For Israelis and Palestinians, a Battle Over a Humble Plant

For just under three months a year, towards the end of the winter rains, Samir Naamneh and his wife Nadya get up at 4 in the morning, gear up in improvised camouflage, and pack into a truck headed from Arraba, their Arab village in Israel, to the Golan Heights. During this season, the volcanic plateau is carpeted with delicate wildflowers and dotted with hundreds of endangered gazelles. To the trained eye, the lush, grassy slopes are also bursting with an unassuming, wildly lucrative thistle known as akoub.

“It’s healthy because it’s from the wild,” says Samir, who has been illegally foraging akoub with his wife for the last 15 years, in defiance of an Israeli ban intended to prevent over-harvesting of what officials consider an endangered native species.

Akoub is a spiky, edible plant found in a wide swath of the Middle East, from the mountains of Turkey down through the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Golan Heights to the Sinai Desert in Egypt. Prized for its earthy flavor and its anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and other pharmacological properties, it is particularly coveted by Palestinians, who have considered it a vital part of their culinary, medicinal, and cultural traditions for generations.

While a handful of Jewish farmers in Israel have been cultivating akoub to feed the feverish demand among Palestinians, illegal harvesting remains the main method for getting akoub to market, where it is often bought in bulk and frozen for off-season consumption. If caught by Israeli authorities, akoub pickers have long faced substantial fines and arrest.

In 2005, when Israel put akoub on its protected species list and imposed the ban on its collection, the plant’s wild population was being devastated by commercial harvesting. But authorities say the ban has helped to replenish the plant’s numbers, and in August announced that the policy would be amended this year to allow small-scale collection for personal consumption. Even so, Samir, who is one of hundreds working in clandestine networks to fuel the akoub black market, says he’ll continue to illegally gather the plant in large quantities.

“We feel, and we know, and we’re sure, that the laws are made, on principle, against the Arab residents of the country, to hurt their livelihoods,” says Samir, 57, standing at his straw-thatched roadside produce stand outside the central market in Arraba, a sprawling community of just over 26,000 about an hour outside the Golan Heights. “It’s part of the pressure that Israel puts on us to starve us out.”

“It’s not important for us if we get caught, if we don’t get caught,” he adds. “Court, trial, fees, we don’t think about it.”

What’s important, he says, is that the Palestinians who have been proudly harvesting, consuming, and profiting off the plant for generations, continue to do so. Local food was put on earth for the local people to eat, he argues.

“It’s not important for us if we get caught, if we don’t get caught. Court, trial, fees, we don’t think about it.”

He shrugs when asked about Israel’s claim that akoub could go extinct if picked in large quantities by people like him. “It is a plant that God created. God chooses to make it disappear or not disappear,” he says matter-of-factly.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, however, asserts that it is their mandate to prevent akoub’s disappearance from the wild. Unchecked harvesting “is liable to obliterate the plant completely, which is something that would damage our legacy as well as the landscapes of our childhood,” according to the Nature and Parks Authority website.

The organization’s representatives say the recent easing of the ban does not contradict its broader goal of wildlife conservation. Shuki Donitza, the head of law enforcement at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, who was responsible for the revised policy, says there is a crucial difference between the individual families who harvest akoub and the loosely organized networks of dealers, which include pickers like Samir and Nadya. Though Samir and Nadya say they harvest according to sustainable, generations-old methods, larger networks are known to dispatch truckloads of elderly men and women who often uproot the entire plant and thus prevent it from replenishing the following year. In a 1995 study in the Israel Journal of Plant Sciences carried out by the Authority’s science division, only 29 percent of the akoub plants in heavily harvested areas were able to re-flower the following year, compared to 65 percent in areas that were untouched.

Donitza says that under the new policy to be enforced this akoub season, rangers will be instructed to relax their approach to more carefully differentiate between commercial pickers and those whose collections weigh within the newly allotted limit. “At the end of the day,” he says, the rationale is “to save the environment — for all of us.”

