Developing a Palestinian Resistance Economy through Agricultural Labor

VOL. 46


No. 3
P. 7
Developing a Palestinian Resistance Economy through Agricultural Labor

You mean to tell me we’re part of a resistance economy?

There is no such thing.

There’s only a [broken] economy.

And anyone who tells you there is such a thing as a resistance economy doesn’t know the meaning of either resistance or economy.

—Sameer Khraishi, Amoro Agriculture.

IN THIS ARTICLE I explore questions of development under occupation using the testimony and experience of the founders of the now-closed Amoro mushroom farm.1 Operational from 2014 to 2016 on a single dunam of rented land outside Jericho, the experience of this agritech venture provides several avenues to revisit and update policy literature on the development of a resistance economy based in the agricultural sector. Amid seemingly stalled academic and political discussions about development, aid, security, and dependency in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) and given the serious handicapping of the Palestinian economy by the Israeli occupation and the Oslo framework (the Declaration of Principles plus the Paris Economic Protocol), this study explores the potential for small-scale agritech investment to develop Palestinian labor.

My approach revolves around a central premise. Palestinian labor is an underexplored but necessary component in the development of what has been called a resistance economy. Much policy literature on developing a Palestinian resistance economy focuses largely on questions of consumption, ignoring or sidelining the question of labor. Discussions of markets and capital that emphasize the mobilization of Palestinian consumer power as a way to subvert Israel’s stranglehold of the Palestinian economy have not sufficiently explored how redirected consumption needs to be coupled with what Adel Samara has called insihab, or the withdrawal of Palestinian labor from exploitation in the Israeli market.2 Similarly, the celebration of Palestinian economic resistance, or a resistance economy, in local and international media is often centered on the creation of new Palestinian products as alternatives to Israeli ones—as in the case of the Amoro mushrooms, which I explore here. If not accompanied by desperately needed, yet insufficiently discussed, alternatives for Palestinian laborers, however, the emphasis on production and alternatives for consumption risks certain political cynicism.

This is not to shift the discussion from what Palestinians consume to where Palestinians work. Palestinian boycott campaigns have rightly avoided proposing work boycotts to workers whose options for livelihood are limited. I am not interested in the fantastical and condescending suggestion that working people should willingly choose impoverishment for their families by refusing Israeli employment in the service of a national liberation project. Rather, and in an effort to revitalize and build on Samara’s work, I am suggesting that a political repositioning of Palestinian labor in policy discourse, activist circles, and the sympathetic press is necessary. When I speak of the development of Palestinian labor in what follows, I mean the development of Palestinian alternatives for Palestinian workers that provide viable and attractive avenues for livelihood. Palestinian labor, withdrawn from its captive position in the Israeli market, could, duly empowered, become the economic and political force capable of effecting the changes suggested by critics of neoliberal disenfranchisement under the Oslo framework.

To put it another way, I am concerned to posit the extrication of Palestinian labor from the Israeli economy as a potentially significant consequence of Palestinian economic development. Even within the presently inescapable framework of both neoliberal capitalism and Zionist occupation, Palestinian workers should be considered as the force that will drive the next chapter of Palestinian liberation. Toward this end, both capital and state-like institutions must be reimagined as tools, not for liberation, but for the process of struggle required by the latter—that is, as tools for the development of Palestinian labor. This approach diverges significantly from the tenor of discussions about the development of resistance economy in the Palestinian context, where both an implicit anti-capitalism and a necessary skepticism about the liberatory potential of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are often assumed.

Policy discussions around a resistance economy rightly bemoan the exploitation of Palestinian labor and its growing distance from the land. But few have yet to imagine the positive roles—even under the neoliberal Oslo framework—that capital and a quasi-state bureaucracy (in this case, the PA) could play. Of course, considering Palestinian history, it would be fanciful to assume that these players would necessarily lead Palestinians toward liberation. To be clear, neither capital nor the state will necessarily halt Palestinian exploitation. At the same time, neither labor, nor a resistance economy can be developed without them. A vision that strategically mobilizes both capital and bureaucracy in developing and mobilizing Palestinian labor may nonetheless be a vision of a resistance economy worth elaborating.

* * *

This article proceeds in three sections, each of which corresponds to and builds on the first-person accounts of Sameer Khraishi and Mahmoud Kuhail, two of Amoro Agriculture’s four founders. The venture, launched in Jericho in October 2014, used an original system of climate-controlled hangars to grow the first Palestinian mushrooms for sale in the West Bank, a product hitherto (and since then) supplied exclusively by Israel. Before the farm was closed, the farmer-entrepreneurs had discussed a vision to expand the sale of their product beyond the West Bank, reaching Palestinian and other consumers inside Israel and beyond.

The first section examines private capital in conjunction with development. Here, I reflect on the distance between the celebratory literature that greeted the farm’s first harvest and hailed the arrival of Palestinian mushrooms as an example of an engaged resistance economy, and examine the farmers’ own questions about the investment required to get the venture off the ground. Despite entertaining specific narratives about their products and the Palestinian market, the farmer-entrepreneurs’ experience and their articulations about the political value of the investment run counter to assumptions implicit in much policy literature surrounding the development of a resistance economy. Their testimonies support an initial critique of contemporary resistance economy literature and help push back against the longstanding romanticization of agriculture’s role in the Palestinian political project more broadly.

The second section focuses on questions of development as they relate to agricultural labor in Palestine. Here, I consider how the de-agriculturalization of the Palestinian workforce has disproportionately affected female workers. I explore whether capital investment in agritech firms like Amoro Agriculture can re-empower agricultural labor, whose weakness today is disproportionately a weakness of female labor. In doing so, I return to the issue of romanticizing the land, its stewards, and the struggles for its preservation, which I suggest has dominated and depoliticized Palestinian resistance discourses around agriculture.

