Palestinians in the Jordan Valley are reviving the ancient art of earth building, learning resistance from the Earth during a time of conflict
“We build our resistance from the Earth itself,” says Rashed Khaderi, a coordinator with the Jordan Valley Solidarity Movement, sitting in the organisation’s headquarters in Fasayil Village. The building is more than 100 years old and is made of earth, in the form of adobe bricks.
Adobe building is an ancient technique, where earth, sand, manure and straw are mixed together with water, moulded into bricks and dried in the sun. In the Middle East, people have been building houses like this for thousands of years.
“We build in earth because it is durable, obtainable, inexpensive and friendly to the environment,” Rashed told Positive News. “And the houses that we build are low energy – they stay warm in winter and cool in summer.”
The Jordan Valley Solidarity Movement (JVSM) is a network of activists and community groups from all over the Jordan Valley, working together to protect the right of Palestinians to live in the area and to access and manage its resources in a sustainable way.
They have their work cut out for them. The Jordan Valley comprises 30% of the land area of the West Bank, stretching approximately 100km from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. The Jordan River forms the border between the West Bank and Jordan (the East Bank), and thus the valley is an area of strategic military significance.
“We build in earth because it is durable, obtainable, inexpensive and friendly to the environment.”
Due to its unique topography, it is also of great economic value. The valley is entirely below sea level and is shielded from harsh winds by the mountains rising up to the east and the west. This means it provides a climate capable of year-round crop production, for those with enough water to irrigate.
These attributes have made it a target for Israeli colonisation, with land and water resources being seized by illegal settlers and multiple military bases dominating the landscape. An estimated 86% of the area is now controlled by settlements via their regional councils, leaving little behind for Palestinian residents.
Oxfam published a report in 2012 in which it stated that “the sheer number and scope of restrictions on Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley suggest that they are part of a systematic policy to push Palestinians off their land, while increasing Israeli government control”.
These restrictions include lack of connection to the water network, a deficit of sewage services, lack of connection to the electricity network, denial of building permits, outlawing of grazing and farming on most land areas, and attendant demolitions of ‘illegal’ homes and infrastructure (including rainwater harvesting cisterns).
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 246 Palestinian structures were demolished in the Jordan Valley in 2014, leading to the displacement of 510 people.
But the communities of the Jordan Valley are organising themselves – building new homes and rebuilding demolished structures.
“Since 2007, together with our partners, we have built 200 new houses, five schools and three clinics using earth building techniques,” Rashed says proudly. “Three of the schools have demolition orders and one, in Ras Al Auja, was destroyed, as well as two houses. We tried to get building permits, and to be able to see the Israeli master plans for the villages, but of course they were denied.”
According to Oxfam, 94% of Palestinian applications for building permits in Area C have been denied in recent years, whereas B’Tselem, the Israeli Centre for Human Rights, say that the civil administration has only prepared a partial master plan for one Jordan Valley village – Al Jiftlick.
But the JVSM is ramping up its efforts. “We have a brick-making machine now that can make 800 bricks per day if we have people to work it. We could build several houses every month,” says Rashed.
“But resistance is hard. It puts financial strain on the people. Seven families in Fasayil recently received demolition orders. They had to pay 1,000 shekels each just for a lawyer to check the papers.”
For a community where the poverty rate is double that of the rest of the West Bank, that is a heavy burden indeed.
However, according to Danna Masad of ShamsArd Design Studio, earth building can form an important part of a resistance economy in Palestine.
“The main advantage of building with earth is that it’s not Israeli,” she told Positive News. “Earth building is cheap in material costs but labour intensive. That means that most of the money can go into the Palestinian economy, where it empowers the workers.”
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At the JVSM, building a resistance economy is also a priority. They’re combining earth building with community development to boost the economic situation of the local herders.
“We’re building a cheese factory out of earth bricks in Al Jiftlick” says Rashed. “There was no milk processing facility in the area. The farmers find it hard to sell their produce. We need to change that.”
According to a World Bank report released in October 2013, if Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to land and water resources in Area C were lifted, potential agricultural activities could add US$704m to the struggling Palestinian economy each year.
“We’re not asking for aid. We just want our rights” says Rashed.
In the meantime, Israel plans to expand settlements in the Jordan Valley and put still more pressure on Palestinian residents to leave. In March 2012, the Knesset approved a budget allocating $2 million for additional settlements in the Jordan Valley, while in September 2014 a new Israeli Civil Administration published a plan to forcibly relocate Palestinian Bedouin communities into new development towns.
In the face of this pressure, the non-violent tactics of the JVSM and their partners look flimsy – earth building and cheese-making versus tanks and bulldozers. Nevertheless, many communities remain steadfast in their refusal to abandon their land or way of life, and these are the strategies that are making it possible.
“To exist is to resist” Rashed says. “That is our slogan and that is how we work. And we will keep existing.”