Occupation: cancer in the blood

 

The daily reality of having to crossing an agricultural gate and rely on soldier behavior in order to access your farmland, and thus, your livelihood.

by Jayyus/Tulkarm team

A shepherd and his sheep go through 'Akkaba agricultural gate. Photo EAPPI/K. Osterblom.

A shepherd and his sheep go through ‘Akkaba agricultural gate. Photo EAPPI/K. Osterblom.

“The occupation is a cancer in the blood.” These were the words of a Palestinian farmer waiting to cross North gate, one of the 80 agricultural gates situated in the West Bank.

To reach his land, on the other side of the separation barrier, he must get a permit from the Israeli authorities and ensure that he crosses the gate during the opening hours that are decided by the same Israeli authorities. Over recent years, the number of permits issued has dwindled and the opening hours have become shorter and more sporadic. And yet still, the farmers must comply with these regulations, decided an occupying government and implemented in occupied territory: the alternative would mean losing one’s livelihood.

Being based in the Jayyus/Tulkarm area, a large part of our work involves monitoring these agricultural gates. The intimate setting – a sort of magnified version of a checkpoint – means that we are able to observe the soldiers and Palestinians very closely, watching the scene play out. Perhaps the most unnerving thing that we observe is the unpredictability of the soldiers’ behavior. 

Imagine having a boss who banned you from entering your office one day for wearing trainers, only to open the door for you the following day despite the fact that you were still wearing the same trainers. From where we stand, a lot of the measures carried out as a result of the occupation seem to be dependent on the mood of the soldiers.

“This is my country,” were the words uttered by one soldier manning an agricultural gate, as he stood in front of around 80 farmers waiting at ‘Attil gate to cross over the separation barrier (85% of which, when completed, will run inside the Green Line).

Earlier that morning the same soldier had, at a nearby agricultural gate, made each Palestinian lift up his trouser legs and t-shirt, sometimes instructing them to remove one or two shoes. There was no rhyme or reason to his behaviour; not every farmer was treated the same. He even told one to put out his cigarette whilst he was talking to him.

Occasionally the soldiers show an interest in what we EAs are doing at the gate.

One asked “Isn’t it dangerous living in Jayyus? If we went there they would kill us.”

To hear this coming from a man fully armed whilst standing in front of a group of unarmed farmers waiting to get to their land was quite surprising. This statement demonstrated the degree to which the ‘them and us’ mentality is so deeply ingrained, which will poison to any proposed peace solution, whether two or one state.

Some things we see would be funny if they were not so tragic and symptomatic of the absurdity of the occupation.

At one gate, ‘Akkaba, a flock of around 100 sheep were let through the gate before their shepherd, who was subsequently refused entry – he was not even allowed to go through the gate to retrieve them, and had to ask his brother to tend them.

Another man, Ahmad Said, who lost 250 of his olive trees due to the construction of the separation barrier across his land, is on the permit blacklist until 2099. What had earned him a place on this list? Not the fact that he had been to prison, but the fact that in 2003 he had been involved in activities against the wall.

Not only is it important to be aware of the poor treatment of the farmers and workers that is meted out by some of the soldiers, but also to consider what agricultural gates mean in the more general sense.  They represent yet one more obstacle preventing Palestinians from accessing their own land. Needless to say, these gates have serious economic consequences: because the gates are not open all year round the farmers are unable to tend to their crops continuously, which greatly affects their yield.

During the month of March 2014, ‘Akkaba gate was opened late on numerous occasions, with delays ranging from 15 minutes to 1.5 hours. On 22 April 2014 the soldiers arrived 2 hours late. This unpredictability makes life incredibly difficult for the farmers, as by the time they reach their land it is already getting warm.

More worryingly, the unpredictable behavior of the Israeli soldiers demonstrates a lack of respect for the Palestinian farmers and workers, and a complete disregard for their livelihoods – if the farmers are not informed of the correct opening times, they cannot rely on being able to use their land for a stable income.

The Israeli government, as the occupying power, has an obligation to provide for the basic needs of the population – this means that they should be facilitating, rather than preventing the occupied population from being able to use their own land in order to make a living. If a two state solution does come into existence, and the borders are drawn along the line of the wall, it is likely that these problems faced by farmers and workers will be greatly exacerbated, perhaps to the extent that they will no longer be able to gain access to their land at all.

In the meantime, what is to be done?

As one Palestinian woman said, ‘my existence is my resistance’.

In that way, persistence is also a form of resistance – the farmers keep going to their land to demonstrate to the soldiers that they will not surrender.

As for us EAs, we keep calling the Humanitarian Hotline, the phone number given for the Israeli authorities who are supposed to improve these issues, because we want to show that we will not give up. As one exacerbated woman on the end of the Hotline said after having been called at least 5 times that morning by us – ‘don’t worry, we won’t forget you. It’s not possible’. Good: we will keep calling until there is no longer a need.

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