Following these two sections on questions of capital and labor and development, in the third section I consider the role of quasi-state institutions in economic development and how sovereignty might be reimagined within the neoliberal context of the post-Oslo straitjacket. Again focusing on testimony from Amoro’s farmers, in this section I explore how the role of the state or its proxies may be reimagined to facilitate the kinds of investment that can nurture the development of agricultural labor in the ways outlined in the previous section. My analysis here is influenced by Ali Kadri, Adam Hanieh, Gilbert Achcar, and others, who have argued that the deliberate and strategic dispossession of the working classes in the Arab world, arguably the region’s greatest political strength, has been achieved via a systemic weakening of the state by both local and international players. It is impossible to imagine the development of Palestinian labor without a concurrent reimagining of the PA.

My analysis aims to contribute to a body of scholarship that views the working class as the engine for progressive political action in Palestine and elsewhere. It is based on the notion that the critiques of the injustices perpetuated by neoliberal capital, the Israeli occupation, and their mutual imbrication in Palestine today should not only provide such material analyses, but also direct discussion on how to empower labor as the force that would confront these dynamics and demand change. In post-Oslo Palestine as elsewhere, critiques of neoliberal dispossession and settler colonialism are only as potent as the coalescence of bodies they can imagine and the economic and political clout the resulting politicized force can wield.


Approaching “Development” in Palestine

Before examining the testimony of the Amoro farmer-entrepreneurs, however, a working explanation of my approach to development is in order.3 Historically speaking, Palestinian economic independence and attendant political resilience have been strategized using a number of models. In the 1970s, Fatah’s own industrialization programs within the framework of the economic enterprise Samed helped the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to institutionalizeproduction.4 In the words of then PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, Samed constituted “the core of the independent Palestinian economy and of a Palestinian public sector liberated of bureaucracy and infused with the determination and spirit of revolution.”5 With some differences, developmentalist platforms—such as those articulated within the traditional approach of state-led socialism by Yusif Sayigh and others well into the 1990s—remained PA doctrine until they were de-toothed by the World Bank, the United Nations, and the United States under the Oslo framework.6 Since the first intifada (1987), there have also been calls for “development from below,” of which Samara’s Beyond De-linking: Development by Popular Protection is perhaps the most detailed.7

In the post-Oslo period, development literature on Palestine has established a robust, anddamning, critique of development aid and its concurrent depoliticization of Palestinian society andhistory.8 Some scholars have convincingly argued that the development of a Palestinian economy is impossible in the context of settler colonialism and the neoliberal framework imposed by Oslo.9 Sahar Taghdisi-Rad has pointed out, for example, that the political agendas of the international community and of international donors have turned aid into the driver of the Palestinian economy, something that can hardly be expected to encourage economic independence.10 Sara Roy has memorably described the drastic effects of Palestinian dependency on both Israel and international aid as de-development.11 Indeed, most compelling discussions of development in Palestine recognize the relative impossibility of development at all in light of the continuing occupation. Nonetheless, Linda Tabar and Omar Jabary Salamanca have recently concurred with the writings of Joel Wainwright and others in emphasizing that it’s impossible not to want development anyway—despite the dual obstacles, under the Oslo framework, of a hamstrung PA and the occupation.12 My intervention here is an attempt to rethink the strategies of economic development by considering the processes of political development resulting from it. This is not to ignore the reality of theoccupation and its ability to interfere in any program of development. Rather, it is to encourage reflection on how to develop the economic and political force—in Palestinian labor—that may be able to confront it. My position is perhaps closest to that of Mushtaq Husain Khan who argues that a period of capitalist growth is a necessary intermediary step toward establishing a meaningful, equitable distribution of resources in poor countries, generally, and in Palestine, specifically.13

To embrace the view that positive roles can be imagined for capital and for the PA bureaucracy is not to blindly accept the flawed development or aid models imposed on Palestinians and other developing economies.14 It is rather to ask: to what extent can capitalist transformation (and its necessary facilitation by the PA) play a role in developing the means of production, which may then be reclaimed by a specific social reorganization of Palestinian society in the form of a cohesive working class? Within such a framework, developing the means of production is not imagined as the panacea to problems of poverty, inequality, and continued lack of statehood and sovereignty. Rather, development itself is considered the intermediary step for establishing means of production that can then be reclaimed by labor, empowering the latter as a revolutionary force in the process.


Capital and Development in Palestinian Agriculture

Khraishi and Kuhail, two of the founding partners, trace the origin of Amoro Agriculture to a barbeque several years ago. The story, which has been retold frequently in press about the farm, goes like this: on a regular summer day, close friends who had boycotted Israeli products for over a decade gathered to spend the evening together. They fired up the barbeque and threw some produce onto the grill. And then came the realization that everything on the grill was locally produced, except for the mushrooms. When they asked themselves why there was no alternative to Israeli mushrooms on the Palestinian market, the idea for the farm was born. In our interview, Kuhail put it this way:

The mushroom was one product for which there really was no alternative. So we thought to ourselves that although it would be a responsibility, it was also an opportunity for us to create such an alternative. So that people like us, who devote considerable resources to resisting Israel [via product boycotts], don’t have to expend quite so much energy on that. So we can find this product available on the shelf side by side with its Israeli counterpart—like one finds a gallon of Israeli milk, and next to it a gallon of Palestinian milk.15

Amoro’s mushrooms thus responded to a demand in the market and also facilitated a practice of consuming consciously: consuming Palestinian. This narrative, widespread in the coverage of the farm, foregrounded Amoro’s ability to address demand within a context of commitment to politically conscious patterns of consumption. And it remains important because of the specific ways in which it locates political value in market dynamics. While Amoro’s farmer-entrepreneurs also used this narrative, in our discussions, they were deeply ambivalent about the politics such a framing implied. In this section, I use the enthusiasm about the farm in the local and international media to explore the centrality of boycotts and the production of Palestinian products in resistance economy literature. I suggest that this discourse is geared for middle-class consumers and is classed in specific ways. Part of a larger discourse that romanticizes Palestinian struggle and agriculture, the emphasis in this literature clouds other ways of considering the politics of alternatives in agricultural investment and development.

