemons.

A few days after our brainstorming session for used weapons casings, the soldiers did actually bring something else although it wasn’t for us per-se but visitors to the area. People who don’t know what is going on here.
A gift.A gift. Observe the top right corner; people entering the “firing zone”, going home.

They delivered this fresh signage for the area, kindly letting the inhabitants know that they are in danger if they enter the area where they live. It is beyond me how someone could pronounce an area where people, both colonizers and locals, live as a “firing zone”. It seems contrary to the general principles of human decency and safety, in which it is generally accepted that you shouldn’t fire weapons at or near people who aren’t combatants. There has been a court case settled in the Israeli Supreme Court which recognizes the right of the local Palestinians to live here (thanks). This situation is a good example of the on-the ground reality in contrast with court decisions, and the non-democratic nature of the Israeli state, in which the military does not respect orders from the higher courts. Israeli readers take note; to have a large group of armed people who do their own thing, independent of the courts, is not a good thing for your supposedly democratic country.

When I saw the new signs, I asked the Operation Dove person next to me if this was a new political development. It wasn’t. It’s just the military up to their usual tricks, trying to intimidate people into abandoning their homes. We walked past, and went on our way. The next day someone had spray painted over top of the lettering on one of the new signs, and I don’t expect the other to last long either. The cube underneath the top cube is blank, and I wonder what writing will appear there as residents make use of this new canvas.

Good Night and Good Luck,

1.) 79% of households experienced food insecurity in 2009-2010. It is now closer to 55%.


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