TULKAREM, West Bank — As the sun reaches its midday peak, Oday Taneeb loads the last tomatoes harvested from his family’s organic farm — a rarity in the West Bank — onto the truck that will take them to the town market.
“Today’s a good day to be outside,” Taneeb, 25, said. “The air is clear.”
Like most farmers, Taneeb has an early call time for work — 4 a.m. — and divides his days between demanding manual labor, looking after thousands of plants in roughly 12 greenhouses, and salesmanship at the local market.
But he and his family face a challenge that most organic farmers do not: the immediate and long-term effects of the Israeli occupation that has left his farm isolated and also at risk of serious pollution.
The Taneeb farm is surrounded by the conflict. On one side, there is the Israeli separation barrier that cordons off the West Bank, commonly referred to as “the wall.” On the other three sides are 11 Israeli factories inside an enclosed industrial zone in Israeli-controlled Area C of the occupied West Bank.
The Israeli factories arrived in the 1980's, partially on land that Taneeb’s father, Faiz, once plowed.
Little more than 10 yards from the farm, the Geshuri Industries factory produces pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Smoke billows from the factory’s stacks, and a sound similar to that of turning gears is constantly audible while walking through the farm, which has been flattened by Israeli bulldozers on three occasions. The last time this occurred was 2003, when the West Bank was in the throes of the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising. Though it was notoriously violent period, Taneeb insists his family remained peaceful during the trouble.
“Thirty years ago, we had access to eight acres of farmland, but confiscations for the wall and the industrial zone have left us with three,” Taneeb said at the beginning of a tour of his family’s farm. “Many days I find it hard to breathe because of smog from the factories.”
As he walks past compost bins, solar dryers and the solar-powered fans required to keep air fresh and limit bacteria while fruits, vegetables and herbs spend months dehydrating. The vibrant colors of the crops provide a contrast with the grey concrete used for the walls that separate the farm from Israeli-controlled territory.
But the color of the water runoff from the factory is also vibrant. A small stream of yellow water runs past a banana tree in one of the fields. “We don’t eat from that tree,” Taneeb said.
When asked if he knows what chemicals are in the runoff or the smog, he says he isn’t sure. “Many have come to collect soil and water for tests, but they’ve never published their results. But we know it makes us sick.”
Another cost levied by the wall’s construction in 2003 was a sudden surge in unemployment. Many people from Tulkarem had been working in Israel, but after the wall and related restrictions on movement, they were largely unable to cross the Green Line for their jobs.
As a result, several hundred Palestinians turned to jobs in the factories, which are located inside the Nitzanei Shalom industrial zone on the east side of the 1967 ceasefire line demarcating the West Bank from Israel.
“These employees felt as if they were compelled to work in the factories, as there were no other opportunities,” Qato said, speaking about the many interviews she conducted with Palestinians working in Israeli factories. “Working in a pesticides factory would harm them, and they knew it. There was no alternative, it was economic suffocation,” she concluded.
Al Jazeera contacted a spokesman from Israel’s Coordination of Government Affairs in the Territories (COGAT), whose Civil Administration oversees the industrial zone, about these allegations. “A mobile unit was put in place to monitor the air, and found no abnormal levels of pollution at the site,” the spokesperson responded, adding that there was “no basis” for cancer claims.
The owners of the Geshuri factory did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Back on the farm, Taneeb shows off the area that will house his aquaponic system, a technique that brings together aquatic plants and animals, using bacteria in the water basin to transform the resulting ammonia waste into nitrates and nitrites, which are nutritional substances for growing plants.
He already talks like a hardened farmer committed to staying put and working on the land, unlike many other young Palestinians.
“Today’s youth are concerned with money and technology. They study business at university and can’t find work in Palestine, so they move to Dubai or Jordan,” he said.
Last September, the World Bank reported that Palestinian unemployment was rising to “alarming levels.” The Palestinian Monetary Authority projects that total unemployment will be at 27 percent in 2015.
Taneeb has a seemingly simple solution for this problem: “We all have land. All of us could work on it, as I do.”
Although he has two degrees, one in business and another in journalism, he can’t imagine leaving his home. “This farm is both a parent and child to me. It cared for and taught me when I growing up, and now I care for it and make sure it grows.”
After the aquaponic system takes off, he plans to start selling fish at the local market.
“What else would I do with my life? I need the farm, and it needs me.”