Practically every write-up of the farm highlighted the initiative’s value in producing a local alternative affording Palestinians an opportunity not to buy Israeli mushrooms. For example, the Electronic Intifada framed their reportage with testimony from the Palestinian Society for Consumer Protection; Al Jazeera English touted the farm’s ability to end Israeli monopolies; and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung celebrated Palestinian efforts aimed at “supporting self-sufficiency.”16 Offering the Palestinian consumer another opportunity to enact an economic boycott of Israeli products dominated the widespread understanding of the farm as a political project.

Much policy literature concerned with the development of a resistance economy also places self-sufficiency via local agricultural production at the top of their list of recommendations.17 Notwithstanding their differences, such analyses emphasize the development of local agricultural production as a means to relieve Palestinian dependency on Israeli products and to enhance consumption of locally produced goods. It is within such a framework that Tariq Dana has called agriculture the “backbone of a resistance economy,” and that Vivien Sansour and Alaa Tartir termfarming “the last frontier of resistance.”18

Although the development of a Palestinian alternative to Israeli products was at the center of their own narrative about the origins of the venture, Amoro’s farmers were not so sure that their contribution was political or that they were helping Palestinians to resist the occupation. When I asked them whether growing mushrooms in Palestine was a form of resistance or helped develop a resistance economy, Khraishi shot back at me with the epigraph for this article. “Resistance economy?” he scoffed. “And who has my back when a tank rolls in here and knocks over our hangars? No one.” As it turned out, Israel did not need a tank to stop the farm: holding up spores imported from Holland at Israeli ports long enough to kill them in the summer of 2016 was enough to halt the farm’s production. As Khraishi had predicted, when that happened, the farm was on its own. There was little the owners could do to recuperate their investment. In the remainder of this section, I examine notions of self-sufficiency engendered by new agricultural production in policy proposals advocating a resistance economy with agriculture as its “backbone.”19 I suggest that these calls for self-sufficiency are classed and increasingly disconnected from the reality of land use in the oPt.

Policy proposals for boycotting Israeli agricultural products and developing Palestinian self-sufficiency as part of a Palestinian resistance economy are admittedly more developed than the media’s portrayal of Amoro. The most significant difference may be that in promoting the idea of local self-sufficiency, scholarly analyses have also focused on economic alternatives to capitalism. For example, Dana argues for channeling more energy into farming collectives where the goal is not the accumulation of profit but community self-sufficiency.20 Samer Abdelnour proposes the implementation of Sustainable Local Enterprise Networks (SLENs), which would include combining market-based operations with special committees to engage entrepreneurs and stakeholders, in addition to other elements of civil society.21 Elsewhere, Abdelnour, together with Tartir and Rami Zurayk, hold up small-scale traditional farming (not commercial agriculture) as a model of resistance and sustainability.22 Indeed, stances that eschew commercial agriculture and hark back to the collectivities in which civil disobedience was grounded during the first intifada are somewhat colored by romantic notions of popular revolution (a subject to which I will return shortly). But those stances are also informed by the need to address urgent questions such as rising food insecurity, diminishing agricultural outputs, shrinking land use, and so on. Expanding Palestinian self-sufficiency, as suggested in some resistance economy literature, appears to hold the promise to address both productivity (of Palestinian land) and a more equitable distribution of income.

It is well known that the share of agriculture in the Palestinian gross domestic product (GDP) has been declining steadily for decades.23 Agriculture’s share of total GDP (West Bank and Gaza Strip combined) dropped approximately 24 points from nearly 30 percent in 1982 to less than 6 percent in 2011. Coupled with rising food insecurity, shrinking agricultural output has led to the renewal of a return-to-the-land narrative in some policy and resistance literature, which was a prominent feature of the political discourse in the aftermath of the first intifada, when the call was for Palestinian families to improve their food security by expanding collective self-sufficiency.

However, addressing declining agricultural productivity in Palestine today is not simply a question of returning to the land. Using statistics and observations about arable land use, Hisham Awartani has found that “Palestinian peasants in the West Bank have practically reached the limits of cultivation possible within natural and economic restraints,” indicating that farmers will need assistance in order for wider cultivation to be achieved.24 Moreover, such assistance is not merely a matter of the availability of or access to irrigation water. The bigger restrictions to commercial farming, he contends, are the economic constraints due to the absence of farming subsidies. Even the rhetoric around SLENs in Palestine, perhaps the most open of the above-mentioned approaches pairing economic growth with social development, has yet to develop strategies for the capitalization of new projects via the provision of individual credit.25 Nor do any of these approaches recognize the need for state intervention to help farmers meet the initial costs of developing currently untilled land for crop production.

In this light, one is then compelled to ask: Where they do not exist, where would such farming collectives spring from? Who will finance Palestinian farmers who are keen to develop their capacity to produce? In short, where it does not currently exist, or where the post-Oslo decades have contributed to its unraveling, how does farming—individual, collective, or otherwise—take root, deepen, and grow? What coordination of capital and state-like intervention would be needed and which are achievable considering the trifecta of obstacles posed by Israel, the international community, and the PA?

