The Bedouin community of Umm an-Naser – one of the poorest and most food insecure areas of the Gaza Strip – has been cut off from grazing lands. Unable to practice traditional pastoral livelihood activities, these families have become largely dependent on in-kind assistance from local government and international organizations.
The community of roughly 5 000 people was first established in 1997 following the Palestinian Authority’s compulsory relocation of Bedouin families from nearby Arab Maslakh in order to make way for a housing project. The village – located south of Israel’s border and north of Beit Lahiya’s urban sprawl – sits near large, open air sewage reservoirs, increasing the risk of disease and groundwater contamination for its already very vulnerable residents. In 2007, five residents were killed and 18 were injured when an earth embankment surrounding one of the cesspools collapsed and caused flooding.
Unemployment in the community stands at around 65 percent. The traditional herding livelihoods practiced by many of its families have become almost unprofitable, owing to the high price of fodder and inability to reach grazing pastures directly to the north near the Israeli border. Getting to these areas has become extremely dangerous, as Israeli authorities have imposed access restrictions to prevent militant groups from launching operations from there. This land – known as the Access Restricted Area (ARA) – contains a significant amount of the Gaza Strip’s arable land, including rainfed crops, olives, almonds and citrus trees. Most livestock production is concentrated there as well.
Following the ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas in November 2012, the Israeli authorities relaxed such restrictions imposed in the ARA, improving access to areas between 0.3 and 1.5 kilometres.
After this change in policy, and at the request of the village’s authorities, FAO launched a project funded by the Government of the Netherlands – “Improving food security in North Gaza through land rehabilitation and open-field vegetable production” – aimed at reclaiming and cultivating land belonging to the village within the ARA.
However, as the land in question is almost completely composed of sand dunes, a complete reconfiguration of the site’s geography through land leveling was required. Under the project, 26.5 hectares of land were levelled and demarcated into individual parcels for each beneficiary. The sand was mixed with clay and minerals to enrich the soil for enhanced cultivation and drip irrigation systems were installed. Agricultural roads were established to facilitate access for farmers.
Based on crop calendars, farmers selected crops with overlapping harvest seasons so they could maximize the use of necessary inputs, such as water. Planted crops included potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, white onions and green peas. Before he began farming, 27 year old Mahmoud Abu Madek was one of Umm an-Naser’s unemployed residents. "I haven't had a job before. This is the first opportunity I've had to work on land," he told Al Jazeera English in an article about the project earlier this year. "For me it's a way to make an income and cover the needs of my family."
Farmers planted their first crops in the fall of 2013 and began harvesting them in February 2014. Each beneficiary’s plot of land is large enough not only to produce food for home consumption, but also to reap a surplus to sell at nearby markets. On average, this production has increased household income by USD 2 000 per year. This is a significant amount considering that the average annual GDP per capita in the Gaza Strip was USD 272 in 2013 according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. "Before, it was hard to get food,” said Umm an-Naser’s Mayor Zeyad Abu Freiya to Al Jazeera English, lamenting his constituents’ past difficulties in providing for themselves. “This is a different and real source for food access and income generation; it's a dream that has become a reality."