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News From Within December 1993

New Agenda for NGOs

Support for the Struggle for Palestinian Economic Independence Shraga Elam
Shraga Elam, describes himself as a press-documentalist working at the largest commercial documentation center in Switzerland, where he has ready access to information from all over the world in various areas, ranging from petroleum marketing to medicine. Having this access was very helpful to him in establishing and developing the olive oil project (described below), which can serve as a model for other solidarity organizations seeking production projects through which to support the Palestinian economy on a grass-roots level. The realignment of European and North American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the support of such projects would be a fitting manner in which to continue the pursuit of their objective of struggling against the Israeli occupation, i.e. her economic occupation in the new era inaugurated by the Agreement :

The agreement between the PLO leadership and the Israeli government is without doubt an expression of a new reality. With it, the economic aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict become clearer than ever. This aspect must now be given higher priority. Instead of concentrating exclusively on the political, military, social, and human rights aspects of the conflict, the economic aspect should fina1ly receive the attention it deserves.
Everyone concerned about the right of the Palestinians to independence and freedom, everyone concerned that there should be a just peace in this region, should be aware of the various dangers inherent in the new situation, while at the same time focusing on developing methods and ways to avert, avoid, and fight them. This requires more than just subjective emotional reactions or demonstrations. Looking at the economic side of the new developments we can see a classical neo-imperialistic process going on. Instead of direct physical control over the colonized people, the tendency is towards a remote control mode, in which the Israelis, in this case, simply leave the dirty work to the Palestinians, while continuing Moshe Dayan's old political line and "carrot and stick" approach with some modifications. But, and this is an important BUT, there are also opportunities to take advantage of the new situation in a positive way. For the first time there is readiness in the western world to do something for the development of the Palestinian economy. There is a unique, and most probably one time only, willingness to give financial support for this endeavor, which should be taken into consideration. The direct implications of this situation are that it is not sufficient just to expose the neo-imperialistic character of the carrot and stick policy, but most of the energy available should be used to channel as much as possible of these newly available financial resources into endeavors which have the goal of real independent development. The main criterion in choosing what projects to support should be that they have existing means of production from the start. Our efforts should be directed towards optimizing methods of production9 i.e., using means of production better than they are currently being used and modifying them to suit the new situation and context. This means taking advantage of all existing but unexploited opportunities for production and marketing. In some cases it means reviving traditional methods of production (such as pressing olives on the day of picking and organic farming methods) which have been abandoned or neglected for a generation or more for various reasons, and integrating them with the modern practices currently in use. The main point is to actually develop a viable Palestinian production sector as soon as possible. Infrastructure should be developed to suit that sector and not the other way around. It is very

important not to let wishful thinking override cool analysis. Such dreams as "the Singapore of

the Middle East" are more dangerous than useful. These may seem to be purely abstract considerations. But their application can be demonstrated by the example of the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees' (UAWC) Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Pilot-Project. This project, started two years ago, has proven that with hardly any financial or human resources a very concrete solution could be found for problems which other organizations had been seeking to solve for years, investing large sums of money without having found anything useful. These problems were: why is it not possible to export Palestinian olive oil to western countries and to profit from the boom there, thus compensating for the loss of former markets in the Gulf states since the Gulf War; what are the ways and means of raising the productivity of Palestinian olive trees, and of circumventing the biennial/cyclical nature of olive production, whereby olives are produced on a commercially-profitable scale only every second year.
The answers to these questions are of crucial importance, because olive production accounts for about 13% of the GNP of the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, and is therefore their most-important economic sector. These answers turned out to be less complicated and elaborate than one might have expected. A very simple comparison with Italian production methods showed us that it is possible to solve all these problems without huge investments, but rather through reviving "lost" knowledge and with a small amount of transfer of know-how from Italy. What the project needed mainly to do in order to profit from lucrative existing and potential markets in Western Europe and North America was to revive the old Palestinian saying. "from the tree to the stone." By picking the olives before they are completely ripe and pressing them on the same day, preferably in traditional Palestinian olive-presses rather than the fully automatic Italian machines, one can produce a very high quality oil. This has been clearly proven in the context of the pilot-project. and the oil thus produced is now experiencing great success in Switzerland, where the first trial marketing is currently taking place (See below for

