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Organic and Illegal: Israeli Farms in the West Bank

Labels on the plastic bottles of Giva’ot Olam’s (admittedly delicious) goats milk yogurt describe the farm’s location as ‘The heart of the Shomron’, the Hebrew name for the northern West Bank. What the labels don't say is that the farm is completely illegal: one of over 100 settlement outposts erected without authorization from the Israeli government. The farm’s ‘mother’ settlement—Itamar—was authorized by the Israeli government, but is considered illegal under international law because it's built on occupied territory. Both Giva’ot Olam and Itamar are partly constructed on land privately-owned by Palestinians (and that’s according to data from the Civil Administration in the West Bank).

Giva’ot Olam is nothing short of a green oasis. Surrounded by rocky hilltops, and an arduous hike from the nearest built-up area (itself home to less than 700 people), the farm is run according to organic principles of environmental sustainability and motivated by a strong Jewish faith. The lush green grass that carpets the hill is home to free-range chickens and calm, happy goats whose pens are free from the nauseating stench that typically emanates from Israel’s intensive dairy farms. On the surfa
ce, Giva’ot Olam is a peaceful place where the still air is only disturbed by the sounds of the sheep or birdsong. It is also one of the biggest producers of organic yogurt and eggs sold in Israel (although I didn’t see a single hen roaming outside when I visited—apparently they get let out to exercise at certain times of the day). But these hilltops aren’t those of the Galilee or the Judean Hills: They are in the middle of the West Bank, lying just east of Nablus, the largest Palestinian city (or “the largest Arab city in Israel”, as the American rabbi leading our propaganda tour described it.) “A guy called Avri just took his trailer there and started living here, he did the same thing in other places too. People came to live with him and then he moved on to settle other hilltops,” explained Moshe, an American-born settler who was one of the first Jews to settle a nearby hilltop over 20 years ago which became known as Itamar. Moshe, with his M16 strapped tightly to h
is back, described the farmer, Avri Ran, as a ‘pioneer’ and the ‘father of the hilltop movement’. A few weeks ago I met another American-born settler living in Bat Ayin who was keen to extol the ecological virtues of his small, religious community, oblivious to the irony within the ethical contradiction of his choices. How can one be ‘environmentally sustainable’ whilst living on occupied territory? As tasty as their yogurt might be, buying products from Giva’ot Olam or other West Bank settlements inevitably means buying into the ideology of eternally conquering territory regardless of the cost to the Jewish State.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great thing that more Israelis are going organic: Side effects of the Zionist dream to ‘make the desert bloom’ have turned farm animals into chronically-sick meat machines, and resulted in the pollution of the country’s scarce water and soil. Sales of organic food rose by 30% in Israel last year, and organic systems now account for almost 5% of the country's total agriculture. There's no question that Israelis needs more organic farms, but they should build them in their own country and not in the West Bank.

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