In the West Bank, the Om Sleiman farm’s biodiversity and local community-led practices have become a champion of indigeneity and resistance to Israeli occupation.
By Beatrice-Lily Lorigan
Om Sleiman, situated just outside of Ramallah, is a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm that was founded “to re-imagine resistance as a community effort rooted in the intersection of the social, economic, and environmental.” It sits atop Bil’in, a Palestinian village with a long tradition of popular resistance, and overlooks Modi’in Illit, one of Israel’s largest settlements in the West Bank on the other side of the Israeli Separation Wall. Om Sleiman has been skilfully using permaculture (permanent agriculture) techniques to promote food sovereignty and community resistance among Palestinians as they become part of the production cycle of nature.
Palestine stretches across what Raja Shehadeh (Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist) has termed a “vanishing landscape” of hills and valleys lush with olive groves and thyme, sliced through by chain-link fences, surveillance checkpoints, ‘no entry’ military zones and the ‘separation wall’ of Israel’s occupation. The land, dry and undulating, provides perfect conditions for native vegetation to flourish. However, it is being steadily usurped by monocultures of non-native plant species brought to the region by settlers, the expanding infrastructure of the occupation and the military control of green spaces. This had led to biodiversity specialists referring to the occupation of the West Bank as an ‘environmental nakba’.
According to the World Food Programme, one-third of the Palestinian population – and nearly two-thirds of the Gaza Strip – experience food insecurity. Economic barriers prevent them from accessing nutritious food while land barriers prevent them from producing their own because pricing, imports, and land are all controlled by the occupying forces. While agriculture has a long, rich history in Palestine, recent years have seen an uptake in ecologically forward permaculture farms. Palestinian workers on these farms are regaining control of land use and food production in the face of growing food poverty under Israel’s occupation.
Prior to this, Israel confiscated 50% of Bil’in’s land using the Absentees’ Property Law, a common practice of the occupation wherein they take land for different purposes with justifications such as military training, security issues, or natural reserving. Through constant campaigning and legal battles from the second intifada (Palestinian uprising) onwards, locals have managed to regain control of 35% of the land, situating Om Sleiman on “liberated land”. This land was gifted to the farm’s initiators, Muhab Al Alami and Mohammad Abu Jayyab, by a Bil’in local, who said, “I will give you the land for free, and in return, I want to see the land green.”
And green it is. Despite these restrictions, and the ever-expanding environmental destruction of Palestinian land, Om Sleiman defies the effects of urbanisation under occupation using ecological sovereignty as resistance. Since its founding in 2016, Om Sleiman has connected farmers directly to local customers, supplying organic produce free from chemicals and pioneering an educational programme that teaches sustainable farming practices to agricultural workers all over Palestine.
Anas Salous, a humanitarian activist born and raised in Ramallah, left his work in academia and NGOs to work as a farmer on Om Sleiman during the Covid-19 pandemic. “I wanted to be closer to the ground,” he says. After gaining an MA in Humanitarian Action on a scholarship from The University of Malta, he worked in international NGOs and community-led initiatives in Palestine. After seeing a lot of money put into a small outcome by large NGOs and the institutionalisation of community work, Salous wanted to work directly with communities to know what they wanted and help them achieve it using their own resources and some financial aid.
When he joined Om Sleiman as a volunteer during the pandemic, he hoped to rebalance the input-to-outcome ratio and the Palestinian-led initiative of community-facing work. “Luckily I got stuck on the farm. While everyone was stuck in their homes, I was able to work outdoors,” he says. Since his two years at the farm as a field supervisor and co-manager, he has seen it grow from a small community initiative that produced enough food for eight Om Sleiman worker families to a flourishing business that provides food for forty-five families in the local area.
Located in “Area C” – the area of the West Bank under Israeli jurisdiction – the farm is prohibited from building any permanent structure, has little or no recourse to water supplies necessary for agriculture, and is surrounded by checkpoints or the barrier wall on every side. This has led to a restriction of movement of agricultural workers, machinery and supplies to the site.
According to United Nations, “The ongoing occupation of Area C deprives the Palestinian economy of 63% of the agricultural resources of the West Bank, including the most fertile and best grazing land, while the construction of the separation barrier and the expansion of Israeli settlements have diminished the area available for agricultural activities.”
