Economics of Biodiversity in Palestine

As part of the Fertile Crescent, Palestine is an important centre of genetic diversity for a wide range of crops such as wheat (emmer, durum, and bread wheat), lentils, peas and vetch that were domesticated in 10,000 years ago (Zohary and Hopf, 1988). Plants of this country are of greater importance to mankind than those of most other world regions. The life-sustaining crops of wheat, barley, vines, olives, onions and pulses all originated within the geographical land of Palestine. The wild ancestors of these crops, which now only occur in tiny remnants of natural vegetation, represent a vital resource for future crop breeding (Hepper, 1992). This is partly due to its very dissected ecosystems, with consequently an extremely wide range of agro-ecological conditions. It is also due to its geographical position at the crossroad between the three continents Map (4) and its unique climate and soil type Map (5), Map (6) & Map (7).

Much of the Palestinian life depends on the essential goods and services provided by the variety of genes, species, populations and ecosystems. Palestinians have used the natural resources of their country for various needs and uses of their daily life. Long time ago this land was very famous for its rich vegetal green cover. A visitor would have gazed across the different ecosystem noticing the oak, pine, olive, pistachio, acacia, figs, pomegranates, dates, the wild oleander bushes, the blaze springtime colour of poppies, yellow spiny broom, mallows, camomile, desert tulip, wild cyclamen, Everlasting, wild carrot, water lilies and natural gardens with buttercups and orchids. All formed a unique potential for sustainable utilisation.

Nomadic Palestinians roamed all over the country with their sheep and goats. Women used horns of gazelles for wool weaving, wood from forests were used for ship building of the famous Phoenician ships that travelled all over the Mediterranean region. In addition, this part of the Middle East supports the unique eastern parts of the River Jordan with its natural resources such as fish, wood, vegetables, fruits and medicinal plants and other forest products.

The natural ecosystems in Palestine provide support for human activities in agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, traditional and pharmaceutical health products, tourism, and many others. These systems are essential also for their aesthetic and intrinsic value, the stabilising effect of the ecosystems and the protection of overall environmental quality. Sustainability of agricultural production and environmental balance depends on the status of a diverse natural biota composed of an estimated 2,483 species of plants according to old and recent surveys respectively, 470 species of birds, 95 species of mammals, 7 species of amphibians, and 93 species of reptile that inhabit Palestine, (ARIJ, 1995); (Ishtayia, 1995); (Shmida, 1995); (Al Atrash, 1998).

Map 3: Geographical Location of Palestine


Map 4: Soil Types in Gaza Strip


Map 5: Soil Types in the West Bank


The political turmoil that affected Palestine in recent history, had a profound impact on Palestinian economy. Since 1967, Israel succeeded in turning the West Bank and Gaza Strip into a reservoir of cheap labour and consumers for their products. Making the economy of Palestine a dependent economy was no great challenge for them. After the signing of agreements between Palestinians and Israelis, some expected that the economic outlook of the Palestinian Territories would have improved. Instead, the economical situation deteriorated, and the per-capita GDP dropped from US $1,800 in 1991 to US $800 in the first half of 1996. Comparatively, the per-capita GDP in Israel reached $ 16,000 under the same level of prices. A serioudeterioration of the Palestinian environment and natural resources has been among the consequences of such economic deterioration.

The Palestinian economy is still dominated by agriculture, which contributes almost 17% to the Palestinian GDP (Palestine Economic Pulse, 1997). With the initiation of the current peace negotiations with Israel, Palestinians began assuming increasing administrative responsibilities and sovereignty of the civil aspects of the Palestinian life. A Palestinian National Authority has emerged which is attempting to improve living conditions, rehabilitate the infrastructure and economy, and work towards the sustainable development of Palestine.

The trend has been towards creating local jobs, developing the industrial, agricultural, and tourist sectors, and hiring local people in the public service sector.

Benefits of biodiversity

Sustainable use of biodiversity is considered a perquisite for sustainable social and economic development; it ensures the continuing provision of goods and services from ecosystems and their components. The Palestinian land has several diverse ecosystems, which have favoured the country with rich cultural and natural resources.