The form taken by the capital required to finance potential farming in the West Bank is a question that finds productive traction with the Amoro farmers’ experience. From the beginning, what animated the four farmer-entrepreneurs was their view of aid dependency as a key force in de-developing the Palestinian economy. In fact, beneath the narrative of breaking the Israeli mushroom monopoly lay the reality of breaking the Palestinian economy’s dependency on donor aid. For the Amoro farmers, disgust with the aid economy predated their concern with boycotting Israeli goods. While perhaps not as catchy as the anecdote about Amoro furthering such a boycott, the rejection of development aid was central to the four entrepreneurs’ initiative. Kuhail explained, “Each of us used to work a regular job. And we all felt that the existing system with its dependency on international aid, made us feel that we weren’t producing anything, that we had no role to play. . . . The idea really started with us, not with mushrooms. We started with the idea that we wanted to create something that allowed us to apply ourselves.”

Khraishi agrees. He sees the venture’s primary significance as a sociopolitical act in light of the four entrepreneurs’ rejection of donor-dominated capital as the engine for Palestinian economic growth. He offered, “We are people who reject the system in certain ways. We reject a particular way of working and being employed. We reject the way this country is run, on development agencies and aid. We reject it because we don’t think that it’s the best way for people to develop their potential, and that, among other things, was the stance on which our enterprise was built.” It is this rejection of donor aid that drove the four men to pursue a private, for-profit business model, for which they sought a private loan from a local bank. They finally secured one from the Palestine Commercial Bank’s mashruʿak kafilak (Your Project, Your Sponsor) program.26 Taking on private debt to avoid working in an economy run on donor aid is a critical pivot that has not been theorized or addressed in resistance economy literature based on anti-capitalist notions or premised in non-market-based exchange. However, it is critical to our understanding if the relative privilege and access of Palestine’s middle classes are to be mobilized toward radical political ends.

Not least because Khraishi recounts that they were able to convince the lenders of the project’s profitability partly because their product would face no local competition, the reality of the occupation—Israel’s strangling of the Palestinian economy—in a sense provided the opportunity for Amoro’s mushrooms to dominate the Palestinian market. In other words, Palestinian agriculture’s very development was predicated on its continued de-development (the monopoly otherwise held by Israeli products). This kind of cul-de-sac makes it hard to embrace the agritech venture as sustainable. It is somehow too cynical to conceive of profit making in this context aspotentially liberating.

And yet, despite such contradictions, “we cannot not desire development,” in the words of Wainwright. But why? The Amoro venture suggests that one answer may lie in the relationship between the incurred debt—confidently taken on by capitalist investment assured of the continued process of de-development—and Palestinian labor.


Developing Labor and Palestinian Agriculture

Not-for-profit agricultural cooperatives and SLENs have been touted as foundational to the agricultural sector of a resistance economy. Instead, Amoro grounded its investment in a for-profit initiative catering to a niche market. It is important to emphasize that the agritech firm’s profitable mission, centered not on traditional agriculture but on producing a globally sellable niche product, was part of the company’s vision. As Khraishi put it, “What we have [in Palestine] are traditional agricultural products. We’re not used to exotic things or niche products. The Palestinian market still hasn’t evolved to a point where you can start introducing creativity and innovation in such a way as to meaningfully impact the economy. We weren’t interested in growing tomatoes and cucumbers. You can find those everywhere. Maybe eventually we can grow things that aren’t available here, like broccoli or medicinal thyme, or other niche products that are sought after but otherwise not available.”

To reiterate, this vision does not echo the model upheld by policy research with its focus on reclaiming Palestinian agriculture through cooperatives, fair trade initiatives, and the like.27 The inherent market dominance of these niche ventures seems to promise a degree of initial success but the shadow of sustainability hangs over them. How many new agricultural products with limited exposure in the Palestinian culinary repertoire can be introduced into the Palestinian market and prove profitable in the long term? How are arguably luxury items like mushrooms or kale able to address larger issues such as food security? For Amoro’s farmer-entrepreneurs, however, the social impact of this for-profit venture lay elsewhere, notably in the possibilities it could offer in terms of Palestinian labor.

Amoro hired ten women to pick the first mushroom harvest in the winter of 2014. All ten had previously depended on work in Israeli settlements but were at the time out of work. Kuhail explained:

Currently [2014], we’re working on hiring women from greater Jericho. The conditions of Palestinian workers, both men and women, are very bad, but women always face greater difficulties. There’s a car that comes around for these women at four or five in the morning and takes them to the kibbutz. From six in the morning when she arrives there, the woman has to deal with the owner of the company, the foreign workers, and the Israeli workers, not to mention the agent that is the middleman between the owner of the Israeli company and the Palestinian workers—and who makes more than she does! It is unfortunate, but such middlemen exist: in the Palestinian context, it is someone who agrees with the Israeli company on a wage of 120 shekels a day and then turns around and pays the workers 60 or 70 shekels. We are [trying to] impact these conditions.

Khraishi added, “Word gets around. When those ten women go and tell their colleagues still working on the settlement, ‘I found work here,’ maybe those women will want this kind of work too, and we’ll start to pull this labor back.”28

The Amoro venture provides one glimpse of how the development of for-profit agriculture in the oPt might pull back Palestinian labor from where it is being exploited by Israeli capital. Samara called this insihab, or the withdrawal of Palestinian labor from the Israeli market, which he identified as a necessary accompaniment to the practice of boycotting Israeli products.29 Boycott and insihab touch both Israeli products and Israeli production, reinforcing each other’s impact. While boycotting Israeli products has now become a basic assumption of policy rhetoric around a so-called resistance economy, nurturing the capacity to withdraw or extricate Palestinian labor from the Israeli market has received less attention. By this I mean that policy rhetoric around a resistance economy has yet to address in any substantial way what for-profit ventures in the agritech sector, and labor relations within them, might look like. The lack of attention to the political effects of insihab may be due in part to lingering romanticism that surrounds the notions of Palestinian land and its stewardship.