Salous confirms these impacts on Om Sleiman, “Building huge cement [settlements] stops the surface of the mountains from reflecting the heat, and kills the green cover, increasing the temperature of the area. The [separation] wall is very high cement. It blocks animals from moving, which has caused some Palestinian wild animals to become extinct: hyenas, foxes and many other animals.”
He also adds that building restrictions under Israeli governance means that there is no Palestinian infrastructure, so logistics such as having cars in the area means they must drive an extra 20 minutes to reach the land. These barriers not only affect the productivity of the farm and restrict Om Sleiman’s access to resources and the local market, but also impact the environment due to unnecessarily increased emissions.
Regardless of these issues, Om Sleiman successfully uses biodiversity to preserve its natural resources. It plants species native to Palestine that regenerate the soil, controls its own fertilization and waste management using natural methods and uses water preservation techniques to resist the water scarcity caused by Israeli control.
“It’s regenerative,” Salous says. “It relies on our own resources, it’s practical, and it respects the nature around us. If you have a specific climate, you respect it by choosing crops according to that climate. It is more sustainable as you don’t need to bring extra management or pests to your field.”
In line with the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) methodology, Om Sleiman returns the native land and its produce to its native people. By listening to the native climate and planting native plants in the land to participate in the natural ecosystems of the area, Om Sleiman champions indigeneity as a method of not only environmental, but colonial resistance. As voiced by Salous, “In Palestine, we have limited resources, so we have to rely on the things around us to localize, and to integrate into our designs for buildings or farm planning so that we don’t need Israeli permits. We can’t rely on imports from the outside as we don’t control our borders, so we must start by growing our own food, getting in harmony with nature by consuming what nature gives us that season. We rely more on our local resources, local products, and local communities, so everyone can participate.”
Run in a cooperative structure, the farm is financially independent from Israel and supports boycotting practices such as BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) – notoriously impossible to observe in the West Bank – by enforcing the food sovereignty of Palestinians by producing their own food and boycotting Israeli goods. According to the Palestinian Union of Consumer Protection Association, Palestinians would be otherwise supplied with goods not suitable for consumption, 90% of which are made in Israel.
To Salous, Om Sleiman’s resistance is in its re-occupation of the land, “The main thing that makes us special, that makes us really resistant, is being on the ground. We find the destruction, but we are still there, despite all the difficulties. This is how we believe liberation will be; by controlling our own resources and being connected with our lands.”
By practicing the Palestinian tradition of sumud or “resilience”, Salous emphasises that Om Sleiman “fights by staying on the ground, because in the end, the most important thing [for the occupation] is to take as much land as they want, and us Palestinians being there just makes this harder for them.”
What helps this fight? In line with its ethos of working in symbiosis with its native surroundings, Om Sleiman has a strong focus on respect and collaboration with the local community. As Salous says, “Many Palestinians feel the urge to make a change, to participate in the change. Om Sleiman provides [a platform] for the youth and for anyone who wants to have a role. The local community is very supportive and at the same time, we respect the rules of the village being hosted by a conservative community. We are committed to respecting the overall environment [of the farm and the locals] and orienting people who are coming to the farm to volunteer and be part of the community.”
Alongside its resistant strategies of food production autonomy among the locals of Bil’in, Om Sleiman hopes to become a model for farms all over Palestine. Through its educational programmes for young people, workshops with other farming collectives and partnerships with organisations such as Sakakini Cultural Center and Sakiya Research Institute for Arts, Science and Agriculture, Om Sleiman invites its supporters to learn and exchange knowledge, and share their capabilities with the farming community.
For those wanting to learn from and contribute to the permaculture movement in Palestine, Om Sleiman welcomes the support of international volunteers via programs like WWOOF and Workaway. Salous explains, “We look for someone to be on the ground and give both moral and physical support. When you come to the farm, that’s our support. Integrate as much as you can and learn the language and context. Come with open eyes and not with pre-formed images about the situation, because on the ground it’s totally different from what’s in the media, especially international media.”
Like its harmonious relationship with its surrounding landscape and cooperation with the local community, the farm uses international solidarity to enrich its model of permacultural resistance, food sovereignty and knowledge exchange. In this way, Om Sleiman demonstrates that ecosystems exist not only in nature but also between people. This then becomes heightened in solidarity settings such as Palestinian resistance movements. As Salous puts it, “With [bio]diversity, you make a more resilient farm. It’s the same as society. The more our society is diverse, the more it is open to new opportunities. It is stronger and has more capacities as a whole.”