The Dilemma of the International Volunteer, Part 2: Activism in Palestine under an Occupation

by David J. Lobina

Year: 2018

So, what is the role and place of Bustan Qaraaqa within the community they are based in? What connections have they made there? What volunteering, if any, have they promoted in other farms, or in general in the West Bank? And what is their place within the worldwide permaculture network, and of course, to begin with, within the occupation of the Palestinian territories?

In last month’s entry, part of another series of articles of mine, though this time there is only two pieces, I framed the discussion in terms of the conflicts an international volunteer has to face when undertaking an activity, or indeed, an activism, in a place such as Palestine. One important conflict immediately arises, in fact, and this has to do with the realisation of the possible and very serious repercussions that one’s action may have on the native population, perhaps slightly counter-intuitively for some volunteers – they are there to be there to help by definition, are they not?

More often than not, as a matter of fact, a volunteer will be based overseas for a limited amount of time, and they will eventually return to the safety of their own country. The sort of activism that many carry out in Palestine, however, such as marching, attempts to stop demolitions and evictions, etc., whilst constituting cases that might indeed derive into serious consequences for the volunteer (police or army beatings, even gassing, sometimes arrest followed by criminal charges, and typically deportation), often pale in comparison with the repercussions for the population one is trying to assist.

It is doubtless the case that the Palestinians are particularly aware of this, and even though they do sometimes choose to encourage the participation of foreign volunteers anyway – their presence may limit the actions of the occupying forces, at least for the time they are there – this is not a choice that is taken lightly. Volunteering in a permaculture farm, with the aim to create a more sustainable and independent scenario, may appear to be world away from the more direct action activism I have just described, but some of the choices one faces in this case are not exempt of the clash between goals and visions that concerns me here, as we shall see.


The community of Beit Sahour seemed quite bemused at the spectacle of a farm that was being run by what they must have assumed was a bunch of stereotypical Western hippies. I do recall being advised to show some restraint regarding clothing and public show of affection, as the farm was in the middle of a close-knit and conservative Christian community. Nevertheless, the community seemed to have taken the people running the Bustan Qaraaqa in rather well. The only shop in the wadi was open to them, which shows the level of trust they had, as the shop was meant to serve the incredibly extensive family of the owners (hundreds of people can easily be part of a single family in a wadi such as Beit Sahour).

The effect on commerce that the farm’s guests and volunteers generates ought, for instance, to be of some relevance for overseas lobbying groups calling for the boycott of Israel in its entirety. Indeed, it is important to stress that the West Bank and Gaza are occupied territories, and therefore Israel controls their borders, which naturally includes control over what goods go in and out. The concerned activist may be too preoccupied with spending money only on Palestinian products without actually realising that part of what they spend in Palestine benefits Israel too. Take the only Palestinian beer available at the time I visited, Taybeh, locally brewed in Ein Samia near Ramallah. Ideally, all the products and materials needed for the brewing of this beer would come within Palestine, but this is not the reality at all, as many of these come from Israel – the glass required for the bottles is perhaps the most conspicuous of all, and this doesn’t include the taxation that Israel collects.

A foreign group calling for the boycotting of Israeli business interests and commerce ought to be aware that if boycotting campaigns of this kind damage Israeli interests, they very often affect Palestinian businesses too. Obviously, it makes no sense to participate in these campaigns inside Palestine; the local population would be literally boycotting itself, as the economies of both Palestine and Israel are too intertwined on the ground, the obvious relations of power notwithstanding.

This is not to deny that subtle and well-directed boycotting campaigns may benefit the Palestinians, and there are many lessons to be learned from the actions of the international community  the South African Apartheid. An effort can be made, for instance, so that Israel doesn’t directly benefit from the occupation in overseas trading, and this is not something that is not part of local laws in some cases. At the time I was in Beit Sahour in 2009, the Ariel University Centre of Samaria for Solar Decathlon Europe was expelled from a state-funded solar energy contest being hosted in Spain, as the project was based in the illegally occupied territory of the West Bank and Spanish legislation disallowed such a situation.[i] Boycotting campaigns are fairly complex and require a nuanced approach, and more so in the case at hand, which I cannot discuss in any detail here.

Going back to the Bustan Qaraaqa project, the overall repercussions of what they are trying to achieve, other than simply the commerce they bring to the area, merits a closer look. I saw first-hand the extensive connections with other organisations in Beit Sahour and Bethlehem that they had fostered at the time, making them a clearly central and active player in the volunteer movement there. A sort of activism that tries to avoid the more aggressive actions that would get them arrested or indeed deported, some of the activities they are involved with include organising workshops and related activities with other farms or groups, assisting organisations like the Alternative Information Centre (AIC) in the publication of articles and reports, acting as consultants for the youth-development organisation Paidia or helping with the farming needs of the Tent of Nations project and the SOS Children’s Village orphanage in Bethlehem.

I was particular interested in the work Bustan Qaraaqa undertook with other farms and groups of similar worries and interests, which in the past had included courses and workshops on permaculture with the Marda Permaculture Farm, information tours with the Siraj Centre for Holyland Studies and Bustan, or tree planting at various locations.

This is of course part and parcel of the permaculture movement, and as such Bustan Qaraaqa was part of the worldwide network as anything else. The actual running of the workshops involves rather sensitive issues, however. For once, Bustan Qaraqqa was rather weary of who they would be seen collaborating with. There are also some permaculture farms within Israel, and indeed some kibbutzim are also akin to this movement, but establishing networks with other groups in Israel may prove to be tricky in some cases.