The historical reality of Palestinian dispossession has rendered a physical relationship with the land little more than an inherited dream for most Palestinians. Nonetheless, images of wheat, olives, zaatar, prickly-pear bushes (sabr), the traditional clothing of thePalestinian fellah (including the kaffiyeh and the thowb), embroidery, and the dabkeh folkdance, have saturated Palestinian poetry, propaganda, song, imagery, and political rhetoricfor decades.30 Despite the imagery and its cultural significance, a connection to the land as the material foundation of Palestinian resistance—through a return to farming, for example—is simply not an actionable demand for large sections of the Palestinian working class settled in urban areas, especially those in refugee camps. Furthermore, as Dana notes, the success of urban agriculture, in the oPt as elsewhere, is marked by class. While political rhetoric for seventy years has championed the stewards of Palestinian land as the pillars of Palestinian resistance, most Palestinians today spend their time in urban environments or in exile.31

Given that the alienation of the Palestinian farmer from the land today is perhaps even more acute among farmers-turned-day-laborers (because of widespread poverty) than for other demographic groups in Palestinian society, political discourse that romanticizes the relationship of the Palestinian farmer to her land is an especially class-ignorant exercise. In perpetuating a romantic vision of the farmer, the shifting relations of labor and capital are occluded. Decontextualized from an economic understanding of the reality of agricultural labor today, the image of the grandfather fellah tending his olive trees veils the reality of his grandchildren rendered migrant laborers who await permits, are searched at checkpoints, or shot at on their way to tending others’ crops—to sketch only the simplest examples.

Employment in agriculture has nearly halved in Palestine (West Bank and Gaza Strip combined) over the past decade while unemployment has risen slightly. Fewer and fewer Palestinians are working in agriculture, irrespective of the number of Palestinians working in general (see table 1). Recognizing the need to update political discourse on who performs resistance, and how, need not detract from the powerful history of resistance enacted by the fellahin, a history that has fueled their continued idealization and the lingering romanticism to which I refer.

The romanticizing of small-scale farming that occludes the state of agricultural labor in Palestine today additionally obfuscates the gendered dynamics that prevail in the exploitation of contemporary agricultural labor by Zionist capital. It is not random that Amoro’s first ten mushroom pickers were women. For decades, agricultural labor has represented a significant portion of employment available to Palestinian women. In 2007, for example, nearly 36 percent of employed women were working in this sector compared with only 11 percent of employed men (see figure 2). But while the share of male employment in agriculture remained relatively steady in the period 2001–15, the comparable figure for women dropped significantly, accounting for the decrease in overall female employment.

By 2015, some 13 percent of employed females were working in the agricultural sector, an overall drop of 23 points from its highest in 2007. During the same period, variability for men was negligible. At the same time, overall female unemployment rose steadily from just above 19 percent in 2007 to around 39 percent in 2015, indicating that rates of female employment in agriculture are strongly correlated with overall female employment rates (see figures 3 and 4). This is a clear indication that women, more than men, depend on agricultural labor.

It is in this context that Amoro’s initiative toward achieving the insihab of Palestinian labor takes on additional significance.


Sovereignty in/and Development

Despite my suggestions here about the possible role of small-scale, private investment in the development of a resistance economy where the insihab of agricultural labor is a central politicalconsequence, I want to underscore again Khraishi and Kuhail’s reluctance to engage with the concept of a resistance economy at all. Although they view their business as growing naturally out of a practice of boycotting Israeli goods, and despite the fact they consciously frame their project as an act of refusal vis-à-vis the donor-dominated economy, while simultaneously considering how their hiring practices might undermine Zionist capital, they are not keen on the enthusiasm to see their work as resistance or as part of a resistance economy. Indeed, the story Khraishi and Kuhail tell of securing the capital, finding affordable land to rent, connecting the utilities, and acquiring the permits to get their farm off the ground sketches a picture of would-be farmers/innovators considerably isolated from any sort of economic, or institutional, infrastructure or support.

Moreover, Khraishi and Kuhail recount that their primary frustrations came first and foremost not from unwilling collaborators or co-investors but from the countless municipal and bureaucratic hurdles that delayed or complicated their progress. Kuhail explains:

To build the hangars on the land, we needed a permit. When we went to get the permit required to pour the concrete, the guy we had to see was on pilgrimage [to Mecca]. We lost forty-two days of work. As an investor, as the guy waiting every day for forty-two days, I am still paying for utilities, a telephone, living expenses, and so on. This [sort of thing] negatively impacts investors. Another investor would have been put off and have refused to invest at all, or might decide not to invest in an alternative economy.32 

Kuhail’s remarks make it clear that for a resistance economy framework to be effective it must include reforming, if not overhauling, bureaucratic procedures at both the level of the PA and of the local municipal authorities that govern the development of local agriculture. The example of Amoro demonstrates that the agricultural sector could be used to promote the withdrawal of Palestinian labor from the Israeli market and further the sustenance of that labor within the Palestinian economy.33 Considering the violent whims of the occupation, however, like the decision to hold up imported spores, the insihab achieved by the agritech firm needs a network of support if its effects are to outlast what are sure to be continual setbacks and closures by the various arms of the occupation. Unions of start-ups or small business owners may be one avenue to achieve this while subsidies from the PA to account for lapses in production may be another.


