In photos: Rooftop garden flourishes atop Bethlehem refugee camp

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Originally published by Ma’an News Agency on February 16, 2014.

In 1948, three-quarters of a million Palestinians were expelled or fled from their homes inside what is today Israel. Since then, decades of Israeli land confiscation and occupation have increasingly severed the ties to the land of what was historically an agricultural society.

A new project in a Bethlehem-area refugee camp seeks to help reverse this history of forced urbanization and revitalize connections to agriculture, while at the same time increasing Palestinians’ control over their food sources, especially organic vegetables.

Refutrees launched its pilot rooftop garden in late January in Aida camp in collaboration with the local Lajee Center.Volunteers have planted onion, lettuce, and radish in the greenhouse, and organizers hope many more rooftop gardens will soon flourish atop homes across the camp.

Lamya Hussain, the founder of Canadian organization Refutrees, told Ma’an that the project sought to strengthen food sovereignty by “reconnecting what used to be farming communities to food production techniques, making it sustainable for them to consume organic, green, fresh produce that they’re producing themselves.”

She explained that the project emerged in close partnership with the local community and responds to their needs, and is the result of five years of joint research with the Lajee Center focusing on how to deploy urban agricultural models to improve community health.

Volunteers and local youths have been an integral part of the project since the beginning, and members of the community have taken part in every step of the process. Part of the purpose of the pilot is to show residents how the rooftop gardens can function so that they can sign up to build their own gardens.Shatha Alazzah, the environmental coordinator for the Lajee Center, said that the local community was excited about the project, which she described as a success so far.

If all goes according to plan, Aida could soon be home to a network of rooftop gardens that could serve as a model for refugee camps across the region.

Refutrees founder Lamya Hussain highlighted that the project takes into account the specific political circumstances of the Palestinian situation as well as the camp itself.

The garden is watered completely by “gray water” collected from rainfall, in part due to Israeli restrictions on Palestinian use of water. The greenhouse structure itself is necessary to protect the plants from the tear gas frequently fired by Israeli forces from a nearby watchtower.

She also stressed that food sovereignty and national sovereignty were intrinsically linked, highlighting that the rooftop gardens would help “challenge the dynamic that is forcing Palestinians to become dependent on donor aid, Israeli produce, and on highly-marketed Palestinian produce,” that has been marked up due to Israeli restrictions on West Bank farmers.

“There are a lot of things that fuel the occupation, and one of them is its appetite for arable land,” she added, stressing that the construction of Israeli settlements across the fertile Jordan Valley is a “way to control and monopolize land and water resources.”

Hussain is confident, however, that Refutrees can help counter these processes as well as introduce a new model for international donors that strengthens the Palestinian agricultural sector.”There is a forced urbanization that is happening through the occupation, that is also silently being supported by donor projects,” which she argued largely neglect the Palestinian agricultural sector.

“This needs to be challenged, identified, and rectified,” she added, highlighting that “agriculture is the backbone of the Palestinian economy, and there needs to be a reinvestment in that sector.”