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Hebron farmers struggle for existence in face of climate change

The Eastern Slope of the Israeli-occupied West Bank was once fertile grazing land for Bedouin communities. Now it is parched desert

Mustafa, a shepherd, told MEE that he takes his livestock out to graze just out of aesthetic and tradition (MEE/Megan Giovanetti)
Mustafa, a shepherd, told MEE that he takes his livestock out to graze just out of aesthetic and tradition (MEE/Megan Giovanetti)

By Megan Giovannetti in Hebron, Occupied West BankPublished date: 8 June 2019 08:00 UTC

B ahjat Jabarin stands on a large hill with a local Bedouin farmer, Hassan Basayta, surveying the parched slopes of the Hebron hills. The view is partially blocked by an old Israeli military base adorned with graffiti.

“Now we are in the middle of spring and you can see [only] desert,” says Jabarin, director of the Palestinian Environment Quality Authority (EQA) office in Hebron.

Hassan Basayta, known as Abu Zeyad, is the local council head of four Bedouin communities – Azwadeen, Al Najada, Um al Kheir, and Khashm Aldaraj – located in what’s called the Eastern Slope, an area east of Yatta city under the Hebron governorate.

This area of land in the Eastern Slope marks a transitional zone between the arid and semi-humid highlands (MEE/Megan Giovanetti)
This area of land in the Eastern Slope marks a transitional zone between the arid and semi-humid highlands (MEE/Megan Giovanetti)

One of five climate and geographical belts in historic Palestine, the Eastern Slope is also the region in the West Bank most affected by climate change.

A cross between arid and semi humid highlands, the area is more susceptible to desertification and fluctuation in annual rainfall, amplifying existing water scarcity conditions due to climate change and the illegal Israeli military occupation.

Fleeing desertification

” Before 30 years, we were fully dependent on grazing for our animals without supplementary feeds,” says Abu Zeyad, adding that the Bedouin communities in the area are fully engaged in the agricultural sector through livestock raising and breeding.

Now with the drying and restricted access of rangeland, livestock owners and breeders are “100 percent” dependent on spoon feeding their animals with costly feed that comes from outside of Palestine.

Sheds like Abu Zeyad's are used for intensive breeding, which is not how these Bedouin farmers traditionally raise and breed livestock (MEE/Megan Giovanetti)
Sheds like Abu Zeyad’s are used for intensive breeding, which is not how these Bedouin farmers traditionally raise and breed livestock (MEE/Megan Giovanetti)

A ccording to Jabarin, the EQA director, two-thirds of the Bedouin communities have migrated away from the area seeking water resources and grazing land.

Most moved to the north of the West Bank where temperatures are cooler and they can continue raising livestock. But others were forced to leave the practice altogether and look for alternative income sources.

Witnessing hundreds of goats and sheep forlornly grasp at the last remaining shrubbery in a vastly dry land makes the effects of climate change in the Eastern Slope palpable.

Yet when asked what the biggest challenge he has in maintaining his agricultural lifestyle as a Bedouin, Abu Zeyad insists, “first of all, [it’s] the Israeli occupation”.

Occupation worsens conditions

The entire Eastern Slope is classified as rangeland. Before the 1967 war, around 2.3 million dunums were “common land” for these tribal communities, Abu Zeyad says.

Since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967 until about 2005, access to these grazing-only zones was completely prohibited for the local Palestinian population. According to Abu Zeyad, maybe 300,000 dunums of land are left for grazing in the entire West Bank.

0s in this season it was green. But now, it’s just a desert without any species’– Abu Zayed, farmer

Most of this grazing land was confiscated and used as military bases, settlements  and training camps. Because of the military use of bulldozers, tanks, and bombs, Abu Zeyad told MEE that the fertile layers of the soil have changed forever.

There are no plants there although it is the peak of spring,” he explained. “Before the ‘70s in this season it was green. But now, it’s just a desert without any species.”

