I went to Aytaroun a few days ago to check the possibility of expanding the work of Land and People there. Aytaroun is a small village right by the border, near Maroun el Ras and Bint Jbeil. Since the early 70’s, Aytaroun has been an active war zone. While the rest of Lebanon was still enjoying the oil boom of the 60’s, it was regularly bombed by the Israeli army which made frequent incursions in the region. Aytaroun was immortalized in 1975 through a song by communist singer Khaled el Haber that went:
“Your children Aytaroun dance in the trenches
Their toys are guns
Your children Aytaroun chant in jubilation
They sing an ancient melody:
lets resist! lets resist!”
The song was written as a eulogy for of a group of school children who had died as a result of an Israeli bombing episode.
Aytaroun went from war to war and through various periods of occupation until the liberation of the South in 2000. The Israeli war on Lebanon of July-August 2006 resulted in the near total razing of the village, although the Israelis were unable to occupy it.
As elsewhere in the South, especially in the area south of the Litani, farming is a major source of income in Aytaroun. Tobacco forms the bulk of the local produce: 80% of the farmers rely on it as a main source of income. Tobacco is important for 2 reasons:
1. It is a dryland crop. There is no irrigation water available in Aytaroun. The land is very fertile, but groundwater is at 600m depth, and irrigation would be uneconomical considering the price of fuel needed to pump water from this depth.
2. It is “subsidized”: the Lebanese government subsidizes the Regie Libanaise des Tabacs et des Tombacs, a semi-autonomous body largely under government control, which in turn purchases the tobacco from farmers at prices higher than international market price. The amount a farmer can sell is fixed, and depends on a special permit delivered by the Regie. The average annual gross income for a tobacco farmer is LBP 4.5 million or $3,000. Nearly half of the tobacco farmers of Lebanon are in the South. This is why tobacco has been called “the crop of steadfastness” (mahsoul al soumoud). Without tobacco farming, migration from the south would have intensified, and its villages would have become depopulated.
My visit to Aytaroun came in response to a local request for help in finding alternative crops to tobacco. I have been receiving similar requests since the end of the 2006 war, from villages in the Deep South. The southern farmers are worried that the Sanioura government might stop the tobacco subsidies, and not replace them with other subsidies. Since the Hariri times, Sanioura and his ultra-neo-liberal team has been pushing for the lifting of the tobacco subsidies, calling it a drain on the national economy. These are surprising requests at a time when one would assume that the government has other cats to flog. Still, there is genuine concern in the South that the tobacco subsidies may be lifted, and that the livelihoods of the local people would suddenly take a dip.
I went around the place and visited the main farming areas of the village. Right by the border with occupied Palestine, there is a large plain of several thousand hectares nearly all planted with tobacco or wheat in rotation. Its altitude (700 meters) makes perfect for many fruit trees. The barbed fence passes right through the plain, and about one third of it is under Israeli occupation.
To say that the Israeli occupied part looks like it could be in another country is an overused cliché. The hilly parts are forested, and there are vast fruit tree orchards. There is a large packing plant, belonging, I guess, to moshav Avivim which is right across the border and is home to a couple of hundred settlers. The roads are asphalted and the fields drawn with a ruler. Clearly, some serious farming is taking place there.
Since the creation of the first settlements in Palestine, farming has been a major angle of attack of the Zionists. They thought that working the land, vivifying it, investing in it and fostering attachment to it will create a “de facto” situation which will make the Zionist state come true. Over the years, they invested tremendous sums in the various kibbutz and moshav making Israeli agriculture one of the least economically efficient in the world today. It swallows large amounts of money from the state’s coffers to the dismay of many Israeli economists. But it has been, and remains, a political success. The kibbutz and the moshav produce the bulk of the radical forces in Israel. They have been used extensively to attract western youth and create sympathy towards Israel. The technology used in the settlements (regardless of the financial bill) has helped the Zionist state carve a niche in the field of agricultural development. Special trade agreements granted by most nations of the world to the State of Israel facilitate the export of (subsidized) Israeli goods. They provide an opportunity for advertisement deep into families and households. Israeli produce is a tremendous propaganda tool, and a very successful one.
In spite of frequent calls to end the subsidies by some economists, Israeli politicians continue unabatedly to support the agricultural settlements. Moshav Avivim, located a few kilometers away from the destroyed Aytaroun village and from its poor tobacco fields, stands witness to that.
In Aytaroun, there are stones and dry soil. In Avivim, Israel has invested in deep wells and in irrigation systems. In Aytaroun, the price of fuel is prohibitive and electricity strictly rationed. In Avivim special rates are offered to the settlers, making irrigation a low-cost operation. In Aytaroun, the lack of storage facilities limits investment in farming. In Avivim, Israel has built packing plants of international standards. In Aytaroun, the absence of decent roads means the produce will be pulped before it gets to the market. In Avivim, the roads are of smooth asphalt, and airplanes carry produce directly to international markets.
In spite of all that, the moshavim were quick to desert their lands when Israel attacked Lebanon in July 2006. Many of the inhabitants of Aytaroun remained steadfast, fought the Israeli army, and defended their land till the last minute. Could this be why thy are facing the threat of losing their pitiful tobacco subsidy?