Wise woodlands: Palestinian farmer uses treehouses to escape Israeli bulldozers
Mazen Saadeh faces a problem. In trying to expand the facilities of the campground and restaurant he manages in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, he risks attracting the attention of the Israeli authorities tasked with halting Palestinian construction.
Hosh Jasmin, the cooperative farm and tourist destination that Saadeh manages with his partner Aidan Pendleton, is located in the West Bank’s Area C, meaning it lies on Palestinian land under complete Israeli civil and military control. Area C and Hosh Jasmin are under full occupation, a situation that brings with it many challenges, including the threat of demolition. A restaurant just across the valley from Hosh Jasmin has been demolished by the Israeli military three times.
“We need to build. But it’s hard, and it’s forbidden,” Saadeh said. “If we add a centimeter, the Israelis will come and demolish it. Not demolish what we added — they will demolish everything. So it’s a big challenge.”
In response, Saadeh has come up with a unique solution: Since building on the land is prohibited, he builds in the trees.
Saadeh and volunteers at Hosh Jasmin recently completed construction on one treehouse, and they plan to build two more in the coming months. They have also built additional rooms on top of existing structures in a way that allows them to circumvent the language of the law.
The treehouses will be used as rooms for visitors to stay overnight when they visit Hosh Jasmin. Currently, visitors can stay in tents for 50 shekels — around $14. Hosh Jasmin attracts a wide range of foreign and Palestinian tourists, and it was featured in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last year under the headline “Growing Figs in a Place of War.” But Hosh Jasmin is more than a simple hotel. Taking its name from one used for shared spaces common in Syrian communities, Hosh Jasmin is meant to become a model community where food is produced on-site. In addition to the restaurant and campsite, Hosh Jasmin is home to a farm with 11 kinds of vegetables, as well as chickens, rabbits and sheep. Saadeh’s goal is to eventually serve only food produced on the farm, all grown organically.
“I am sorry to say it, but Palestinian farmers, like Israeli farmers, use huge quantities of chemicals,” Saadeh said. “What you buy in the market is not good.”
Saadeh became concerned about the quality of food produced in Palestine after a friend of his, an agricultural engineer at Bethlehem University, showed him a study he had done on the amount of chemicals used in Palestinian agriculture. “He found 38 percent of that fruit and that vegetable are poisonous,” Saadeh recalls. “He told me, when you go to the market, don’t buy the beautiful apple or beautiful tomato. Buy the bad one, with a bad look. Because a bad look is more natural than a good look.”
According to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, over 490 tons of pesticides are used in the West Bank each year, including about 200 tons of methyl bromide, a highly toxic chemical phased out of use in the United States and Europe in the early 2000s. There is widespread use of 14 different pesticides that are, according to the institute, “internationally suspended, canceled or banned.”
But the Hosh Jasmin project extends well beyond the production of healthier food. The volunteers, employees and owners of Hosh Jasmin are actively constructing a new model for life in Area C. Saadeh said an important part of that project is supporting Palestinian work; all of the food Hosh Jasmin buys is produced in Palestine.
“Even the kind of beers we offer is the Palestinian one. It’s very powerful, I think. It’s all Palestinians, with Palestinian hands, with Palestinian farmers from Palestinian areas,” Saadeh said.
Casey Asprooth-Jackson, an American who spent several weeks in Hosh Jasmin and helped construct the first treehouse, had previously worked with a community-supported agriculture project in Upstate New York. He explained what he sees as the similarities and differences between agricultural projects in Palestine versus the rest of the world.
“The way that people live in most places in the world, there’s a disconnection between the land and your life, and that’s something that we want to intercede in and break,” he said. “Here, it’s even further because there is an occupation.”
The demographics of Hosh Jasmin’s employees reflect a commitment to improving life under occupation. All seven of the employees come from Palestinian refugee camps in Bethlehem, Nablus and Qalandiya — areas where it’s often difficult if not impossible to secure a decent job.
Alaa Qsass, a Hosh Jasmin employee from Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, said there are two reasons he prefers working in Hosh Jasmin to working in the camp.
“One of them is that, in the camp, it’s not allowed to you to have a lot of kinds of work. Just the (low-quality) jobs,” he said. “But the other reason is, you know camp is very, very, very—there’s no space in the camp, you know? You can’t see this view in the camp and you can’t see any tree, actually, in the camp. You can’t walk in the mountain like that. You can’t smell air like that.”
Despite the advantages of working at Hosh Jasmin, Qsass said, there are also difficulties and dangers related to the farm’s status in Area C. “There’s danger to working in Area C. Some nights we worked here, and the Israeli police came and took photos of us. And sometimes they stop us when we come here and ask us questions,” he said.
Another employee at Hosh Jasmin, Jehad Afaghani, was born in Balata refugee camp in Nablus and spent four months working on the farm. He said he thinks Hosh Jasmin represents a model that could be exported to other parts of Area C to improve living conditions around the West Bank.
“It’s a fantastic way to resist, you know? You don’t need to be in contact with the army, but you can improve yourself by existing in one place,” he said. “You could bring back life to Area C.”
By Andrew Beale