Palestine launches its first agricultural cluster

The Palestinian government decided to allow investors to use Palestinian endowment lands in the West Bank for new agricultural projects that contribute to the advancement of the Palestinian economy and to protect them from Israeli expropriation.

al-monitor A Palestinian man refines sesame to be sold in markets, near Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Sept. 1, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

Sep 16, 2019

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian government is moving forward in its 100-day plan that was approved in May to promote the Palestinian economy and strengthen partnership between the public and private sectors.

On Sept. 3, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced that endowment lands in the West Bank will be available for investors.

Endowment lands are areas of land that no one is allowed to own, according to Islamic law. They are rather rented, with the rental proceeds exclusively going to the Palestinian Ministry of Religious Endowments. All of these lands have been registered in the name of this ministry in accordance with Article 57 of Jordanian Law No. 26 of 1996 on Awqaf (Arabic for religious endowments) and Islamic affairs and holy places, currently applicable in the West Bank.

Shtayyeh made this announcement while launching the first agricultural cluster in Qalqilya governorate in the northern West Bank. The cluster project, to which the Palestinian government allocated $23 million, aims to reclaim agricultural lands, establish new water wells and cultivate all of the areas allocated for agriculture in Qalqilya.

Moussa Shakarneh, the chairman of the Palestinian Land Authority, told Al-Monitor that the endowments lands constitute 7% to 9% of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, pointing out that every investor who wants to benefit from these lands should refer to the Ministry of Endowments, which enjoys full authority over these lands.

The World Bank estimated in 2014 the Palestinian economy's losses due to the non-exploitation of endowment lands at about $3.4 billion annually.

An official at the Palestinian prime minister's office told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the decision to allow investments in endowment lands has the goal of contributing to the Palestinian economy. “This decision would also protect these lands from expropriation by Israel, especially in Area C of the West Bank under Israeli control by virtue of the 1993 Oslo Accord.”

On Aug. 19, the Palestinian government approved a grant to Palestinian graduates willing to live and work in production projects in the Jordan Valley, which Israel is planning to take over.

The recent Palestinian government decision came ahead of the Sept. 10 announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his intention to impose Israeli sovereignty on large Israeli settlements in the West Bank established on Palestinian lands, as well as in the Jordan Valley, if he wins the Sept. 17 parliamentary elections

On the same day, Shtayyeh warned of such an Israeli move, accusing Netanyahu of being the main destroyer of the peace process.

Israel invoked the Absentee Property Law of March 1950 and the Land Acquisition Law of 1953 to expropriate Palestinian land inside Israel and some areas of the West Bank for building settlement blocs or using such land as military zones.

These laws allow Israel to seize lands and properties formerly owned by Palestinians who had left their towns and villages, fleeing the conflicts between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Israel labeled these seized areas as “state lands.”

Abdullah Lahlouh, the undersecretary of the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, told Al-Monitor that Shtayyeh’s recent decision aims to boost internal Palestinian investment in a bid to strengthen the Palestinian economy and move forward in the government’s economic disengagement from Israel.

Lahlouh said the government attached great importance to agriculture in its economic plan approved in May, pointing out that the goal is to reach self-sufficiency in agricultural products and to export the surplus.

He said, “Palestine exports agricultural and industrial products to 100 countries around the world. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip have 1.5 million acres of cultivated areas, including 1.25 million acres in the West Bank.”

Of note, the Palestinian and Jordanian governments had signed a partnership agreement in August 2018 to establish a government company with a capital of $18 million to market Palestinian agricultural products around the world. Lahlouh said both governments have so far contributed 50% to this company’s capital.

Hossam Abu al-Rab, the undersecretary of the Palestinian Ministry of Religious Endowments and Affairs, told Al-Monitor the Palestinian territories have large areas of arable endowment land that can be invested in instead of being neglected or threatened by dispossession by Israel.

Clarifying the conditions imposed by the ministry on investors in endowment lands, he said, “These lands must be used in development projects such as agriculture and industry. These projects must be compliant with Islamic law. For instance, these lands may not be used for growing tobacco, whose use is contrary to Islamic law.”

He also said the ministry grants investors a rental period of the endowment lands up to 25 years, except for agricultural lands in the city of Jericho used for planting palm trees, which are leased for 40 years. “The rental price per acre per year ranges between 50 to 400 JD [Jordanian dinars] specifically for agricultural projects, while for industrial projects it ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 JD per acre per year.” Fifty dinars are $70; 400 dinars are $565; 2,000 dinars are $2,820; and 3,000 dinars are $4,230.

Palestinian farmers complain of poor support and planning by the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture. In an interview with Al-Quds newspaper published Sept. 3, Palestinian Minister of Agriculture Riad al-Atari came to the defense of his ministry, pointing out that it was operating on a small budget.

In 2018, 42 million Israeli shekels ($12 million) was earmarked from the state budget for this ministry for developing agricultural projects. This year, is in light of the Palestinian new emergency budget — not yet published in the media — that accounts for Israel withholding tax revenues, the ministry is setting an agricultural development action plan every three months and getting financing for this plan from the Palestinian government, civil society organizations and international institutions concerned with agriculture.

Talaat Rajab, a professor of agricultural marketing at the University of Hebron, described the decision as a good step forward. He argued, however, that this process must be regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture, which ought to encourage farmers to grow specific types of produce required by the Palestinian market, such as eggplant, potatoes, garlic, carrots and others instead of plant varieties that are flooding the local market.

He called on the Palestinian government to rehabilitate the infrastructure in the Palestinian agricultural areas and to provide a continuous water supply to ensure the success of the agricultural projects expected to be established. He said there also needed to be support and encouragement for the industries related to the type of crop produced. He urged the ministry to develop appropriate plans to market new agricultural and industrial products.

The Palestinian government hopes to succeed with the private sector in building a Palestinian agricultural and industrial system that will meet the Palestinian citizens’ consumption needs. This system would raise the agricultural and industrial sectors’ contribution to the Palestinian national product. Agriculture currently contributes only 4% to the national product, while the industrial sector contributes 14%.

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