In a rocky West Bank valley, four young volunteers from Britain are experimenting with unconventional ways to deal with the strictures of Israeli occupation: hoarding rain, composting trash, turning toilet waste into fertilizer.
On a three-acre farm dotted with olive, almond, apricot and fig trees, the group is developing farming techniques to help Palestinians squeeze as much as possible out of their land.
“It’s just more creative than standing in a protest shouting at soldiers,” said Alice Gray, 28, a climatologist who helped found Bustan Qaraaqa, or Tortoise Garden, on the edge of this town near Bethlehem.
The West Bank, which Israel captured and occupied in the 1967 Middle East War, would be the larger part of a Palestinian state envisioned by the U.S. and Europe, but 60% of it remains under full Israeli control, with limited autonomy for the rest, including Beit Sahour.
Israel’s overall control has hampered Palestinian access to water and sewage networks, according to a recent World Bank report. It says the 7.1 million people living in Israel and its West Bank settlements have access to four times more water per capita than the West Bank’s 2.3 million Palestinians, 10% of whom are not connected to a water network.
Palestinian infrastructure projects require Israeli permits, the report says. The Tortoise Garden project aims to circumvent these controls by exploiting nature to the hilt.
Gray, from Gillingham, England, said she studied the problems facing large development projects while working for a Palestinian aid organization.
After more than a year of writing reports on “all the problems and how no one can do anything about them,” she decided to look for ways Palestinians could help themselves.
Israeli authorities tend to be suspicious of foreign activists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who are often in the forefront of protests against the occupation, and the Tortoise Garden group has kept a low profile, fearing Israel will refuse to renew their visas.
Only a few Palestinian farmers have shown interest in their experiment, but the volunteers hope word will spread and draw more converts.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, although unaware of the farm, said any such project was “very positive.”
“There is no reason to present it as a counteraction to Israeli evildoing,” he said. “It is, in itself, a good thing to do.”
Palmor disputed the World Bank report, saying Israeli and Palestinian water authorities cooperate closely and that Palestinians are getting more water than the amount allotted to them under Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
Gray and her friends leased the farm last year from a Palestinian family.
They live in an old stone house overlooking the valley, and have planted vegetable gardens and a nursery with over 1,000 trees. One nearby cave serves as a chicken coop. Others are used for parties or to house nature-friendly visitors. A stay in one of the house’s guest rooms costs $18, with a discount and free lunch if lodgers join in the farm work.
A composting latrine has replaced the porcelain toilet, which now holds a giant plant. Users can gaze at the scenery while waste drops into a trash can in a cave below. Mixed with sawdust and left for six months, it becomes fertilizer.
Household wastewater irrigates crops, and shallow trenches crisscross the valley capturing rainwater for the orchard. A cistern the group built to hold rainwater will soon double as a fish tank.
To spread their techniques, the team works with a few farmers and associations. Members have taught an orphanage in Bethlehem to make compost, and will soon build a composting latrine there.
Nadi Farraj, a Bethlehem-based agronomist, has visited the farm with officials from the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture who he said were interested. He said Palestinians used to depend on compost and collected rain water, but most have stopped, and getting them to go back to the old ways will be a slow process. “You have to change the mentality of the farmer,” he said.
So far, the most vulnerable farmers tend to be the most interested, Gray said.
Abdel-Fatah Abed Rabba, 48, lives on a farm inside the boundaries of Jerusalem that has no utilities, meaning friends with cars have to help him haul water for his plants from a nearby spring, he said.
Every drop counts, he said, walking among recently planted olive, fig and almond trees. To get them through the hot, rainless summer, he has hung plastic bottles with perforated bottoms near the trees’ roots, and fills them once a day. Elsewhere, he has piled rocks to direct rainwater into his cistern.
“I have to do this because I don’t have any money,” he said. “Israel won’t help me and the Palestinian Authority can’t.”