Agrarian Annihilation: Israel's war on Gaza is war upon both land and people

Agrarian Annihilation: Israel's war on Gaza is war upon both land and people Promo Image

Photograph by Reuters

By Paul Kohlbry

To know more, you can read Paul's latest piece for JPS, "To cover the land in green: rain-fed agriculture and anti-colonial land reclamation in Palestine".

As of this writing, Israel’s war on Gaza has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians. The bombing and ground invasion has displaced 1.9 million people, accounting for 85% of Gaza’s population, and damaged or destroyed 40,000 structures,18% of all structures in the territory. The assault is making the Gaza Strip truly uninhabitable, with some Israeli officials openly expressing their hope to permanently remove as many Palestinians as possible from Gaza and resettle them elsewhere. This is a genocidal war, one in which a second Palestinian Nakba (‘catastrophe’) is well underway.

This is war upon both land and people. According to UN analysis of satellite imagery, 18% of Gaza’s arable land has “experienced a substantial decline in health and density” as a result of the bombardment. In North Gaza, where the first phase of the assault has been concentrated, 39% of arable land has been damaged. The destruction of entire neighborhoods is likely wiping out home gardens, rooftop farms, and agroecological experiments in Gaza’s dense urban areas. The war has shattered Gaza’s food system, with 93% of the population “facing crisis levels of hunger, with insufficient food and high levels of malnutrition.” Mass death from disease and hunger are on the horizon. Reports that the Israeli military may flood Hamas’s tunnels has led experts to warn of ecological catastrophe if millions of gallons of saltwater seep into the already damaged aquifer.

Even if the survivors are allowed to return to their homes, the Israeli military seems intent on ensuring that what is left of the Gaza Strip will be unable to sustain them.

Part of this war, then, is a project of agrarian annihilation. It is neither novel nor without precedent. Israeli settler colonialism has long destroyed agrarian livelihoods, lands, and ecologies, creating relations of dependency that in turn facilitate subsequent cycles of dispossession. Agrarian annihilation was part of the creation of the Gaza Strip, and has been a constitutive feature of life in Gaza ever since.

The Gaza Strip did not exist before the 1948 war. Up until the 1940s, the area was simply part of southern Palestine. There were the inland villages, which cultivated rain-fed crops, and the coastal villages, which grew irrigated fruits and vegetables. Gaza City relied on its grain-growing hinterlands, connecting producers to merchants in the port city of Jaffa. During the 1948 war, Zionist militias destroyed many of these villages and expelled their inhabitants, and most of the 200,000 refugees that fled into Gaza were formerly peasants.[ 1] The 85,000 residents of Gaza City and the surrounding villages that were left standing after the war were dispossessed after the 1949 armistice lines cut them off from most of their agricultural lands. “The area of Gaza and its hinterland,” writes Rema Hammami, “was simultaneously reduced from 28,009 square kilometers to a mere 365 square kilometers,” while its population tripled. [2] The Gaza Strip is what remained after the destruction of agrarian life in southern Palestine.

From 1967-1993, Gaza became the paradigmatic example of de-development. [3]After the 1967 war, Israel transformed the occupied territories into captive markets and labor reserves – since the 1970s, activists and scholars have long drawn comparisons between this process and the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa. [4] In Gaza, restrictions on investment and trade destroyed the emerging citrus industry. [5] The dumping of cheap Israeli products created dependency on Israel for fruits and vegetables. Integrating Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank into the Israeli economy served the needs of Israeli capital and counterinsurgency. [6] The number of Gazans working as wage laborers in Israel rose steadily in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to “human labor markets in which Gazans would congregate at the main entrance into Gaza, Eretz Junction, and at other major junctions outside Israeli cities and wait to be hired as day laborers by Israeli employers on an irregular and random basis.” [7] By the end of the 1980s, 66% of the Gazan workforce was employed in Israel, with peasant-refugees now working as migrant labor to build the homes and tend the lands of the state and the settlers that had dispossessed them. [8]