An economic valuation of biodiversity provides one way of taking practical decisions on where conservation action is most needed, and a variety of conservation techniques that have to be developed both In situ and Ex situ. The wildlife and the cultivated species of agriculture are directly contributing and supporting the main income of people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The economical value of several biological products could be categorised as follows:

Food plants

Different parts of useful plants are used by the Palestinians as direct food which includes: food cereals and pulses, root and tubers, oil, fruits and nuts, vegetables, herb, spices, drugs and medicinal plants. Some plants are used for their stems and leaves such as Diplotaxis acris, Rumex roseum, Chenipodium spp., Eryngium creticum, Malva rotundifolia, Lactuca cretica, Cichorium punilum and others. Some other plants are used for their fruits such as Rubus sanctus, Crataegus spp., Pyrus syriaca, Prunus ursina, Prosopis farcta, Ceratonia siliqua, Zizyphus spp., Arbatus andrachne and others. Other useful plants are used as raw material for industrial issues or as forages, fiber plants, and other miscellaneous purposes such as Pistacia palestina, Cistus creticus and Pinus halepensis that are used for producing gums and resins. (Barkoudah, 1995; ARIJ, 1997).

Medicinal plants

The West Bank and Gaza Strip are rich with plants that have different medicinal values, such as herbs, perfumes and dye plants. Medicinal plants were and are used by Palestinians according to traditional ways. Special people called “Al A’atarin” used to collecting medicinal plants from Bedouins and villagers who pick them in the wilderness and sell their useful parts to the public. Medicinal plants contain powerful natural chemical constituents and at the same time they are cheaper than those artificially synthesised. The products of these plants can be used in drugs, industrial food manufacturing, or other industries. The most popularly used medicinal plants in Palestine are: Crocus spp., Colchicium spp., Cyclamen spp., Lilium spp., Scilla spp., Rhus coriaria, Calotropis procera, Indula viscosa, Achillea santolina, Artemisia herba-alba, Matricaria chamomilla, Citrullus colocynthis, Avena sativa, Thymus bovei, Salvia fruticosa, Teucrium polium, Trigonella foenumgercum, Rosa canina, etc. On the other hand, some plants are used as perfumes and dyes such as Achillea aleppica, Achillea santolina, Artemisia monosperma, Anchusa strigosa, Arnebi decumbens, Echuim spp., Isatis lusitanica, Rubia tenuifolia, Reseda luteola, etc. Unfortunately, the over-exploitation of medicinal plants is eroding genetic resources in Palestine.

Forest plants

Forests in Palestine produce timber, used mainly as an energy source (fuel). The major benefit of forests in Palestine is the microclimate they induce, the filtering of air pollutants generated from urban areas, the retention of water in the ground and the fixing the mobile sand, dunes and soils. Recreation and eco-tourism can also transform forest areas into major sources of economic revenues. Cupressus spp., Quercus spp., Acacia spp. and Pinus spp. and Acacia cyanophylla, Eucalyptus spp. and Tamarix spp. are the major forested economic plants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively (ARIJ, GIS Unit).

The beauty of wild flora in the West Bank and Gaza Strip gives a significant ornamental importance to the area. Although ornamental plants are usually cultivated, they remain a significant part of trade in wild plants. The major families used as ornamental plants are the Rananculaceae, Iridaceae, and Papaveraceae.

Forest and range resources in Palestine

Twenty seven percent of the total area of Palestine (6207km2) composed of forests and rangelands. Both areas differ and maintain divers eco-systems, climate, topography and biological resources. The most dominant either cultivated or wild exiting trees are oak, pine, ceratonia, pistacia, cypress, wild olives, almonds and pears. Areas such as the Jordan Valley and Gaza Strip are covered with tropical forest trees such as Ziziphus, Tamarix, Hale-xylon, Accacia and others, which have special capability to tolerate temperatures and salinity and the ability to stabilise soils and sand dunes.