further details). Increasing olive production also requires neither magic nor complicated research. A relatively small amount of money (compared to the quantities flying around in other projects) can achieve this. A recent short visit by an Italian olive farmer with practical experience in this, Nicola di Capua, brought to light very simple and obvious facts, which all of the academic experts somehow had overlooked. The olive trees in the West Bank are neglected and therefore in very bad condition. The situation is rather catastrophic. the trees and earth are UNDERNOURISHED, there is a real FAMINE! In addition, most of the trees are not properly primed. In Mr. di Capua's estimation, if nothing is done for the trees, they will stop producing within twenty years. If, on the other hand, his simple recommendations are followed as soon as possible (preferably by spring 1994), there is not only a chance of salvaging olive production, but of increasing it dramatically. This would result in yields that are high enough to be commercially profitable even in "off" years, and should also reduce magnitude of fluctuation in yield size from one year to the next (Of course this salvage action and revitalization campaign needs financial and technical support). The solution which we propose is not the industrialization of agriculture, but the other way round, the "agrarianization" of the industry. This applies, not only to the production of olive oil, but to the processing of picked olives. According to our research there is a very large market in the western countries for "home-made" products like pickled olives produced without the use of chemicals and artificial preservatives, while on the other hand, the market for industrially-produced olives is saturated. Organically-grown produce in general is much in demand, and this clientele is also more sensitive than the general public to concepts like "fair trade," which are very important to a developing economy. There is no need to mention the other social, political, and ecological advantages of this mode of production.

In producing pickled olives, there is also the opportunity of employing traditional Palestinian knowledge, held mainly by the women, to increase the producer's own independence especially if the women organize themselves and work cooperatively. The importance of grass roots organizations in initiating and developing such projects is great. Once the creative and active process is begun, it may be expected to spread widely, because we are speaking here of pilot or model projects which may easily be copied and expanded. The greater the number of people actively involved in such projects, the easier they are to realize.

The Palestine Construction Project (PAP)

A model project PAP was founded in June of this year by myself and several friends, most of them antiZionist Jews, with the primary objective of helping and promoting the development of grassroots Palestinian production projects. After the second Gulf War of Jan-Feb 1991, I began to realize the importance of economic warfare. After many years of political activity and work for the liberation of the peoples of the Middle East, I realized what a fatal mistake it was to neglect this field, while the Zionists and their supporters are working very hard in this area. Even a very superficial study of the Zionist movement must result in the conclusion that an important part of its political success was due to its ability to build an economic infrastructure before achieving statehood. Foreign Jewish capital was supporting socialist Zionist projects like the Kibbutz movement, because of the realization that purely profit-oriented, capitalistic projects would not help achieve Zionism's national goals. I realized that there was a lesson here for anybody who cares about freedom and independence for the Palestinian people. Through my acquaintance with the Israeli system I knew of many loopholes which might be taken advantage of, and I also had the feeling that not every available opportunity was really being exploited. Having realized that the Palestinians are not only the political but also and perhaps even mainly the economic victims of this war, I started to move the discussion and political activity in Switzerland and Germany in this direction. My main focus was on developing projects for the export of Palestinian products to Western Europe and North America, and in this way giving concrete help to the Palestinian people, while on the other hand making international solidarity work much more concrete as well. That means really working towards independence and freedom and not just supporting humanistic and charitable projects in the apolitical human rights sector, or concentrating only on building a welfare system (some kind of alternative to UNRWA). Without the construction of an independent economy, it was clear to me that every other struggle was going to be very hard. But it was difficult to convince the people supporting the Palestinian struggle to change their mode of operation. Palestinians living in Europe also opposed this approach, saying that first of all there must be political liberation, and only after-wards will come economic development. Others also were not ready to change their way of thinking and operating. They were not ready to realize that the "pure" fight for human rights has failed. People all over the world are pretty well informed about the situation in Palestine, but nobody really cares or sees a way to change this situation. So resignation is growing, and it will not simply dissolve in the face of more information. My expectation was and still is, that getting Palestinian products over to Europe would not only be a form of economic support for the Palestinians, it would also give our political activities on their behalf a new push. The Olive Project Utilizing the access to information that I have in my job, I was able to get material about the difficulties facing Palestinians from the territories occupied in 1967 in exporting their