As one of the most urbanized countries in the world, Israel is facing intense environmental threats from population growth, development, pollution, and over-exploitation of resources, not to mention looming climate change. Roughly one-third of plant species unique to Israel are in danger of extinction, according to a 2013 study by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Yet for many Palestinian citizens of Israel — nearly half of whom live below the poverty line and feel pressure to exploit whatever resources are available to scrape together a livelihood — the risk of fines and potential detainment is simply the price of doing business. Samir says he has been hit with so many fines for collecting akoub that’s he’s lost count. Last year, he paid 17,000 shekels (about $4,900) after being caught with several bags of the goods.

Arraba, a poor Palestinian village in Israel where salaries are about 25 percent below the national average, has a deeply rooted history in both agriculture (the local council’s symbol is an onion, a watermelon, and a cantaloupe) and resistance to Israel. As one of the few communities that maintains the practice and culture of foraging, Arraba is also an epicenter of the akoub trade, though Samir says he and dozens of his neighbors prefer the Golan Heights, where the plant grows in larger numbers.

Samir Naamneh collecting akoub plants. Visual: Sofian Naamneh

Akoub, known as akuvit hagalgal (the tumble thistle) in Hebrew and Gundelia in English, is a perennial with hefty, spiny stems extending up to three feet. At the end of its short growing season from late February to early April, the stems dry out, detach from the root, and spread seeds to the wind, like a tumbleweed. Samir says the akoub season has traditionally been marked with festive, family-oriented celebrations. Its most valuable part is its edible core, known as the “egg,” which is often fried with eggs or meat. Samir says he prefers to sauté it with onions.

Some scholars have suggested that the plant appeared in the Bible as the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ at the time of his crucifixion. Many elderly Palestinians see it as a kind of superfood, imbued with powers to heal everything from erectile dysfunction to cancer. Samir says he has an “addiction” to akoub — in line with a local joke that when calling an akoub dealer, buyers need to use the same hushed tones and euphemisms as those looking to score hashish or smuggled weapons.

Though illegal akoub pickers face thousands of shekels in fines and up to three years in prison if apprehended, they are widely seen by Palestinians as part of the struggle against Israel, and can make several thousand shekels from a day’s work. Uncleaned, a kilogram goes for 35 shekels, or about $10. The price spikes to 70 or 80 shekels a kilogram, almost twice the price of ground meat, when the dense stems and leaves are cleaned from the tiny egg.

For many Palestinian consumers, the appreciation of the tedious, backbreaking work involved in akoub collection and preparation contributes to its high price and status as an artisanal product. In Arraba and across the many economically struggling villages and cities where akoub continues to play a central part in the local diet, the farm-grown alternative makes up only around 15 percent of the market, one akoub grower estimates.

Akoub collecting is subject to the same restrictions as wild sage and zaatar (the Middle Eastern version of oregano), two iconic herbs that in 1977 were also given protected status after having been nearly depleted by large-scale dealers.

The 2005 akoub ban was imposed as the Second Intifada was coming to a close, and the plant became a sentimentally-charged icon for those seeking to reconnect with the Palestinian terroir. As Palestinians across the country were sinking into poverty, it became a fiercely sought-after commodity in the markets of Arraba and Nazareth in Israel, as well as Nablus and Ramallah just across the nearby Green Line in the West Bank.

Akoub picking can be dangerous as well as grueling labor. In 2014, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy crossing the Israel-West Bank separation barrier to pick akoub was shot and killed by Israeli guards. Last year, a 21-year-old Palestinian picker from Arraba grabbed an Israeli ranger’s gun and pointed it at his head, threatening to shoot if he was not allowed to continue on his way, goods intact. He was quickly apprehended by police and, following a trial in the Nazareth District Court, imprisoned for several months.

A smartphone video taken last February by Samir and Nadya’s son Sofian illustrates the “big adventure” that Samir says is behind his own involvement in the illicit trade. In the video, the couple scales rickety barbed wire fences with signs warning trespassers from entering the Golan Heights, which still has tens of thousands of land mines left over from the 1967 Six-Day War. Several akoub pickers have died while scouring the hills and accidentally stepping on a mine.