Records show that due to confiscation of Palestinian lands for Israeli settlements and over population in Palestine forest and rangeland usage in Palestine have changed over the last fifty years. There has been an increase in wood collection for wood usage in different industries. Local people were very much dependent on forest resources in Palestine, although in present times there are less resources and less people are using such resources for different livelihood aspects.

In recent years, for example, high pressure on plant collection for Oregano was seen, while medicinal plant collection is decreasing in the past several decades.

The main usage of forest and rangeland products in Palestine can be summarised as follows:

Agricultural production

The agricultural sector, including plant and animal production, forestry, and range lands, plays a major role in the economic growth of Palestine and the livelihood of its people. However, the production of this sector has declined since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. Such decline is a reflection of the confiscation of land and water rights by Israeli occupation authorities, restrictions imposed on the flow of the agricultural products and the continual decrease in the facilities of agricultural services.

These agricultural sectors play a major role in the economic growth of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the livelihood of the local people. The total farmed areas, including vegetable, fruit, ornament and field crops and forages in Palestine in the 1995/96 were 1807.9 thousand dunum 90.0% in the West Bank and 10.0% in Gaza Strip. While the number of livestock heads was 17,800 cattle and 744,000 sheep and goats.

Agriculture in the West Bank is divided into rainfed and irrigated farming. Rainfed farming forms the largest cultivated area in the West Bank, making 92.7-95.8% of the total cultivated land. The major sector of plant production in Palestine is the cultivation of fruit trees. Olive trees (30% of total fruit produc), grapevines (16.9% of total fruit production), almonds (2.4% of total fruit production), figs (3.6% of the total fruit production and more than 50 varieties) and citrus (26.4% of total fruit production) are the major planted types of fruit trees in the West Bank. They occupy 90% of the total fruit trees area and produce 79% of the total fruit production. The remaining 10% of the fruit tree area is devoted to different other types of rainfed fruit trees, including apple, pear, plum, apricot, peach, quince, pomegranate, walnut, pistachio, peackly pear, and irrigated fruit trees including bananas, guava, avocado, loquat, date palm and kiwi.

Field crops and forages sectors occupy the largest cultivated land after fruit trees. The total area of field crops was about 44.1 thousand hectares and produced 11.1% of total plant production of the West Bank in 1995/96 growing season. The planted field crops and forages in the West Bank may be classified into cereals (Wheat contributes 36.7% of the total field crops production, barley and sorghum), legumes (lentils and chickpeas) and medicinal, spice (cummin, nigalla, anise, fenugreek, dill and carawya with an average productivity of 580 kg/ hectares), stimulant (Tobaccos) and oily crops (sesame, safflower, sunflower, and peanuts). Seeds are used to feed birds and poultry at the home farms, while the red-yellow ray flowers with the flowering heads are used to give the yellow colour for cooked rice.

The contribution of vegetable crops, on the other hand, to the total plant production is high reaching to 42.0%. In the 1995/96-growing season, the total area of vegetable crops was approximately 14.5 thousand hectares with a total production of 256.4 thousand tons. More than 30 different vegetable crops are planted in the West Bank. This richness in crop diversity combined with the variety of possibilities of planting dates greatly improved the production of this sector.

Irrigated Vegetables make about 41.3% (6,007.2 hectares) of the vegetables area, and contribute 81% (207.7 tons) to the total vegetable production. Different systems are used in the cultivation of vegetables in the West Bank mainly: vegetables in open irrigated fields, vegetable crops under low plastic tunnels, vegetables under high plastic tunnels and Vegetables under plastic houses. Although rain-fed vegetables occupy the largest area of the total planted vegetables (58.7%), its production contributes only 19.0% to the total vegetable production.