Moreover, for this kind of small-scale investment to happen on any kind of significant scale, the bureaucracy involved in licensing, connecting utilities, permit procurement, and so forth, has to be addressed. Samara has written explicitly on the subject. In addition to coupling the boycott of Israeli products with the withdrawal of Palestinian labor, he has emphasized the necessity of pairing insihab with investment by the PA. Although he views investment as liquidity, even that would require further state or state-like facilitation. Without it, farmer-investors like Amoro’s are unlikely to feel that the proper framework exists for a resistance economy that could support their enterprises. This means that any elaboration of a resistance economy based in agricultural production or that champions increased Palestinian self-sufficiency based on new or renewed planting and growing must also consider how the PA or its replacement might facilitate investment in this sector. Here, Raja Khalidi’s admonishment is a good reminder: “The need to leverage the potentially influential role (and potential) of Palestinian private and public capital in the service of source national liberation cannot be dismissed as naïve belief in the role of a ‘progressive wing of the nationalbourgeoisie.’”34 To demand more from those with relative privilege and power cannot be considered naïve (at best), or as an apology for the excesses of capital and its collusion with the occupation (at worst).

It has been popular of late to call upon Palestinian civic society to revitalize itself, to pull itself up by its bootstraps, using as fuel the strength of its historical memory, the continually renewed offenses of Israel’s occupation, and frustration with the leadership currently at the political helm. However, a realistic assessment of agricultural labor as recounted here should make it clear that a vision that only considers civil society and small-scale, sustenance farming has little chance of enabling the emergence of an agriculture-based resistance economy. The majority of efforts to reclaim land or revitalize its use worldwide have recognized, if not explicitly relied upon, the necessary role of the state in facilitating access to the land.35 Despite this, the dominant strains in resistance economy literature on Palestine have tended to elide any positive role for either capital or the state.

Within the occupation-induced confines of the Palestinian economy, can pressure be applied on the PA to facilitate, if not promote, investment in agricultural production? Could its limited power vis-à-vis Israel, but its considerable power vis-à-vis the individual Palestinian, be channeled to facilitate agricultural growth? Could business associations be formed among new agritech and small business ventures to pressure municipalities into adopting policies that facilitate hiring, production, and efficient land stewardship? How could such ventures actively counter the contraction in the Palestinian economy to provide employment for Palestinians? Could labor, pulled back into the Palestinian economy, be encouraged to organize so that it finds itself less vulnerable to exploitation by both predatory Palestinian capital and the Zionist settler-colonial project? Could an agricultural sector thus revitalized make demands on the PA and/or Israel for land and sovereignty? And finally, how could such initiatives be taken without interference by an international community that has, as scholars have noted, helped shape the reality of de-development in the oPt today?36 These are some of the questions that would be spurred by the approach I have taken here.

* * *

The devastating effects on the oPt of the Oslo neoliberal framework have been well-documented. That the PA has been hamstrung by this framework is no longer contested. Nevertheless, as Khan and others remind us, investment in Palestine in the years immediately following Oslo was considerable.37 Although the PA was initially able to convince investors that they would get good returns on their outlay, it was not able to consistently direct necessary rent extraction to the benefit of Palestinian society writ large, resulting in part in the opacity and corruption that came to be associated with it.38 If growth remains the goal for both the Palestinian economy and the development of its agricultural sector, attention must be paid first to encouraging investment and then to directing rents toward growing resource-focused capital that develops Palestinian labor. Coupled with other strategies for resisting Israel economically that are already underway, private investment that engages in insihab deepens economic resistance: it strengthens the Palestinian economy as it detracts from the Israeli one.

Directing capital in specific ways is also necessary, given the history of the dispossession of Palestine. It would be foolish to think that the same capitalism and profit-seeking that historically helped to facilitate Zionist settler colonialism in the dispossession of Palestinians will, by virtue of economic growth alone, return land to them. Real estate speculation by Palestinian investors continues to literally dispossess Palestinian villagers, in the name of building so-called middle class housing developments, which remain inaccessible to large swaths of the population.39 Class continues to divide and fracture Palestinians, and these disparities are manifest in the access to the little land that remains, in name, under Palestinian control.

I have specifically taken as my subject here agricultural labor and development, first because nurturing labor requires a series of productive material reinvestigations of the roles and strategies of Palestinian resistance; and second, because growth in this sector has the potential to yield more direct control over local resources and the means of production. In the absence of actual Palestinian sovereignty, Kadri’s observation offers a way to envision development assisted bylimited state-like institutions. Kadri writes, “Sovereignty in the practice of development is that stateof government which affords working classes control over their resources and improves their livingstandards.”40 Under the Oslo framework, the PA cannot offer Palestinians sovereignty. It remains to be seen if it can facilitate working-class control over resources by assisting in the facilitation of small-scale agritech and other agricultural ventures whose hiring practices focus on pulling Palestinian labor back into the domestic economy.

In these pages, I have considered that one way to move the discussion of development in Palestine from the impasse in which it finds itself between occupation and aid may be to consider the development of Palestinian labor as a critically important political consequence of capitalistic investment. This is not to consider economic development within capitalism as the solution to neoliberal dispossession and exploitation. Neither is it to abstract questions of economic development from the material reality of Israeli occupation. It is rather to consider development as necessarily apolitical as well as an economic process. That process can be imagined as a strategy whose goal is the gradual coherence of a fragmented working class. Criticism of Oslo and the neoliberal project resulting from the occupation will be less effective absent thoughts toward the coalescence of a class that can mobilize the economic and political strength to demand changes to those conditions. The fundamental task is therefore to develop strategies for imagining and strengthening Palestinian labor, particularly in its most vulnerable and dependent sectors.

