Rerouting of wall in Jayyus is bittersweet

by Karen, Jayyus/Tulkarm team

EAs accompany Abu Azzan to visit his released land. Photo EAPPI/S. Skanberg.

EAs accompany Abu Azzan to visit his released land. Photo EAPPI/S. Skanberg.

Throughout my 3-months Palestine and Israel with EAPPI, I have felt quite at home as our team has been welcomed by the Palestinian people with much hospitality. When I return home, I will have much to share about what life is like for these new friends as they live under occupation. Despite all the difficulties, I also see much hope and faith.

One example of this hope and faith is the dedication of farmers who have been separated from their land by the “separation barrier” for the last dozen years. The last few weeks, however, have been sacred for the people of Jayyus as they saw 1/3 of their land released from the behind the barrier in early September.  An Israeli high court decision promised to release this land several years ago, however, Israeli authorities only implemented the decision this September.  Since that time, Palestinians who own parts of the land have started a pilgrimage to their land. Now, everyone can go whenever they want, without the need for an agricultural permit.

Going to the land after 12 years of struggle

In this area, the separation barrier was removed and Palestinians can once again access their property.  Many people were able to return to their land for the first time since 2002.  For farmers, having access to their land means they no longer need to line up at the agriculture gate during restricted hours to have their permit and finger prints checked just to get to their own land. It means they don’t have to constantly keep looking at their watch in order to get back home through the gate at the specified time.  It also means that I, as an international, could go to the land, something not possible before.

There were many surprises when families visited their land for the first time since 2002.  In fact, they noticed that the land is much more productive and much more of it is cultivated than before the barrier was built.  Villagers told me that there is about twice as much land cultivated than was when the separation barrier was put in place.  It seems that people decided the best way to protest the loss of their land was to put their energies into cultivating and reclaiming it.  This cultivation was important as Israeli laws inherit an old Ottoman law stating that land can be claimed by the Israeli state if left uncultivated for 3 years. The Israeli government uses this law to confiscate land left uncultivated by Palestinians, even land that is difficult to access on the other side of the separation barrier.

For this reason, farmers from Jayyus focused on their agricultural practices, during the past 12 years. They worked painstakingly to efficiently use their limited water to irrigate the citrus and other fruit trees, along with the greenhouses filled with vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers.  The village is fortunate in that it has 6 water wells, but still struggles to have the necessary water resources as Israeli authorities control their wells. Also, the community had to rely on diesel fuel to pump the water rather than electricity, as Israeli authorities also forbade them to run electric lines to the wells. Pumping water with diesel proved to be much more costly than electricity.  Some villagers estimate they had to pay double the cost. Despite all the obstacles they faced, the people of Jayyus pulled together, working to reclaim some land that had not been cultivated previously, and to create their own garden of Eden so to speak.

The first time our team visited the land was a few weeks before it was released.  At that time, it was a 2 hour journey. We took an Israeli license plate taxi to one checkpoint, only to find it closed. We traveled to another checkpoint where we spent an hour, while the taxi vehicle was searched. Now, we can simply walk across what was the military road and we are there!

Families have returned from around the West Bank and even Jordan to go to the land.  Even those families who do not have land or still have land behind the new separation barrier came to spend time on the land of friends.  They gather beneath fruit groves, roasting chicken and vegetables over open fires.  Children play where their parents and their grandparents had once played.  However, it really isn’t a celebration.   It is perhaps rather a symbol of what freedom and peace could look like, but the challenges of occupation are still in the foreground.

Challenges still remain

Even as the separation barrier has been removed to “free” the land, a new separation barrier is in place marking that two-thirds of the land is still not accessible except through military gates.  The shiny new barb wire glistens in the sun.  In the area adjacent to the barrier, the barb wire even encloses olive trees making them inaccessible—a symbol of the Israeli military occupation—not even the olive tree can be free.  A new gate is in place, but it is only open three times a day for a half hour.  Previously one of the gates was open for 12 hours a day.

Some farmers have land both inside and outside the separation barrier, meaning it is almost impossible to manage their work in both places to irrigate fruit trees and greenhouses, while needing to move back and forth except in the narrow window of time afforded by the Israeli military.  For some farmers, their land is very close to the village but with the new route of the wall, they must travel about 10-15 or more kilometers each way to get to the new gate and then circle back alongside settlements to their land which is literally a few feet from where they started.

The village is also relieved to have 1 of its 6 water wells on the released land. They have built infrastructure needed to bring water from the well to town and make the village green and productive, but approval from the Israeli authorities is still required for the electric line to be run to the pumping station.

The mayor of Jayyus informed us that while the land was on the Israeli side of the wall they were able to sell produce in the Israeli market.  Now for land that is on the Palestinian side, farmers are free to cultivate it, but their usual market is no longer accessible.

Although the village is happy to have some of their land, it cannot be seen as a complete victory. Still many families have some or all of their land on the Israeli side of the wall. Many tears have been shed over the years lost in cultivating and enjoying their land. The separation barrier is still visible, despite its new route and is a reminder that every aspect of life in the West Bank is under military rule.

Steadfastness fueled by hope and faith

I am amazed by the steadfastness of the villagers of Jayyus. They have faced a huge catastrophe. Their land has been behind a separation barrier, but still they have found a way to make their land flourish. For this harvest people can share delight in returning to the land with their families to spend it together in the fields they love and remember. They find that the occupier has not destroyed those fields, but rather the farmers have put their heart and souls, their sweat and steadfastness into a land for the future—a land that can be released when it is no longer under occupation.  The pilgrims making their way to the land for the first time in a dozen years perhaps find a glimpse of “new heaven and a new earth” as they remember their past when they were free from occupation and hope for the future when they again can be free from the occupation.

 

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.

Our most shocking facts from 2013

A huge part of the work of an EA is actively engaging in monitoring and reporting human rights violations that they witness. We report these incidents to the United Nations and other local and international humanitarian and legal organizations so that they can provide the necessary assistance.  Many of these incidents find their way into the stories our EAs write on this blog and share back home as part of their advocacy for a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Here’s an infographic summarizing EAPPI’s 2013 reports on human rights violations:

EAPPI Incident Reports 2013 Final