Agriculture in Gaza Strip, on the other hand, is the most important economic sector. The agricultural sector uses half of the available 365 km2 of the Gaza Strip. The total agricultural area covered 179.9 km2 in 1996, increasing afterwards with a peak to 198 km and slightly decreasing to 179.4 Km2 over the past ten years. Traditionally, agriculture was based on citrus growing and rain-fed agriculture. Fifty years ago, the Gaza Strip (especially the central and southern part) was famous for its dates and olives. Some remnants of previous date palm groves can still be found, between Deir el Balah and Khan Younis. Now, only an estimated 20000 trees remain.

The main crops still grown, are the traditional field crops, like wheat, barley, and peas, and vegetables like okra, cucurbits, onions and watermelons, often together with the cultivation of fruit trees like olives and almonds. Most fruit trees (other than citrus) are rainfed and cover some 34 km2. Of the fruit trees, only guava and part of the olives are irrigated. Rainfed fruit trees, include almonds and grapes was reduced to half of the previous area (now 18.4 and 6.9 km2 respectively)

Digging of new wells enabled the planting of citrus in most of the eastern parts of the Gaza Strip. During the sixties and early seventies, the area under citrus was at its peak. About half of the agricultural area was covered with citrus plantations (48% in 1968). Citrus exports to the former east block countries (which had friendly relations with Egypt in that period) were booming, as well as exports to Jordan.

However, in the past decade, vegetables have become the principal agricultural products in the Gaza Strip, in terms of investment, production value and employment. Irrigated vegetable production using modern technology and high input levels expanded after the onset of the Israeli occupation in 1967, when access to the Israeli market provided good export opportunities for horticultural products. Mainly vegetables like tomato, cucumber and some other crops are grown, including various types of flowers (gladiolus, carnation and others). Strawberries, potatoes, carrots and a range of other vegetables including eggplants, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, onion, garlic, peas, melons are cultivated in the open fields.

Thus the economic benefits from plant production in Palestine depends on the total area of plant production of fruits, vegetables and field crops which constitute 62.2%, 11.5% and 26.3%, respectively. It is observed that irrigated farming is dominating in Gaza Strip, which occupies 60% of total cultivated area, while irrigated farming in the West Bank does not exceed 6.3% of the West Bank total area.

Agricultural sector forms about 13.6% of the Palestinian gross domestic product (GDP). Different types of plant production in Palestine were 71.6 million US dollars and 265 million US dollars from the livestock production. The agricultural sector was employed about 17% of the total Palestinian work force. The distribution of benefits is indicated in Table (34).

Table 34: Percentage of Benefits of Plant Production in Palestine.

Type of Plant production

Percentage of benefit





Field crops




Source: Ministry of Agriculture statistical data, 1996.

Livestock production

Animal production in Palestine is composed of Cattle, Sheep and Goat, Poultry, Fisheries and Apiculture.

Sheep and Goats

In 1994, the total goat number reached 214,903 heads, around 90% of that were local breed, 3% were Shami goats and the rest were of hybrid breeds. The total number of sheep, on the other hand, has increased significantly since 1980. The number of sheep, on the other hand, reached 371,481 in 1994. The prominent breed is the local sheep with (95.2%) followed by the Assaf breed (4.2%) and about 0.8% is of hybrid breeds (crossing between the local and Assaf breed).

It is estimated that 5.9% of the total number of inseminated sheep in the West Bank are controlled by hormones. Most of the sheep and goats are milked manually with only 0.5% milked by machines. The estimated meat production in 1994 was about 7 thousand tons and 260 tons of sheep meat and 8 thousand tons and 150 tons of goat meat in the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively (PARC & Arab Though Forum, No.6, 1993; Hijjeh, 1998).


In 1994, the number of cattle of different breeds, sex, and stage of growth has reached 11,753 heads. The local breed makes only 35.8% of the total heads while the Freisian breed makes 64%. The daily average of milk production varies between 22.5 kg for the Freisian cows, 15.2 kg for hybrid cows (local and Freisian breeds) and 6.3 kg for the local cows.