Using Amoro’s experience, this article has asked how strategies to develop a resistance economy could be theorized in such a way as to shift the notion of resistance from one that romanticizes microlevel agricultural collectives farming ancestral lands to one that views Palestinian labor, investment, and bureaucracy as one interdependent nexus. Such a configuration of the three elements would not be the end, but the means; not the battle, but the training ground; not a magical solution, but a step toward a more effective contest with the Zionist project.

In conclusion, the portrayal of the Amoro experiment as an exemplar of resistance economy, to the dismay of the venture’s owners, played into a depoliticized romancing of Palestinian agriculture and ignored the ways in which the firm was completely isolated in the risks it took. Rather than an iteration of resistance, Amoro Agriculture more closely resembled a risky startup, subject to the whims of an occupation it could hardly protest, much less resist. Diverging from the romantic image of the Palestinian small-scale farmer tending to her crops, the approach suggested here stems from the recognition that the power of the state, even one with sovereignty as negligible as the PA’s, must be factored into the development of both resistance and economic growth. This approach addresses the reality that no sector can alone develop “either resistance or economy” in occupied Palestine and argues that private capital, civil society, and the state need to be reimagined together.


About the Author

Rayya El Zein was a visiting scholar at the Giorgi Tsereteli Institute for Oriental Studies at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2016–17. The interviews with Mahmoud Kuhail and Sameer Khraishi were conducted under the auspices of dissertation fieldwork grants from the Palestinian American Research Center (PARC) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 2014.


1 Sameer Khraishi and Mahmoud Kuhail were most generous with their time during a busy part of the 2014 growing season. Conversations with Mezna Qato, Sofia Japaridze, and the comments of anonymous reviewers helped me to deepen my observations and enormously improved initial drafts of this article. Shortcomings and faults remain exclusively my own.

2 Adel Samara, Beyond De-linking: Development by Popular Protection vs. Development by State (Ramallah: Al-Mashriq al-A‘amil for Cultural and Development Studies, 2005), p. 136.

3 For an overview of this debate, see for example, Jan Nederveen Pieterse, “The Development of Development Theory: Towards Critical Globalism,” Review of International Political Economy 3, no. 4(1996): pp. 541–64. For alternatives see for example, Denis O’Hearn and Ronaldo Munck, eds., Critical Development Theory: Contributions to a New Paradigm (London: Zed Books, 1999).

4 As Raja Khalidi suggests, an early demonstration that the PLO was a viable “forerunner of the national state project in a future liberated Palestine” rested in the institution of Samed, Fatah’s industrial organization in Lebanon. Samed channeled funds from Palestinians working in the Gulf to educate and employ Palestinians based in Lebanon, especially those in refugee camps, in the manufacture of retail goods for sale. As Khalidi points out, ventures like Samed conferred on the PLO the state-like traits that regional Arab governments feared so much. It is worth noting that, like the rest of Fatah’s economic program, Samed was not anti-capitalist in outlook. For more on the subject, see Raja Khalidi, “The Economics of Palestinian Liberation,” Jacobin, 15 October 2014,

 5 Khalidi, “The Economics of Palestinian Liberation,” 15 October 2014.

6 In 1993, Sayigh led the team that penned the first “Programme for the Development of the Palestinian National Economy for the Years 1994–2000,” also known as the PDP. See Khalidi, “The Economics of Palestinian Liberation,” 15 October 2014.

7 Samara, Beyond De-linking, pp. 118–53.

8 See for example: Anne Le More, “Killing with Kindness: Funding the Demise of a Palestinian State,” International Affairs 81, no. 5 (2005): pp. 981–99; Sibille Merz, “‘Missionaries of the New Era’:Neoliberalism and NGOs in Palestine,” Race & Class 54, no. 1 (2012): pp. 50–66; Rema Hammami,“NGOs: The Professionalization of Politics,” Race & Class 37, no. 2 (1995): pp. 51–63.

9 See Amal Ahmad, “The Customs Union and Israel’s No-State Solution,” Al-Shabaka, 26 November2014,; Toufic Haddad, Palestine Ltd.: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory (London: I.B.Tauris, 2016).

10 Sahar Taghdisi-Rad, The Political Economy of Aid in Palestine: Relief from Conflict or Development Delayed? (London: Routledge, 2011).

11 Sara Roy, The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2016).

12 Joel Wainwright, Decolonizing Development: Colonial Power and the Maya (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), p. 10; Vivek Chibber, “Development from Below,” Jacobin, 10 November 2015,; Linda Tabar and Omar Jabary Salamanca, “After Oslo: Settler Colonialism, Neoliberal Development and Liberation,” in Critical Readings of Development under Colonialism: Towards a Political Economy for Liberation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Birzeit: RosaLuxemburg Stiftung and Center for Development Studies, 2015), pp. 9–33.

13 Mushtaq Husain Khan, “The Capitalist Transformation,” in The Origins of Development Economics: How Schools of Economic Thought Have Addressed Development, ed. K. S. Jomo and Eric S. Reinert (London:Zed Books, 2005), pp. 69–80.

14 Khan, “The Capitalist Transformation,” p. 71.

15 Mahmoud Kuhail and Sameer Khraishi (Amoro Agriculture, Jericho), interview with author, 9 December 2014. Translations from the Arabic are the author’s.