Samir and Nadya Naamneh scale a barbed wire fence to access the akoub plants in the Golan Heights. Visual: Sofian Naamneh

Samir and Nadya spend hours in pursuit of the massive plants, which they stash in plastic baskets strategically placed under rocks and covered with weeds. As they work, they stay alert for the Israel Park and Nature Authority officers who scan the area, as well as roaming shepherds who can turn them in. “It’s all really very similar to what happens in the military: You attack, retreat, smuggle out the goods, run away,” explains Samir. “We wear green, so we won’t be seen from far away.”

Nadya, 50, says she and her neighbors, who have been foraging from the local land for decades, are sustaining, rather than endangering, the plant. “The idea that it will become extinct, it’s not true,’’ she says. The Israelis, she adds, “just don’t want us to benefit from akoub, so that we don’t make money off of it.”

Donitza counters that Israel has a responsibility to protect akoub from extinction. “In a way, there’s always been this problem, with people going in,’’ he says. “There’s a tension between conserving nature and allowing the public to enjoy it.”

The new policy will allow small-scale picking of akoub, zaatar, and wild sage for personal use. In open fields, the limit for collecting akoub in one harvesting session is set at 50 kilos, or about 110 pounds, and in nature reserves at 5 kilos. Some Palestinians say that given the weight of the plant, that’s nowhere near enough. But Donitza says that it’s just the first step in a long-term monitoring process and that the Israel Nature and Parks Authority will reassess the situation in April to see if additional akoub collection can be sustained.

“There’s a tension between conserving nature and allowing people to enjoy it.”

In other Middle Eastern countries, international conservationists are struggling to gauge the effects of overharvesting on akoub’s wild population. In Jordan, for example, the plant appears alongside 32 other species on the Red List — a comprehensive inventory of the country’s biological species — as “vulnerable,” the third most severe category after “endangered” and “critically endangered.”

Rabea Eghbariah, a laywer for Adalah, the legal center for Arab rights in Israel, says that for many Palestinians, the question of akoub conservation is part of a long-running debate about Palestinian cultural identity as they shift from agricultural to urban life as a result of Israeli occupation. Last January, he petitioned for legislative changes to the designation of akoub, zaatar, and wild sage, arguing that wild foods represent a cultural birthright for Palestinians. The Israeli ban, he says, “is a phenomenon which justifies criminalizing indigenous practices with nature.”

Eghbariah argues that akoub’s endangered status was never scientifically proven and, as such, was discriminatory since it is one of the only local foods to be eaten almost exclusively by Palestinians. In a letter last year to the Environmental Protection Minister, the Attorney General, and the State Attorney of Israel, he wrote that the ban “leads to a disproportionate harm to the Arab population.”

Nativ Dudai, a researcher who works with herbal and aromatic plants at the Volcani Center Agricultural Research Organization in Rishon LeZion in central Israel, agrees with the many Palestinians who say that a total ban is both impractical and culturally problematic. As a solution, the Volcani Center and several Israeli private enterprises have been working to domesticate the plant so it can be sold in large quantities, thus easing the pressure on the wild supply.

But some Palestinians assert that, as a mostly Israeli enterprise, domestication is an attempt to undercut a rare Palestinian cash crop by employing technology to degrade one of the region’s last remaining wild foods. Dudai, 62, who since the 1980s has been developing commodifiable strains of zaatar, argues that lab-grown crops offer a win-win scenario. He maintains that new growing techniques make the plant tastier and more resilient to disease, while also creating a larger supply for modern consumers who increasingly prioritize convenience in their food choices. Palestinians “have traditional food,” he says, “but in the day to day, they’re at McDonald’s, eating hamburgers and fries.”

Domestication has been slowly gaining traction among young Palestinians, with Ramallah urbanites buying akoub at the local market and planting its seeds in their own backyard gardens, says Omar Tesdell, a geography professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

That trend, in addition to the new policy, only makes the coming akoub-picking mission feel more urgent, said Samir on a recent weekend morning. He says that, in addition to his old clientele, even Jewish Israelis have this year expressed interest in getting in on the akoub action. “We’re all counting down the days until we can taste this year’s yield,” he exclaims. “There’s a lot of excitement.”

Shira Rubin is an American journalist based in Tel Aviv. Her work has appeared in the Daily Beast, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Atlantic, among other publications.