products. Most of them had to do with so called Israeli security control. Therefore I was looking for Palestinian products which were not overly perishable. From there the way to olive oil was very short. I found material attributing problems of exporting Palestinian olive oil to Europe to its taste. I was able to utilize the resources of the documentation center where I work to compare olive oil production methods in Palestine and Italy. This provided the beginnings of the answer which was very simple. As mentioned above, the Italians press their olives, while still unripe, the same day they are picked. Study of the world market has revealed a real potential for constant growth. I tried to convince various Palestinian organizations of this idea, but only the UAWC was flexible, open, and courageous enough to embark upon this adventure. Then professional help and some slight interest in marketing the product in Switzerland came along, and the whole thing started to roll. The activities are mainly in three different interrelated directions: fundraising, marketing, and recruiting technical support. For these purposes we sometimes use the press, but the main field of activity is personal contacts with people from different organizations like NGOs, political parties, and people who are members of parliament or involved in the Palestine solidarity movement. For marketing, we have concentrated our contacts up to now on a commercial network for the distribution and sale of third-world products, as the quantities we were dealing with were too small to try something bigger. On the technical level we are constantly trying to gather more information and to build contacts, mainly with Italian experts. Problems and Future Prospects The main problem lies with people who are still active in the solidarity movement. I think that the whole project requires a different way of thinking and operating, and this is very difficult to achieve. But over the last two years people are getting more and more convinced, especially since the delivery of the first shipment of oil to Switzerland and since the agreement between the PLO leadership and the Israeli government, which made the people of Europe realize the necessity of economic development in Palestine. Another thing which is very difficult is that the reactions of Palestinians living in Switzerland and Germany have been rather disappointing. Not much help has come from this direction, and one Palestinian, who used to be politically active, told me, "the idea is good, but you are not going to get Palestinian support unless there is some personal profit involved." A crucial point is how much support can be obtained for the project among the Palestinians themselves. The principle is actually very simple and there are lots of possibilities, not only with olive oil, but also with whole olives and many other products, especially in the field of organic farming. There are good chances of getting financial and technical support for such projects, on condition that proposals are serious and well-formulated. The Swiss government [e.g.,] is now considering what its policy will be regarding support for projects in Palestine. Now is the time to take advantage of this openness. This support would not only be financial, but would also include help in marketing. I think that more effort should be currently being put into achieving these goals and thus profiting from this unique opportunity. As I was saying, UAWC was very courageous in taking upon itself the risks of starting such a project. Several people invested a lot of energy in the development of this project, but only for a very short period around harvest time, and that is not sufficient. The success of this project demands continuous work. I don't think that there is a real need for a huge organization to guarantee this success, because the many crucial steps are very easy tounderstand and to carry out. But there is a need for people, not many, who really and deeply are convinced of the project's chances and are convinced that it is possible. Without some people who will breathe and think olives, olive tree, olive oil, etc., there is hardly any chance

to produce a product of a quality which will have a chance of standing up in the West European and North American Market in the long haul. I believe that the role of grass-roots organizations, which are not motivated only by the thought of personal profit, is precisely to carry out such a project and to be interested in sharing their experience with other farmers (something which a private farmer would not do) and to try to overcome the political barriers which arc blocking the way towards cooperation with other grass-roots organizations. Anyone who is interested in more information regarding the olive oil projects or Shraga Elam's ideas for grass roots development in Palestine can contact him at: [Tel./Fax: ++41 1 271 63 94 Mobile: ++41 76 472 13 00 e-mail:shraga.elam (a) ]