Hebron (Khalil in Arabic) is home to more than 165,000 Palestinians -- making it the largest city in West Bank Palestine. The city is famous for qidreh, a fragrant dish cooked in clay pots, leather shoes and avant-garde glass blown vases. It is notorious for settler violence in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet Hebron is becoming increasingly known for an agricultural project that sets the standards for access to food in that city and across the occupied Palestinian territories.
Grassroots International's partner, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), established Palestine's first comprehensive seed back in Hebron in 2003, shortly after their staff traveled to Syria where a similar seed bank broke ground as the first in the Middle East. UAWC representatives returned to Palestine energized to revitalize and protect their land from confiscation.
The land around Hebron -- within the district that bears the same name -- is rocky and arid. Most of it falls within "Area C", a post-Oslo classification that means it is under full Israeli military and civil control. Area C is the most vulnerable land in the West Bank -- it can be swept up in a moment for use by the Israeli military or expansion of their settlements.
If the land is not farmed, it is all the more likely to be taken away from its owners. Under Ottoman law that predates Israel's statehood, if land is not used for seven years, it belongs to the state. Israel changed that timeframe to three years. As a result, UAWC ascertains that the best way for Palestinians to avoid expulsion from their lands and retain their homes is to intensively work the land.
But Palestinians don't want just any excuse for agriculture on their land. Not from big international NGOs, some of whose help comes with heavy concessions from the local community. And certainly not from cheap GMOs, that make a self-sustaining future all but impossible.
Do'a Zayed, the youthful PhD agronomist who heads the seed bank, summed up UAWC's organizing mission. "To have your independent voice and your independent thinking you have to have food sovereignty," she said, "and that starts with control over your own seeds." She works tirelessly with other UAWC organizers to protect, preserve, and document local heirloom seeds from the West Bank and Gaza. Zayed said that by activating the use of traditional seeds, they are benefitting from hereditary resources.
The seed bank has grown to include 35 seed types and more than 200 species from at least 11 plant families. The facility also boasts a lab unit, a database unit (with records for each seed), a GMO detection unit, DNA extraction, a drying unit, and a storage unit. The more project participants they serve, the greater their ability to increase the quantity of seeds available.
Farmers travel long distances from all corners of the West Bank to drop off their seeds. Many seeds have been in their families for generations, precious heirlooms that they offer to the extended community. Since they are not able to access the Gaza Strip, and the majority of people there are banned from the West Bank -- UAWC farmers do whatever they can to unify Palestine's seed stock. Sometimes, that means a long journey through Egypt and Jordan.
UAWC is dedicated to making seeds available to anyone who is interested with access to land -- even if it is just a small scrap or rooftop garden. These seeds are an integral part of those distributed for land protection and reclamation in the Securing Farmers' Rights project that Grassroots has supported for years -- and a crucial component of seed sovereignty in Palestine.
Like so many in the occupied Palestinian territories, UAWC sees food sovereignty and land tenure as a way to sustain future generations -- while at the same time resisting the increasingly violent occupation. Fuad Abu Saif, UAWC's Hebron Project Director emphasized that their work is only beginning, expressing a desire to see seed banks across Palestine and the greater Middle East.
Somewhere between the glass shops and shoemakers in the West Bank's largest -- and perhaps most contentious -- city, they have laid the groundwork.