Mohammad's words are strong but softly spoken. He is certain. His eyes are clear. He taps the podium as he speaks. There is a determination in his voice. Defiance. Courage.
The youngest of the 1,700 fair trade farmers, Mohammad is gathered with us in the upper room of the London Muslim Centre, next door to the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. As a Palestinian fair trade farmer, he describes to us life under the harshest conditions; an attempt for survival and to uphold the inalienable right of an indigenous people to farm the land of their ancestors. It is a struggle against an industrial opprimere from Israel. Mohammad Irsheid is the youngest of nine children, from a farming family in Siir which is situated 18 kilometres south of Jenin. His family own around 300 dunums (approx. square kilometres) of olive groves. He speaks with a quiet burning, of illegal settlements that are put up in hours and how 10,000 olive oil trees - some dating back to before the time of Christ - are uprooted in the process. The Israeli state, an unfettered industrial military and agricultural behemoth, has now destroyed 2.5 million olive trees to build the apartheid wall. They have tapped into natural springs on Palestinian land which feeds these people just as it fed the people of antiquity. Like almost all Palestinian water resources, these are diverted to supply illegal settlements, agricultural and industrial projects. The trees of the Palestinian Jordan valley are left to compete for drinking water with an oppressed indigenous population living under occupation, with thirsty children and families attempting to eek out a meagre existence.
Whether in Europe or the Middle East, farmers have a no nonsense way about them. It is perhaps their connectivity to the earth and to the seasons, to a life of struggle and survival, that means they have little time for excessive words and displays of superficiality, artifice or grandeur. These Palestinian farmers are no exception. Mohammad's sun-kissed face belies the challenges he has faced to get here. But it is a thing written in his eyes. The honeyed tones of his Levantine arabic has the audience hanging on every word, conveying messages from a farming community who against all odds, create produce we in Britain must buy for their continued survival. It is a dire situation. Their plight is from a time and place long passed, where Prophets of scripture walked and preached, where they ate from these olive trees and drank from these springs. It is a struggle lifted straight from the pages of the history of the region: an innocent and indigenous people against overwhelming forces of malevolence. Mohammad describes the inhumanity of an Israeli state which endeavours to crush the spirit of the Palestinian people. It is the cruellest of oppressions. Slow. Painful. Deliberate. Access to aquifers is restricted, springs are walled off. Checkpoints are put in place. People are degraded and dehumanised on a daily basis. The farmers persevere, far removed from the gaze of a Western public who continue to be reared upon a diet of hand-picked media junk food that excludes the nutrition of inconvenient truths. Mohammad asks that we go to visit him in Palestine. When middle England raises her hand to ask why, his answer is definitive. He says it is so that we can see with our own eyes, to experience and learn firsthand, so that we can tell others, because his words cannot complete this journey alone. It is an undeniable argument.
Despite an ancient tradition of glassmaking in Hebron, Palestinians today are prohibited from having their own bottling plants, on their own soil, to help their own olive oil trade. The Israeli state fears that Palestinians will use those precious glass bottles to make Molotov cocktails to attack them. It is interesting to note however, that Palestinian fair trade farmers are allowed to purchase glass bottles for bottling their olive oil, so long as they purchase them from the Israeli state.
The money finally ending up in the pockets of Palestinian fair trade farmers is miniscule but that which does, makes a huge difference. For Palestinian Fair Trade produce, you have to also include the price of getting through checkpoints and barriers. After these costs, there is little left. When Zaytoun first cold pressed olive oil reaches Made in Europe, who are promoting the #BuyPalestinian campaign, a small profit needs to be made to sustain the trade. MADE tell us that 50% of Palestinians suffer from food insecurities and that 800,000 Palestinian families rely on the annual olive harvest for their livelihood.
I meet with Zaytoun's Palestinian Director Taysir Arbasi, a community leader from the Salfleet district, to talk about life and the realities of creating Fair Trade produce in Palestine.Taysir has been promoting Fair Trade Palestinian goods for over a decade now and launched the first Fairtrade Certified product from Palestine in 2009. Taysir’s wealth of experience has helped to lift farming communities out of poverty and his advocacy is now vital to their survival. He tells me that the cost of producing olive oil is about 15 shekels per kilogram (approx. £2.50). It is then sold for 25 shekels and the fair trade premium is 2.5 shekels (41p), with 1.5 shekels going back to the farmer and the remainder to the co-operative. I ask Taysir about the production of first cold press olive oil. I’m told that it takes about 3 kilograms of olives - these ancient, precious Palestinian olives that grow in the hills of the West Bank from Bethlehem to Jenin, fed by Palestinian rain and the scarcest of water resources - which after filtering and pressing produces my 750ml bottle of Zaytoun olive oil.
Facts and figures aside, there is something more significant going on here. The move by the Löfven government in Sweden to recognise Palestine, made it the first major European country in the world to do so, much to the chagrin of the Netanyahu government. Increasing numbers of Jews in the US no longer see the support for Israel as part of their Jewish identity; many more actively lobby against it. We have seemingly reached a point where the world has finally begun to accept that the plight of the Palestinians, the ethnic cleansing and horrific aggression they face, is no longer something that can be ignored; critical mass. The blank cheque provided to the Israeli state by the US and UK may soon be a thing of the past. As the call for full, free and democratic elections with the right of return, continue to echo around the world, open and active support for the Israeli state becomes an increasingly toxic political legacy. It is also now time that activists realise that BDS isn't going to be enough, and whilst it has made important inroads, in some rare cases BDS is not always practicable. The best and most lasting option is to put money into the Palestinian economy. Into Palestinian homes.
We need to crowdfund Palestine.
An English woman creates welcome laughter at the event which, like a break in the clouds for sunshine, pushes away sombre tones of fighting oppression and the search for justice. Her hand raised and tongue-in-cheek, she fervently demands more of their wonderful sun-dried tomatoes.
The Palestinian farmers assure her: “we're on it”.