Palestinian Studies

2014 Workshop

Omar Tesdell

PhD Candidate, University of Minnesota

Territory, Nature Reserves, and the Question of Palestinian Cultivation

The first agricultural program directed at West Bank Palestinians came at a most unlikely time. On the third day of the 1967 war, the Israeli government began providing agricultural extension and veterinary services to Palestinian farmers to prevent crop failure and disease. This curious historical moment illustrates a deep and enduring scientific interest in the farming and conservation practices of Palestinians in the West Bank. However, the major investments in Palestinian agriculture were curtailed in the late 1970s and, separately, legal mechanisms were instituted to reclassify common and privately held land as state land based how the land was cultivated. These changes reworked the legal and physical landscape of the West Bank, enabling new modes of appropriation of land by Israel for settlement. At first glance, restrictions enacted in the 1970s–both in agroecological and spatial registers–signal a major shift in Israeli government policy toward Palestinians. For example, scholars have recently posited that this drop in agricultural investment and attendant settlement expansion, increased dependency of Palestinians on the Israeli economy.

Although cultivation has long been a site of contentious politics, it is not always a politics as imagined from the perspective of the state. Cultivation in this sense is understood to be an abstract concept that allows institutions like the state to enact technologies of rule, whether through law, coercion, or agricultural development. Yet overlooked in this discussion is an understanding of cultivation as the longstanding concrete practice of Palestinian farmers who leverage the capacities of the land to affirm collective claims to territory. While abstract concepts may be themselves the outcome of concrete practices, I mean to distinguish outcomes that take a stratified form in the service of territorial control, from mobile practices that aim to unsettle state stratifications. Cultivation does not necessarily correspond to official juridical definitions of land use. Rather it is expressed in acts of collective persistence that are both an affirmation of belonging as expressed in social and ecological relationships, and a refusal to perform as the subject of state power. In contrast to an abstract concept of cultivation, the practice of cultivation thus emerges as a flashpoint to reconsider the question of land politics in Palestine. Cultivation, both of land and of people, holds a central place in the imagination of Palestine as a geographical and political realm. The proposed paper considers the history of cultivation in Palestine and develops a theoretical understanding of it as constituted by both settler-colonialism and the oppositional politics arrayed around it. This context gives rise to the central question of this paper: What is the nature of the relationship between cultivation practices and the control over land in Israel-Palestine? To explore this question, the paper will recover the historical connections obscured by a series of enacted separations, the most important of which is ‘cultivated land’ and ‘uncultivated land’.

Today, the un/cultivated distinction remains one of the most contested spheres of struggle between Palestinians and Israeli authorities and settler groups. It is a battle waged at various registers: courts, bureaucratic mechanisms of measurement, and living organisms on the land. The subtle division between cultivated and uncultivated land, which dates from Late Ottoman and British Mandate periods is the basis for classifying “private land” and “state land.” This distinction has come to be the Israeli government’s primary instrument of land appropriation in the West Bank, yet its complex historical lineage across different periods of government remains unexplored. Technologies of scientific measurement of land cover and crops have become more advanced over time, but the evaluation of land use and cultivation practices remain crucial objects of analysis in Israel-Palestine today. While seemingly detached from wider processes of settlement, the scientific assessments of Arab cultivation provide an index of land use. This index in turn serves as warrant for reclassification and appropriation of land through juridical mechanisms. Exploring categories and practices offers a way to consider how cultivation, while related to processes of dispossession also emerges as a site of politics. The proposed paper will consider scholarship on agricultural and environmental science, land politics, and cultivation practices to develop a conceptual understanding of this field within Palestine studies.

Omar Imseeh Tesdell is assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Birzeit University and a postdoctoral fellow of the Arab Council for Social Sciences. His research focuses on environmental questions and sovereignty in the Middle East. He earned his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Minnesota in 2013. The Social Science Research Council IDRF, Palestinian American Research Center, and the University of Minnesota have supported his research.