Further, permaculture solutions really may not be for everyone – it may not be what the local population wants, regardless the actual state of affairs in the territories. Though the aims of the farm are praiseworthy, such as the sought-after self-sufficiency and the attempt to get off the grid of the Israeli-controlled water system, it is not rare to find that the local sentiment is to have control over their own water system, farming etc; namely, to have a state. In this sense, some of the permaculture solutions to these problems may be considered as nothing but temporary by the population. In addition, Western influence in the region is sometimes as obvious there as anywhere else, and a composting toilet can be a hard sell. This is unsurprising; after all, the Palestinians are surrounded by lavish Israeli settlements all around, huge infrastructures with all sort of amenities and facilities, and it is only natural to wish something similar.

Bustan Qaraaqa has little or no influence on the local administration, and in better-off places like Beit Sahour or Bethlehem, one can see non-traditional new constructions using cement and concrete, with the huge amount of water these necessitate. They may, however, have a greater say and influence in more deprived areas, in places where there exist limited possibilities and their solutions are more practical. It is to the improvement of people’s lives under the occupation that the permaculture movement can aspire to contribute the most, rather than setting-up a permaculture network, or culture, in the region.

Such help and assistance has been more obvious in places that are in particularly sensitive locations, such as junctures where the Wall is planned to pass through, near checkpoints or Israeli settlements. The urgency of assisting the farming needs of villages like Al Wallaja or Artas, both near Bethlehem, or the Tent of Nations farm in Nahalin, have to do with the ever-present threat of eviction and the subsequent loss of land. These farms not only have to wage a legal fight to keep their territories, they also struggle to keep the farms functioning. Thanks in no small measure to Bustan Qaraaqa, much work has been undertaken at these places, such as devising waste management strategies, increasing water efficiency, preventing sewage contamination, conserving the soil, and cultivating the land. All this has resulted in a significant improvement of people’s lives, a laudable and heroic enterprise in itself.

Sadly, military might imposes itself eventually.

Though the participation of Bustan Qaraaqa in all these activities in the community doesn’t depend, or at least is not meant to, on the people in charge of the farm at any one point – the project is meant to be part of the permaculture movement overall, as stressed – it is quite unavoidable that this project, like everyone else in the West Bank, lives under, and is therefore part of, an occupation.

What do I mean by this, exactly?

Neve Gordon’s 2008 book, Israel’s Occupation, argues that in the early decades of the occupation, Israel was purposely investing money and resources on the West Bank and Gaza in order to “normalise” the occupation by offering a high quality of life for its inhabitants. This was accompanied by an ever-increasing military presence and more and more Israeli settlements, with the latter then regarded as a prerequisite for territorial safety against the surrounding Arab states.[ii] In this context, it is a question worth asking whether the international movement in Palestine, no matter how laudable some of their actions, partakes, inadvertently, in the normalisation of the occupation in some way.

I mentioned earlier that permaculture’s most positive contribution is the improvement of people’s lives under extremely strain circumstances, a deed good in itself that wouldn’t perhaps merit further consideration. However, the goal of trying to carry on with a decent living given the circumstances is nothing new for the Palestinians: they have been trying to do this since 1967. It’s a necessity, but as such, it is very loosely related to the vision of ending the occupation that no doubt many volunteers and activists in Palestine share, and in any case, most measures taken under an occupation are often just compromises, in the same way that Israeli investment in the territories in the early stages of the occupation was also a compromise. In fact, the relationship between the goal of a decent living under the occupation and the vision of forcing Israel to disengage is so weak that no conflict between goals and vision may be at all present.

One could perhaps argue that permaculture farms aim to systematize a way of life around the occupation rather than under it. Perhaps it then follows that becoming as independent from the occupier as possible puts you in a stronger position in a future peace process. This is very unlikely, however; even if the most optimistic of the permaculture aims were to be achieved, this would not dent the military occupation, and it is the occupation that stands in the way of a resolution of the conflict. It is the end of the occupation that is the necessary first step for a peace process (whatever shape the peace process takes; I won’t discuss this here, either).

Be that as it may, one could still point to the fact that the Israeli army seems only too keen to destroy any attempt at self-sustainability, which tells of the significance and importance of permaculture projects. This could be taken as a sign that Israel feels threatened by such independent movements, and therefore takes the necessary steps to bring the occupied population under their full control. This is true, but has nothing special to do with any specific approach; it may well be a general policy that applies to any enterprise undertaken by the Palestinians. The examples are myriad, in different locations, fields and levels, and there’s nothing to suggest that the army is specifically directing its resources to independent self-sustainable projects.

What is a volunteer in a place such a Palestine to do, then? Same as they are doing now, really, but there must be a realisation that in those cases where the aim is to end the occupation or assist the Palestinians to achieve statehood (or whatever the outcome of a fair and equitable peace process may establish), what one does in Palestine has very little repercussions towards those goals. And the same applies for the sort of activism one can do at home, at least outside of the US. As Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein have argued in numerous publications over the years, the Israel-Palestine conflict will only ever be resolved once the US withdraws its support to Israel – or at least changes its foreign policy in the region substantially – and that will necessitate a drastic change in internal US politics.

A topic for another day! A volunteer can do so much, after all.


[i] Giles Tremment, The Guardian newspaper, 24 September 2009.

[ii] Zeev Maoz’s masterly book, Defending the Holy Land, convincingly argues that the settlements are in fact detrimental to Israeli’s security, not to mention illegal according to international law.