Jerusalem24 – A trio of young women in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank have a plan to simultaneously tackle hunger, unemployment, unsustainability, and occupation. But how?
Marah Al-Butmah, Diala Issa, and Aseel Al-A’raj co-founded the Zar3itna (“Our seedlings”) project in 2020, aiming to “enhance the agricultural sector in Palestine in terms of Israeli occupation and occupied land,” Marah Al-Butmah tells Jerusalem24.
For the trio, the project was the perfect solution to several of the problems facing Palestinians in their own land, allowing them to protect agricultural lands from the Israeli occupation by cultivating them; helping landowners who lack the time or the ability to exploit their lands themselves; and implementing current, sustainable agricultural methods, so as not to “compromise the ability of future generations, which is very crucial to conservation agriculture.”
“The project became part of us”
“Zar3itna originally came out through a competition while studying in college”, Marah says. “The goal was only to win the competition.”
All three young women attended Bethlehem University.
However, the project soon developed into something deeper and more meaningful to them. “We felt that the project had become a part of us,” Marah explains. “We tried to find people to support us, financially and morally in order to start our project.”
During the Covid19 lockdown, they saw their chance to conduct experiments to further their project. “We were able to use and experiment with the hydroponics system in Battir High School for Boys,” she says. These experiments paved the way for the real-life application of Zar3itna’s goals – three years of work and preparation that should all come to fruition by this summer.
Marah says they hope to begin working on the ground by June. “In the meantime, we are working on legal terms of how to work with landowners in order to give us their lands to work on.”
Protecting lands from depletion – and occupation
Zar3itna will make use of two main agricultural techniques, favoring one over the other depending on the geographical features of the land they have selected to exploit: hydroponics (“the technique of growing plants using a water base nutrient solution”, Marah explains) and Conservation Agriculture, a farming system that prevents losses of arable land while regenerating degraded lands.
For the first stages of implementation of their project, the young women chose the lands of Battir and Al-Walaja near Bethlehem “for their well-known agricultural features,” Marah explains.
Battir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its centuries-old agricultural terraces, and a history of cooperative agriculture among families in the community.
The village of Battir is also under severe threat from neighboring illegal Israeli settlements and planned takeover of land.
“It is also known about the lands of Al-Walaja that much of its area was taken by the occupation and annexed to the settlements located around Al-Walaja,” Marah says. “[There are] continuous attempts of the occupation to control these lands.”
Marah points out that by saving these lands from neglect and using them agriculturally, they are playing an important part in protecting lands from Israeli seizure. “In our opinion and according to what has been studied,” she asserts, “this will reduce the Israeli occupation exploitation of neglected lands and of using it for their benefit.”
In Battir, a village which features a spring named Ain Al-Balad, which is surrounded by the lands of the “Al-Jinan” gardens whose soil is full of rich mineral properties and whose formational nature allows it to be cultivated, Zar3itna will make use of “more conservative or traditional farming because Battir’s soil has all the characteristics that allow us to grow naturally and successfully 100%.”
“The lands of Al-Jinan are in the form of terraces stairs, and it’s known for its crop vegetables and leaves with a natural and delicious taste because its soil does not contain any kind of pollutants,” Marah says. “It only gets water from Ain-Al-Balad.”
Unlike Battir, the lands of Al-Walaja boast no springs and have soil with heavy and rocky features – but this does not deter the enterprising young women.
“We will use the hydroponics method in Al-Walaja,” says Marah. “We will use hydroponics systems on the lands in which we cannot use the soil.”
Success story after success story
Visibly proud of their achievement, Marah recounts how Zar3itna has won a prize award in the “Start your business competition” run by the Bethlehem Business Incubator as one of the social businesses most upvoted by the project’s stakeholders.
According to Marah, the BBI helped Zar3itna and their nascent idea in many ways. “BBI really helped us a lot, almost in every field in the business – in terms of development, arrangement, coordination, promotion, and even financial, as well as helping us register the business as a private joint company at the ministry of economy.”
With solid economic (and emotional) support behind them, and three months to go before their official launch on the ground, the trio hope to go very far indeed.
Listen to the full interview on Vibes.