The insemination methods used in the West Bank are bot the natural method (62%) and the artificial method (38%). Of the total amount of milk produced in the West Bank, 64% is processed and 36% is consumed fresh. The processed milk is distributed as follows: 52% for white cheese, 29% for yogurt, 18% for sour cream, and 1% as dry yoghurt (PARC & Arab Though Forum, No.2, 1994).

Meat production of seep and goats and cattle increased from 10.2 thousand ton in 1967/68 to 45 thousand ton in 1987/88 in the West Bank and from 1.7 thousand tons to 83 thousand tons in Gaza Strip in 1967/68 and 1987/88 respectively. The total meat production in 1994 was estimated about 19388 tons of sheep, goats, and cattle in the West Bank and 835 ton in the Gaza Strip. The total amount of produced milk in 1993/94, on the other hand, was estimated about 70 708 tons in the West Bank and 17 000 tons in Gaza Strip (Hijjeh, 1998).


The poultry sector in the West Bank includethe laying and broiler chickens. Broiler chicken is the dominating type of poultry. In 1994, the total number of poultry was 18.28 million chicken distributed over 4,241 farms. It was estimated that the amount of produced eggs in the West Bank was 276.6 million eggs in 1993/94. In Gaza Strip, on the other hand, the estimated number of eggs was 150 million eggs in 1993/94. The amount of poultry meat in same year (1994) was about 29 058 tons in the West Bank and 17000 in Gaza Strip.

Apiculture production

The total number of hives in 1994 was 20,356, producing around 240 tons of honey in Palestine. Of total hives, 20,356 hives are wooden and 3,257 are traditionally made of clay. The average annual production of honey per hive for different types showed that the Italian type produces about 17 kg followed by other types produces 14 kg, the hybrid type with 12.8 kg and the lowest is the local with 7.7 kg (PARC & Arab Thought Forum, No.3, 1994). In 1996, the amount of honey was estimated about 121 ton in Gaza Strip and 184 tons in the West Bank.


Fisheries in Palestine are mainly concentrated in Gaza Strip. Fish production of the country depends on marine catch from the Mediterranean coast. Until late 1970s, fish catches made up about 30% of the total animal production in the Strip, the average annual catches being 4000 tons. Total catches by Gaza fishermen in the 1995/96 was estimated about 9425 thousand dollar. The main marine catch is composed of Grouper, Shrimp, Cuttle, Squid, Sardines, Lokhos, Sea bass, Sultan Ibrahim, Sea bream, Mullet which interns depends on season, political situation. The percentage of the total production of fish catches is indicated in Table (35). The two sources of fishing in Gaza Strip are the Pelagic and bottom fish. Fishing types are include:

Light fishing for Sardines, Mackerel and flying fish

Trawler fishing for different types of fish and prawns

Net fishing from coast side by small boats

Fish is partly sold at the domestic markets of the Gaza Strip. Israel is the major export market with an export of 13 tons (1990) and 14.5 tons (1994).

Table 35: The Percentage of Total Production of Fish Catches in Gaza Strip.

Type of fish and fishing

% of catch of total production

Net fishing (sardines, bass etc.)


Deep see fishing (loqus, sultan Ibrahim)


Other types of fishing(prawns and other fish)


Source: Khodary, 1998

Sources of marine catch are: migratory from Red Sea an indigenous for Mediterranean Sea. Fishing in Gaza strip is hindered by complicated and bureaucratic restrains from Israeli Authorities. In Gaza Strip, fishing takes place in four fishing communities: Gaza coast, Dir El-Balah, Khan Younis and Rafah.

Fishing is an essential part of Palestinian culture especially in Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, this sector is dramatically declining, fishermen are abandoning such profession and heading toward other sectors of production. In total there are 318 fishing units, engaging a maximum crew of 2646 fishermen.

Thus, the economical benefit from animal production is totally depending on the total animal production which is estimated to be 235.6 million US dollars, this includes meat, dairy, egg, honey, fisheries and wool respectively (58%, 27.5%, 12.1%, 1.1%, 1.2% ando.15%). The highest production was in meat industry in the Mediterranean and Irano Turanian ecosystems of West Bank and Gaza Strip.