Pharmaceuticals, Farmers, and Refugees

Day 4

Today began with a delicious Palestinian breakfast in downtown Ramallah. Over ful and hummus, our guide Muhammad Aruri explained that even though Coca Cola supports Israel, the Coke sold in Palestine is produced in a unionized Ramallah factory that employs over 300 workers. Within Palestine, the boycott of Israeli products, while widely supported, poses challenges that those elsewhere do not face. For example, most of the flour, sugar, and tea is produced within Israel. And when it comes to fruits and vegetables, it can be impossible to know their origin.

Satisfied from breakfast, we then took a taxi to the Birzeit pharmaceutical factory in Ramallah, whose union is a member of the Independent Federation of Unions in Palestine. The operations manager gave us a tour of the facility, which was impeccably clean and high tech. Most of the sorting, mixing, and packaging machines used to produce medicines had been only recently installed. The union in which the workers are organized is an industrial union, spanning the five pharmaceutical factories in the West Bank. The medicines produced at Birzeit, which are all of the generic variety, are sold both in Palestine and across the Middle East. Demand for Birzeit's products has recently escalated, due to the newly-open (to Palestine) markets of Kuwait, Algeria, Khazakstan, UAE, Belarus, and Western Europe. The medicines produced here are monitored by the Palestinian Authority, and Birzeit complies with all work safety protocol (including yearly health checks).

The tour of Birzeit, which spanned one and a half hours, gave us a look inside a unionized factory in Palestine. Israel controls the influx of raw materials to Palestine, and also floods their markets while denying imports of Palestinian goods. These policies make it harder for Palestinian companies to compete, but as we witnessed at Birzeit, it is possible for them to do well. Israel imposes “free markets” while denying people their freedom.

With regards to Birzeit's union, it was mentioned by one of the lead organizers that the company's management (though it would deny this) acts to repress union power by relocating workers when they attempt to organize.

Following the tour, our delegation then drove to the offices of the Independent Federation of Unions in Palestine for a meeting with the independent Farmers Union. The union leadership is comprised entirely of volunteers, who are themselves farmers. Founded in May 2009, the Farmers Union organizes small farmers in Palestine with the intent of improving their competitive edge against subsidized Israeli agribusiness. The farmers face many challenges that farms in Israel do not, such as more expensive water, attacks from settlers, land truncated by the apartheid wall, and their lack of government subsidies. Nevertheless, farmers in Palestine are able to make a living, pooling together their crops and selling them via local distributor. Because of wide support for the boycott of Israeli goods, many in Palestine prefer to buy Palestinian produce. Though as mentioned earlier, it is sometimes hard to distinguish a fruit's origin.

The Farmers Union strives towards sustainable agriculture, and towards a community support structure among farmers in the West Bank. If one farmer's land is stolen, farmers in the area will give them a share of their own crops. The realities of the “land grab” was one of the most pressing reasons for the formation of the union.

The cost of meat in Ramallah is $6.4/lb, which is one of the highest prices in the world, especially due to the average standard of living. Meat is so expensive in part because of the price of water, which is inflated by the Israeli government. Israel steals water from underground aquifers, and diverts the Jordan River, while denying Palestinians any access to them, and then sells the water back at a premium.

International organizations fund local NGOs but not the people who are directly affected by the issues, such as the Palestinian farmers, making this union vital to the industry. Being only 6 months old, this union is eager for support from other farm worker unions. If you know of any information that could be helpful to them, please contact iwwinpalestine@gmail.

Principles of the Farmers Union: To unify and coordinate in defense of farmers rights, to develop a political consciousness among Palestinians within the farming industry and without, to insist on better economic conditions, to support the productivity of the farmers in part by providing them with a market, to promote solidarity among farmers, to develop technical and managerial concepts including cooperatives (instead of individualized farms), to defend the rights of farmers to their water.

In the evening, after a delicious lunch of falafel and other hot sandwiches, the delegation made its way to the Aljalazon refugee camp, 15 minutes north of Ramallah. The camp was established by Palestinians who had been kicked out of their homes by the 1948 war. In existence for 61 years, the camp now resembles a slum.

We met with Amad Hafici, who had been kicked out of his home in the 1948 war, having only left home with the clothes on his back thinking he would be coming home again. After '48, 95 men from Amad's village went back to reclaim their belongings. 92 were arrested and 3 were killed. Amad watched his own home be demolished, on the land on which the Ben Gurion airport now resides.

Amad was eventually forced into a refugee camp, where the Red Cross gave him and other refugees tents that they were to build for their homes. After the tents, the UN gave the refugees permission to build two-room homes. As families expanded, residents built up their homes, only to see them destroyed years later.

He went on to work for UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency) in the refugee camp of Aljalazon (where we met him). Amad acted as a community leader for many years, and saw the camp undergo several transformations. From 1970-1990, Amad was arrested 6 times for his work, though he continued. In 1990, Israel threatened him with home demolition. To this Amad responded “but I will build it again.” Israel then destroyed his home.

One day, soldiers saw children writing on a wall of Amad's home. The soldiers entered the house and ssaw a picture of Arafat, and throw it on the floor, shattering the glass. The soldiers also took Amad's identification card. This represents some of the daily humiliations refugees face. One unfortunate fact is that the camp is only moments away from one of the largest Israeli military bases, making the camp an close target.

“We will return home! The time is coming and our rights will be clear, we still have the key,” he told us, and he did, taking the old set of hand-forged keys out of a bag and passing them around.

Later that evening some of us visited with a friends for ours from Ramallah, who lived for a time in Philadelphia. It was nice to see them


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