AL-AUJA, West Bank — Jaseer Fahed Afyet stood where a vast sea of pale sand met a small island of green leaves and looked over the banana trees he had planted in June. They are likely to be his last.
For three generations — before conflict and climate dried up much of his water — his family has grown bananas on this arid piece of the Jordan Valley just north of Jericho. Now, his few rows of young trees on just four acres account for one of the last remnants of the West Bank’s banana basket. He is one of the final growers left, and he knows chances are good that the same lack of water that drove out so many of his neighbors will end his family’s 50-year run.
The end of the banana era represents the broad shift in Palestinian agriculture over the course of Israeli control of the West Bank and its water. At the time of the 1967 war, the area around Jericho was known for lemons, oranges and bananas.
But over the decades, as Israel sunk more deep wells to supply growing Israeli settlements in the occupied territory, the springs began to dry out earlier and earlier each year, according to studies by the World Bank and other international organizations. Palestinian surface wells grew brackish as water tables dropped, the sweet water becoming too mineralized for lemons, citrus and bananas.
Growers who could afford it began a slow shift to other crops, including the much hardier date palm, a desert native. But hundreds of small operators left farming altogether, selling their land and taking work as laborers in the surrounding Israeli settlements. About 3,000 area residents now work in the settlements, according to the Jericho Labor Office, spiking to 8,000 at the date harvest.
When Afyet’s grandfather planted his first banana trees in the 1970s, the area had been a storied producer of the fruit for decades. The Jericho banana, sweet and small, was popular in markets from Kuwait to Baghdad. Hundreds of small growers made good livings. One banana baron started a short-lived airline.
“We called it ‘Green Gold,’” said Afyet, whose 32-acre family enterprise never stretched to grand corporate schemes but did allow them to buy land, a few horses and once a taxi to run as a side business in the village.
Afyet said he used to export 1,400 tons of bananas a year along with four partner growers. Now, the shops in al-Auja sell bananas imported from Israel, and Afyet is the only one still growing them.
“One of them owned [62 acres],” he said. “Now he doesn’t enough land for his grave.”
The area’s banana acreage has plummeted from about 1,500 acres to less than 130 in the last decade, according to Ahmad Fares, the Jericho and Jordan Valley director of the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture. He credits the region’s heat and high oxygen levels — at an elevation of 850 feet below sea level — with the fruit’s rich flavor.
“They are sweet as sugar,” he said. He said he can still see bananas thriving just over the Jordan River, where Jordanian farmers enjoy the same conditions with easier access to water.
At his peak, Afyet employed 20 workers. He began letting them go after the 2006 season marked a steep drop in water. He experimented with other crops, mostly vegetables, but in the driest years, when the spring stopped running as early as May, he left his fields to work for growers in Netiv HaGdud, a settlement five miles away.
The difference in water use he saw there was stark. The herb and produce greenhouses have access to the pumps and pipes of Mekorot, the Israeli water company that pumps water from all three of the limestone aquifers that underlie the Jordan Valley and distributes it among the settlements. Additionally, a huge waste treatment plant nearby converts sewage from Jerusalem into gray water suitable for irrigation by Israeli farmers.
Afyet used to work near a glittering swimming pool. “With water from that pool, I could irrigate five dunams for a year,” he said, referring to the local land unit that equals about a quarter of an acre.
Like many Palestinian farmers, Afyet says he has asked Israeli authorities to drill a new well on his property, or to purchase water from Mekorot, including gray water. He said his applications were repeatedly rejected.
“They won’t even sell us the dirty water,” he said.
Israel says it is managing the resources according to an agreement included in the 1995 Oslo accords that gave it ultimate control over West Bank water, an arrangement that was supposed to be updated after five years but has remain untouched over decades of stalemate.
Giora Shaham, director general of the Israel Water Authority, said there is no blanket policy against selling water to Palestinians, and said no requests to buy it have crossed his desk in his three years in charge. He said well permits are allotted cautiously only to keep from exhausting groundwater supplies for downstream users, both Israeli and Palestinian.
“We are responsible for the whole area,” Shaham said. “These are hydrology decisions, not political ones.”
In Jericho, which averages less than six inches of precipitation a year, no commercial crop grows without irrigation. Water must be pumped from the aquifers or channeled from natural springs. A network of concrete sluices, for instance, connects the Auja spring to Afyet’s banana grove five miles away.
Palestinians have the authority to run pipes and canals in the areas they control under the Oslo accords, which divides the West Bank into a patchwork of zones managed by either the Palestinian Authority or Israel. But unlike Israel, the Palestinian authority cannot pipe water across zones to distribute it from the few wet places to the many dry ones.
Israel also enforces its control of water by destroying Palestinian pipes and tanks containing water that officials deem unpermitted or stolen. Israeli officials say they are enforcing the law. Palestinians and their advocates say they are trying to force the farmers from their land.
“Control of water is central to the occupation,” said Amit Gilutz of B’Tselem, an Israeli advocacy group. “Here, where there is no gold [and] there is no oil, water and land are the essential resources.”
Mohammed Nassasra, a grape grower in the village of Jiftlik, watched Israeli soldiers bulldoze his water distribution pond earlier this year, saying it lacked a permit. Nassasra says the pond was built 15 years ago and filled with legal spring water. “The settlers don’t like competition,” Nassasra said on a recent afternoon, fingering one of the desiccated grape bunches, a severed irrigation pipe at his feet.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli military agency that administers Palestinian activities in the West Bank, said it “carried out an enforcement operation against three illegal reservoirs that had been set up in the village of Jiftlik. We will note that the enforcement was carried out in accordance with the authorities and procedures.”
David Elhayani, the leader of an settler umbrella group, disputed that Israeli residents want to drive Palestinian growers out of business, saying that a good farm economy makes life more peaceful for everyone in the contested region. He said Palestinians routinely poach from the Israeli water network and drill illegal wells. Israeli farmers have their own complaints about the stingy allocations of well permits, he said.
Palestinian authorities, meantime, were hamstrung after the Oslo accords in managing the West Bank’s water resources by too little staff and too much bureaucracy. Shaham said, for instance, that the Palestinians are entitled under the accords to extract 60 million more cubic feet of water from the Eastern Aquifer than they do.
To help ease the shortage, Shaham said he envisions two projects: a plan to bring water from Northern Israel to the Jordan Valley with as much as 10 percent going to Palestinians; and a tunnel under construction that will bring additional wastewater from East Jerusalem to the Og Treatment Plant.
“I told my companies that some of that [treated gray water] will go to irrigate dates around Jericho,” he said.
That will do little for Afyet and his bananas. Toeing the hard earth between his trees, Afyet is facing reality. It was a good winter of rain, and the al-Auja spring produced water into September for the first time in years. It gave him hope to try one final crop.
“Next year, maybe we will come here and eat bananas,” said Afyet, the shoulder-tall seedlings around him almost the only green visible in the sun-baked landscape.
“If not, that’s it,” he added. “This too will be desert again.”