Overgrazing and uprooting of diverse species is another problem that has ruined animal breeding in the Eastern Slopes forever.

“But what is the cause?” Nayef Basayta (Abu Abdullah), a fellow farmer and tribal leader, asks knowingly. “Two things,” he continued. “Because of climate change and longer, dryer summer seasons [and] because of land confiscation for [Israeli] military bases, walls, etc….”

Land confiscation and movement restrictions imposed on Palestinian farmers by the Israeli occupation decreases areas of range land, Abu Abdullah explained. “This all leads to overgrazing in the limited open areas and to desertification.”

Water is already scarce in this marginalised climate zone and the Israeli occupation has dramatically made things worse. According to Nedal Katbeh-Bader, the minister advisor on climate change for the EQA, rainfall is expected to decrease by more than 30 percent by the end of the century.

At the same time, “the Israelis are controlling 100 percent of Palestinian water,” Katbeh-Bader says. “And more than 82 percent for their purposes,” meaning for Israeli use either inside the green line or on illegal West Bank settlements. The rest they sell back to the Palestinians.

The cost of climate change

Mustafa, a shepherd from the al-Hawamdeh tribe in the village of al-Samoa, told MEE that everyone in his village needs to purchase tanks of water from the Palestinian municipality since there is no constructed water network.

Subsidised from the government, each nine cubic metre tank costs 150 ILS ($41). “But they don’t give us what we need,” Mustafa says.

“From one week to one and a half weeks each tank [lasts].” He continued to explain that from the “black market”, he can get a tank for 300 ILS ($83), which is just not economically feasible to maintain their agrarian lifestyle.

Abu Zeyad is the local council head of four Bedouin communities located in the Eastern Slope of the West Bank (MEE/Megan Giovanetti)
Abu Zeyad is the local council head of four Bedouin communities located in the Eastern Slope of the West Bank (MEE/Megan Giovanetti)

Palestinians in these southern areas of the West Bank also do not have proper wastewater networks, which affects access to natural water resources.

According to Jabarin, the Hebron governorate has 380 registered fresh water springs but, “eighty percent are now fully contaminated and are not potable,” he says. “According to our Palestinian law, they are not all fit even for agriculture.”

Roughly 75 percent of the Bedouin communities in the Eastern Slope depend on livestock farming for their main income. And these people are “very poor and very weak” groups, says Abu Abdullah. “They are far from central government and employment in other sectors is difficult,” he continued.

“You can see the impact on their lifestyle, the way they live.”

Since these farmers are now completely dependent on “intensive breeding” – meaning non-free range and non-grazing – most of their income goes to feedstuff. One ton of feedstuff is about 1500 NIS per ton.

“It’s not feasible,” says Abu Abdullah. Bedouins in the Eastern Slope continue the agricultural practice of livestock breeding, “just for our own consumption of daily production,” he added.

Neglected zone

“Seventy-five percent of the cost for animal raising goes to feedstuff,” Abu Zeyad says. “We save just 25 percent for living,” and that’s not counting labour costs, which his entire 20-person family takes part in. If he did, his profits would be in the red.

“Breeding is by our ethics and emotions, [its] not economical,” Abu Abdullah insisted. “From tradition we have livestock and sheep,” which he says is the main reason why these farmers maintain their practice, despite their impoverished conditions.

“The economic system is going for the worst,” Jabarin comments. “It’s a marginalised zone [already] and there is not sufficient support from the government.”

According to Jabarin, most Bedouin communities throughout the West Bank are dealing with similar problems. In EQA reports on climate change strategies, however, the worst impact is on the eastern zones and southern part of the West Bank.

“It’s a neglected zone, not just during the Palestinian Authority,” Jabarin states, “but during the 50 years of Israeli occupation.”

Perhaps luckily, bedouins are persistent. Jabarin points out it is very difficult to change the mentality of bedouins. “They are bedouins and they strive in order to maintain [the bedouin] way of life,” he says hopefully.   

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