16 Muna Dajani and Lina Isma‘il, Conscious Choices: A Guide to Ethical Consumerism in Palestine (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung: Palestine and Jordan office, April 2015),; Rosie Lyse-Thompson, “Economic Independence Grows at PalestinianMushroom Farm,” Electronic Intifada, 5 March 2015,; Dalia Hatuqa, “First Mushroom Farm in Palestine Ends Israel’s Monopoly,” Al Jazeera, 16 June 2016,

17 See Alaa Tartir, Samer Abdelnour, and Sam Bahour, “Defeating Dependency, Creating a Resistance Economy,” Al-Shabaka, 13 February 2012,; Alaa Tartir, Rami Zurayk, and Samer Abdelnour, “Farming Palestinefor Freedom,” Al-Shabaka, 2 July 2012,; Tariq Dana, “A Resistance Economy: What Is It and Can It Provide an Alternative?” PalPapers, November 2014,

18 Dana, “A Resistance Economy.” Alaa Tartir and Vivien Sansour, “Palestinian Farmers: A LastStronghold of Resistance,” Al-Shabaka, 1 July 2014,

19 Dana, “A Resistance Economy.”

20 Dana, “A Resistance Economy.” It is worth noting that Amoro, as a for-profit venture, decidedly did not fall into this framework. I return to this later.

21 Samer Abdelnour, “A New Model for Palestinian Development,” Al-Shabaka, 18 January 2010,

22 Tartir, Zurayk, and Abdelnour, “Farming Palestine for Freedom,” 2 July 2012.

23 While Palestinian GDP has increased overall, agriculture’s share of the total has dropped more steeply than both manufacturing and industry, while the share of the service sector has increased significantly. “Palestine: Share of Manufacturing,”,; “Palestine: Share of Industry,”,; “Palestine: Shareof Services,”,; accessed 22 March 2017.

24 Hisham Awartini, “Agricultural Development and Policies in the West Bank and Gaza,” in The Palestinian Economy: Studies in Development under Prolonged Occupation, ed. George T. Abed (Oxon: Routledge, 2014), p. 140.

25 On the issue of ecological considerations, the advance of organic and free-trade certification, while no doubt well intentioned, is decisively geared to facilitate the entry of Palestinian products into an international market, and not for local sustainability at home. The website of the Palestinian Free Trade Association clearly states its goal as building markets outside of Palestine. “The PFTA philosophy is that certification is important to build trust and respect for our products to gain market access outside of Palestine.” (PFTA Fair Trade Programs, accessed 18 May 2015,

26Barnamij mashru’ak kafilak min al-bank al-tijari al-falastini,” (The “Your Project Your Sponsor” Program at the Palestine Commercial Bank), YouTube video, 0:59, posted by “PCBbank,” 11 September 2013, accessed 17 May 2015,

27 The Kale Project–Palestine is another initiative that seeks to reclaim land and secure a place in the Palestinian market thanks to a so-called niche product with limited exposure in Palestinian cuisine. Kale Project–Palestine is an initiative of the MAAN Development Center and Refutrees. See “The Kale Project–Palestine” Facebook page, accessed 4 July 2015,

28 Kuhail and Khraishi, interview with author, 9 December 2014.

29 Samara, Beyond De-linking, p. 136.

30 Literature on Palestinian folk forms and their relation to struggle is extensive. See for example, Ted Swedenburg, Memories of Revolt: The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003), p. 62.

31 Salim Tamari has also highlighted the reinforcement of reactionary and conservative social structures when ideas of the peasantry and cultural frameworks associated with it are held up as stalwart flag bearers for Palestine. He argues that such ideas have had significant implications for the status of women in Palestinian struggle and in Palestinian society more broadly, especially as regards the shape of the family and the legacy of patriarchy. See Salim Tamari, “The Palestinian Movement in Transition: Historical Reversals and the Uprising,” Journal of Palestine Studies 20, no.2 (1991): p. 62.

32 Kuhail and Khraishi, interview with author, 9 December 2014.

33 This pushes back in significant ways on the steady withdrawal of PA investment in the agricultural sector under the leadership of former prime minister Salam Fayyad. See Lamya Hussain, “Agriculture in Palestine is Dying: Here is One Way to Save It,” Muftah, 12 February 2015,

34 Khalidi, “The Economics of Palestinian Liberation,” 15 October 2014.

35 Dana invokes the relevance of the history of the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers Movement (Movimento dos trabalhadores rurais sem terra, MST) to the Palestinian struggle in “A Resistance Economy” (see note 17). He argues that the successes of the MST in Brazil can be traced to a combination of state funding, international and NGO funding, electoral participation, institutional legal pressure, as well as direct action. See Leandro Vergara-Camus, “The Politics of the MST: Autonomous Rural Communities, the State, and Electoral Politics,” Latin American Perspectives 36, no. 4 (2009): pp. 178–91.

36 See Roy, The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-Development, and Haddad, Palestine, Ltd.

37 Mushtaq Husain Khan, “Evaluating the Emerging Palestinian State: ‘Good Governance’ versus ‘Transformation Potential,’” in State Formation in Palestine: Viability and Governance during a Social Transformation, ed. Mushtaq Husain Khan (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004), pp. 13–63.

38 Khan also writes that, “There were additional limits on what the ‘state’ could do that were set by external powers. These external constraints ensured that important rents were controlled by external powers, and this significantly affected the way in which P[alestine] N[ational] A[uthority] institutions operated. We argue that some of these external constraints played a critical role in blocking state formation in Palestine, and this has important implications for state formationstrategies in the future.” (Khan, State Formation in Palestine, p. 5.)

39 Ben Hattem, “Palestine’s Other Land War,” Middle East Eye, 18 September 2014,; Yousef Khatib, “AtPresent Contemporary ‘Palestine,’” Tumblr, 16 November 2014,

40 Ali Kadri, Arab Development Denied: Dynamics of Accumulation by Wars of Encroachment (London:Anthem Press, 2015), p. 24.