De-development became further entrenched in the 1990s and 2000s. Israel began to import temporary foreign workers to replace Palestinians, leading to record levels of unemployment in the Gaza Strip. Closure policies implemented in the 1990s and tightened during the Second Intifada prevented the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza. [9] The Oslo Peace Process had the effect of cementing Palestinian dependency on the Israeli economy which was created in the 1970s, pushing Gazan farmers to grow cut flowers and strawberries for European markets. [10] Caroline Abu-Sada, charting the rise in food imports from the 1970s to the 1990s, warned that Israeli rule had made the Palestinian agricultural sector incapable of producing enough food to meet Palestinian consumption needs. [11] During the Second Intifada, Palestinian human rights organizations “documented the deliberate destruction by the Israeli army of 20 percent of the agricultural land in the Gaza Strip.” [12]

These years also saw the emergence of a military policy that has been singularly devastating for Gazan farmers. The little farmland that remains in Gaza is compressed between the 1949 armistice line and the expanding conurbations of Gazan cities and refugee camps.The Oslo Peace Accords called for the creation of a barrier as well as a 50-meter-wide buffer zone between Israel and the Gaza Strip. The Israeli military expanded it during the Second Intifada, razing homes and agricultural land and instituting deadly open-fire regulations. [13] The extent of the buffer zone is unclear and shifting: it can be 300-1,000 meters wide, although farmers have reported harassment for farming as much as several kilometers away. [14] The result is that the buffer zone covers a significant portion of Gaza’s arable land. The authors of a UN report highlighted that, in 2009, the buffer zone had rendered 46% of “Gaza’s agricultural land […] inaccessible or out of production.” [15] The Gaza Ministry of Agriculture estimated losses due to access restrictions to the buffer zone at $50 million annually between 2000-2014. [16] Farmers often have little choice but to try to farm anyway, risking being shot or having their crops destroyed during military incursions. [17]

Since the blockade of Gaza in 2007, agriculture has been subjected to direct military assault and slower forms of violence. In addition to killing and injuring thousands, large-scale Israeli military campaigns — “Cast Lead” in 2008/2009 and “Protective Edge” in 2014 — have damaged or destroyed water infrastructure, power generation, and sewage treatment facilities, inflicting environmental damage that lingers on long after hostilities cease. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Cast Lead “caused major destruction of agricultural areas; including damage to 17% of cultivated land, due to bulldozing and chemical contamination” with estimates that “almost all Gaza’s 10,000 smallholder farms suffered damage and many have been completely destroyed.” Outside of war, the regular spraying of herbicides on border farm zones damaged 13,000 dunums (a dunum is a quarter of an acre) of farmland between 2014-2018. “Along with the regular bulldozing and flattening of residential and farm land,” one investigation concluded, this practice “has transformed a once lush and agriculturally active border zone into parched ground, cleared of vegetation.” The killing of farmers, bulldozing of groves, and degradation of soils all diminishes the capacity of a place to sustain life, today and into the future.

The destruction of agrarian life in Gaza today is one horrifying manifestation of a process that is ongoing across historic Palestine. We see it in the expulsion of Palestinian pastoralists; the dispossession and proletarianization of Palestinian farmers; the enclosure of most Palestinian land; and the near-total fragmentation of the territory that remains. Those prosecuting this war are not only intent on laying waste to the Gaza Strip, but also foreclosing any prospect for collective life in it in the future. Every day that passes without a ceasefire increases the likelihood that this project of annihilation will succeed.


Abu Shammala, Nabil. “Status of Farmers in Border Areas in the Gaza Strip from a Food Sovereignty Perspective.” Ramallah: Dalia, n/d.

Abu-Sada, Caroline. “Cultivating Dependence: Palestinian Agriculture under the Israeli Occupation.” In The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, edited by Sari Hanafi, Adi Ophir, and Michal Givoni, 413–29. New York: Zone Books, 2009.

Boyer, Christine M. “Planning Ruination.” In Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope, edited by Michael Sorkin and Deen Sharp, 121–39. New York: American University in Cairo Press/Terreform, 2021.

