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Palestinian farmers sound the alarm over foot-and-mouth outbreak

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Nablus (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the West Bank earlier this year killed thousands of cattle, pushing Palestinian farmers already living under occupation to the brink of bankruptcy.

Mohammed Basheer said he had to cremate hundreds of his dead lambs after the outbreak devastated livestock across the West Bank, leaving him with more than just a heartbreaking financial loss.

For Basheer, the ordeal underscores the unique challenges faced by farmers in the occupied Palestinian territory, who complain of being underserved by the Palestinian Authority and face constant threats from Jewish settlers.

“I haven’t received any help from the PA, not even a phone call,” Basheer, who owns thousands of cattle near the city of Nablus, told AFP, expressing his frustration over the situation. which he described as inaction by the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture.

Palestinian farmers blamed the PA for halting a vaccination program that proved essential to protect livestock against an endemic disease.

And with animals absent from large swaths of pasture, farmers fear land grabbing by Jewish settlers who have repeatedly set up illegal outposts on West Bank land they claim is unused.

The PA “should protect us because we protect the earth,” Basheer said. “The farms protect the land… If you take away the farmers, Israel takes the land.”

Farmers “destroyed”

A new strain of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), which causes life-threatening fevers and blisters in young animals, was detected in cattle last November in Jordan.

It quickly spread across the West Bank, a territory occupied by Israel since 1967 and heavily dependent on agriculture.

But the PA’s agriculture ministry hasn’t carried out a regular vaccination campaign since 2019.

A ministry official, who requested anonymity, told AFP that a normal year sees 60-70% of goats and sheep in the West Bank vaccinated against foot-and-mouth disease.

Mohammed Basheer says farmers should get more support from the Palestinian Authority as their presence on the land protects it from being grabbed by Israeli settlers JAFAR ASHTIYEH AFP

That figure fell to 20% in 2020 and 2021, the official said.

The ministry blamed the coronavirus pandemic, saying foot-and-mouth disease vaccines were harder to come by as vaccine makers around the world pivoted their operations to meet demand for Covid vaccines.

The ministry also blamed Israel, saying it had prevented the PA from securing sufficient supplies.

The Israeli Defense Ministry body responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories (COGAT) told AFP the allegation was false.

“There has been no formal request from the Palestinian Authority for the import of such vaccines,” a COGAT statement said.

“Nevertheless, given the health requirements that have been imposed, the State of Israel has transferred to the Palestinian Authority doses of vaccines that were in its possession.”

The Palestinian ministry has officially confirmed the death of around 2,000 animals as a result of the foot-and-mouth disease strain this year.

But the farmers and the Agriculture Ministry official said livestock deaths were likely far higher than the acknowledged toll.

Basheer said foot-and-mouth disease losses cost him $150,000 and accused Israel of hoarding vaccines.

“Our occupiers had ongoing vaccinations for all the farmers, but we haven’t had anything for three years,” he said.

“They destroyed the farmers.”

“Farmers cannot stand alone”

In Area C of the West Bank, which remains fully under Israeli control, vacant farmland is a prime target for Jewish settlement expansion, experts say.

Eyal Hareuveni, a researcher at the anti-settlement watchdog B’Tselem, told AFP that settler land grabbing is often supported by Israel’s “twisted interpretation” of a settlement law. the Ottoman era which stipulates that land not cultivated for three consecutive years can be claimed.

“Israel can designate this as state land and take it for its own use, even if it is land that is registered as private Palestinian land,” Hareuveni said.

A worker carries a dead lamb to a farm in the village of Wadi al-Faraa, after a major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease devastated herds in the West Bank
A worker carries a dead lamb to a farm in the village of Wadi al-Faraa, after a major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease devastated herds in the West Bank JAFAR ASHTIYEH AFP

More than 475,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank in communities widely considered illegal under international law. Israel’s ruling coalition continued to approve new settler homes throughout the territory, while acting sporadically against new outposts.

With no new cases detected since April, Palestinian Authority officials say the foot-and-mouth outbreak is now under control.

Abbas Milhem, executive director of the Palestinian farmers’ union, told AFP that by dithering on vaccinations, the PA had effectively given a boost to the settler movement.

“The real fight against occupation and annexation is in the land, but farmers cannot stand alone,” he said. “We need some responsibility for that.”