Independent Appeal: The small green shoots of hope sprout among the date groves

Johann Hari reports on a scheme that aims to help Palestinian farmers
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To get to Berdale, a tiny village of 2,000 Palestinians sunk in the Jordan Valley, you have to drive through miles upon miles of barren hills populated only by stray shepherds and herds of goats. You must spend hours locked in the checkpoint checkmate, waiting for Israeli soldiers to let you through. But as you finally approach this rickety collection of houses and fields, you notice a jarring visual contrast.

Out on the Jordanian side of the valley - just a few miles away - there are neat glistening rows of greenhouses and lush trees. Here, on the Palestinian side, under Israeli military occupation, the sickly trees mix with rubble and dust.

Ashraf Sawafta, a sad, slow-talking 67-year-old farmer, explains why. "Life has been made impossible for us here in Berdale by the occupation," he says. In the past few years, the occupying forces have slashed Berdale's water supply, cutting it from 240,000 litres a year to 140,000. As a result, the wells have dried up, and they cannot irrigate most of their fields.

Ashraf looks out over his parched fields and says even this is not their greatest problem. The Israeli forces have made it almost impossible for farmers here to sell their produce, typically cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, maize and beans.

To get to Hebron or Nablus, the nearest markets, these farmers have to pass at least four military checkpoints. At each one they have to unload their goods, bruising them, and risk being turned back at any time. Ashraf says: "If I'm really lucky and I get through, it takes a whole day and most of it has rotted in the sun."

The poverty has bitten so deeply into Berdale that they have been forced into a fresh humiliation. Seven kilometres away, there used to be a Palestinian village called Ein al Bedia. In the 1970s, the residents were forced off of their land at gunpoint and an illegal Israeli settlement called Mechola was built on the remains.

Some 80 miles away, another agricultural village is drying up. Salah Tahir Khadoumi is a 42-year-old farmer who stands, staring at the immense wire-and-concrete wall that has been built by the Israeli military right through his land. Two years ago, bulldozers arrived here in Yassid village in Nablus province to construct the "security fence". They ripped up more than 30 acres of olive trees.

"My citrus fruit greenhouses are on the other side. This gate," he says, pointing, "is the only way to get through, and the opening hours seem to be random. I need to tend the plants twice a day. Last year, they didn't open it for a month, and by the time I got through all my plants had died.'' The Welfare Association, one of the three charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas appeal, have been offering hard, practical help so these farmers can survive.

In Berdale, they have paid for the farmers to shift to growing dates. They keep much longer and their palm trees need far less water. An acre of citrus fruit brings in $300 (£150) a month. An acre of dates brings in $2,000. The farmers could never have afforded the initial capital outlay of buying the trees, which are $60 each, but now their lives are on track to be transformed after the trees begin to bear fruit in three years.

In Yassid, they have been helping to replant the olive trees and providing plastic for new greenhouses. Mr Khadoumi proudly shows me a Welfare Association palm tree. "The Welfare Association have stood by us," he says. "At times like this, you need friends. We only want to be independent and live freely, with normal lives, like your readers. Like the rest of the world."

The tree is already sprouting small green leaves, and little shoots of hope.