Clarno, Andy. Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa after 1994. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Farsakh, Leila. Palestinian Labour Migration to Israel: Labour, Land and Occupation. London: Routledge, 2005.

Filiu, Jean-Pierre. Gaza: A History. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Gordon, Neve. Israel’s Occupation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Hammami, Rema Eva. “Between Heaven and Earth: Transformations in Religiosity and Labor among Southern Palestinian Peasant and Refugee Women, 1920-1993.” PhD Thesis, Temple University, 1994.

Li, Darryl. “The Gaza Strip as Laboratory: Notes in the Wake of Disengagement.” Journal of Palestine Studies 35, no. 2 (2006): 38–55.

Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (Stop the Wall). “Do-It-Yourself Apartheid.” Ramallah: Stop the Wall, 2005.

Roy, Sara. “De-Development Revisited: Palestinian Economy and Society since Oslo.” Journal of Palestine Studies 28, no. 3 (1999): 64–82.

Roy, Sara M. The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of de-Development. Institute for Palestine Studies, 1995.

Smith, Ron J., and Martin Isleem. “Farming the Front Line: Gaza’s Activist Farmers in the No Go Zones.” City 21, no. 3–4 (July 4, 2017): 448–65.

Tamari, Salim. “Building Other People’s Homes: The Palestinian Peasant’s Household and Work in Israel.” Journal of Palestine Studies 11, no. 1 (1981): 31–66.

———. “The Dislocation and Re-Constitution of a Peasantry: The Social Economy of Agrarian Palestine in the Central Highlands and the Jordan Valley, 1960 - 1980.” PhD diss., University of Manchester, 1983.

UNCTAD. “The Besieged Palestinian Agricultural Sector.” New York: United Nations, 2015.

[1] According to Jean-Pierre Filiu, “A large proportion of the refugees were from the Gaza sub-district itself, of which forty-five out of fifty-six local centres of population had been emptied of their inhabitants by the Israeli occupation.” See: Filiu, Gaza. 71. On the refugee population of the Gaza Strip, see: Hammami, “Between Heaven and Earth,” 255.

[2] Hammami, “Between Heaven and Earth,” 253.

[3] Roy, The Gaza Strip.

[4] Tamari, “Building other people’s homes”, 2-7; Farsakh, “Palestinian Labour Migration to Israel”; Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (Stop the Wall) “Do-It-Yourself Apartheid; Clarno, “Neoliberal Apartheid”.

[5] In the mid-1950s, changes in Egyptian policy saw the growth of a Gazan mercantile sector that began to invest in citrus plantations. Citrus accounted for 5.4% of the cultivated land in 1954, rising to 40% in 1966. It was almost totally undermined after 1967. See: Hammami, “Between Heaven and Earth,” 274-5.

[6] Gordon, Israel’s Occupation, 63.

[7] Hammami, “Between Heaven and Earth,” 289.

[8] For labor calculations see: Hammami, 288. On labor migration and dispossession in the occupied territories from 1967 to the early 2000s, see: Farsakh, Palestinian Labour Migration to Israel. On worker-peasants and agrarian change in the West Bank, see: Tamari, “Building Other People’s Homes”; Tamari, “The Dislocation and Re-Constitution of a Peasantry: The Social Economy of Agrarian Palestine in the Central Highlands and the Jordan Valley, 1960 - 1980.”

[9] Roy, “De-Development Revisited.”

[10] Abu-Sada, “Cultivating Dependence: Palestinian Agriculture under the Israeli Occupation.”

[11] Abu-Sada, 416-417.

[12] Boyer, “Planning Ruination,” 127.

[13] Li, “The Gaza Strip as Laboratory.”

[14] Abu Shammala, “Status of Farmers in Border Areas in the Gaza Strip from a Food Sovereignty Perspective.”

[15] UNCTAD, “The Besieged Palestinian Agricultural Sector.”

[16] Abu Shammala, “Status of Farmers in Border Areas in the Gaza Strip from a Food Sovereignty Perspective.”

[17] Smith and Isleem, “Farming the Front Line.”