Farming under siege: Working the land in Gaza

Corporate Watch researchers visited the Gaza Strip during November and December 2013 and carried out interviews with farmers in Beit Hanoun, Al Zaytoun, Khaza’a, Al Maghazi and Rafah, as well as with representatives from Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), Palestine Crops and the Gaza Agricultural Co-operative in Beit Lahiya. This is the first of two articles highlighting what their experiences show: that Palestinians face significant and diverse difficulties when it comes to farming their land and harvesting and exporting their produce under siege, and that Israel enforces what amounts to a de facto boycott of produce from the Gaza Strip.

The land and the buffer zones

“There is a 300 meter ‘buffer zone’ in our area. It is common that people get shot at directly if they enter it. Within 500 meters people often get shot at. It is unsafe within 1500 metres of the fence”

Saber Al Zaneen from the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative

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The beginning of the buffer zone in Beit Hanoun in the occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

Since the withdrawal of settlers and the end of a permanent presence of ground troops from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel insists that the area is no longer under occupation. However, as well as still controlling Gaza’s air space, coastline and exports, Israel effectively occupies the area commonly referred to as the ‘buffer zone’, located all the way down the strip along the border with Israel. A buffer area has existed in Gaza since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, when 50 meters on the Gaza side of the border was designated a no-go area for Palestinians. Since then, Israel has unilaterally expanded this zone on numerous occasions, including to 150 metres during the Intifada in 2000 and to changeable and unclear parameters since 2009.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) the buffer zone takes up 17% of Gaza’s total land, making up to 35% of available farmland unsafe for Palestinians to use, with the areas nearest the border fence being the most restricted. Calling the boundaries of the zone ‘vague, unpredictable’ and ‘uncertain’, OCHA has divided the the zone into two danger grades: ‘no-go’ areas where Palestinians risk their lives if they enter as they are considered free fire zones by Israel (within 500 metres of the fence) and ‘high-risk’ areas, where the restricted access still has a severe consequences for farmers and where property destruction and levelling of the land occurs on a regular basis (within 500 and up to 1500 meters of the fence). These areas are kept under heavy surveillance by Israel, through the use of military border patrols and equipment as well as surveillance balloons and drone technology. There are regular incursions by Israeli troops into the buffer zone, sometimes as often as a few times a week.

In the ceasefire agreement during Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012, Israel agreed to ease restrictions on some Palestinian farmland and allow access up to 100 meters from the fence but this promise appears to have had limited impact on Palestinians. There has been no official announcement regarding the easing of the restrictions and as the Israeli human rights organisation Gisha (part of Legal Center for Freedom Of Movement) has pointed out, advice from Israeli sources is often contradictory, citing the no go areas as sometimes 100 meters, sometimes 300 meters with no way for farmers to be sure. What is clear, however, is that Palestinians keep getting shot at from a greater distance than 300 metres and that anyone going closer than 500 metres from the border is putting themselves in danger. It is also clear that with so much of their land being out of bounds, farmers have no choice but to continue to work, at least partly, in areas which are unsafe.

Since 2008 over 50 Palestinians have been killed in the buffer zone and, although things have calmed down slightly since the truce in 2012, four Palestinian civilians have been killed and over 60 wounded by Israeli forces in the buffer zone so far this year, with five killed and approximately 60 wounded in 2013 according to Human Rights Watch. Most of these deaths have occurred when farmers have been trying to reach their land within, or near to, the buffer zone, or during demonstrations where communities have tried to assert their right so reach their fields. One role of international solidarity activists in the Gaza Strip is to accompany farmers wanting to access and farm their land. Sa’ad Ziada from UAWC estimates that the number of agricultural workers in Gaza has decreased from 55.000 to 30.000 as a result of the siege, with many of the remaining farmers unable to earn enough to survive from their crops.

As well as threatening life, the buffer zone has had a disastrous impact on Palestinians’ ability to make a living in the Gaza Strip, with not only fields but also property and water resources heavily affected. The Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Resource Centre states that since Israel’s supposed disengagement in 2005 ’305 water wells, 197 chicken farms, 6,377 sheep farms, 996 complete houses, 371 partial houses, three mosques, three schools, and six factories have been destroyed within the “buffer zone”’, and a total of 24.4 square kilometres of cultivated land has been levelled.

Destroying livelihoods in Khuza’a

“We can see the Israelis farming the land, and we cannot farm our land”

Hassan, farmer from Khuza’a

Surveillance of the barren fields in the Khuza'a buffer zone, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

Surveillance of the barren fields in the Khuza’a buffer zone, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

Khuza’a is a village in the southern Gaza Strip, just east of Khan Younis. It is located only 500 metres from the border fence with Israel and 70% of the population are farmers. The town has suffered greatly from the Israeli Occupation Forces’ enforcement of the buffer zone and from repeated air attacks. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the village was targeted with white phosphorous, leaving farmland temporarily contaminated. During Corporate Watch’s visit to Khuza’a we talked to farmers representing several generations: Osama, Ahmed, Mohammed, Jihad, Salam and Hassan.

Hassan is 51 years old and has been a farmer in Khuza’a for over 30 years. He owns three different pieces of land, two dunams next to the border fence, two and a half dunams 400 metres from the fence and four dunams 620 metres from the border. He used to have olive trees on the plot by the border, but the land was levelled during an expansion of the buffer zone in 2000. In 2008 his other two pieces of land were bulldozed, including his greenhouses. In 2009 his house was partially burned by white phosphorous, which also affected the land next to him. “The farmers are the victims here” Hassan told us, “when resistance fighters are targeted on the farmland it destroys everything”.

Hassan is now trying to grow tomatoes and olives on the two pieces of land furthest from the fence with the support of Unadikum and other international volunteers, who accompany farmers in in the hope that their presence will make the work less dangerous. However, all the Khuzra’a farmers reported that they frequently get shot at even when working on land over 500 metres away from the border. “We have no choice, when the Israelis shoot we have to leave the land”, Hassan said.

According to the men we talked to in Khuza’a the economic situation for farmers in the Gaza Strip is the hardest it has ever been -not only are none of them making any money, but the siege is slowly killing their ability to be agriculturally self sufficient. Hassan used to earn approximately $1000 a month from his fields before he lost his first bit of land in 2000. Now he has got debts of $60.000 instead and no way of making money. We were told that farmers generally get seeds to plant from the traders which they then pay for after harvest season, but harvests in the Gaza Strip are highly unpredictable: land anywhere near the buffer zones can become impossible to farm at any point and some years whole crops are destroyed during Israeli attacks.

None of the farmers in Khuza’a are currently able to export the produce they do succeed in growing. There has been a near total ban on exports from the Strip since the tightening of the siege in 2007 with only a minimal amount of agricultural produce being allowed for export through Israeli companies every year. No Gaza produce is allowed to be sold in Israel or the West Bank, which has traditionally been Gaza farmers’ biggest market. Salam told us that he used to be able to market his produce for sale in Europe but that it had to be done through Agrexco and Arava, Israeli agricultural export companies, and that the last time he managed to export anything was almost ten years ago.

“I have been farming here for 30 years and all the lands have been destroyed” Hassan said with a shrug. “I used to produce 20 tanks of olive oil from my trees every year, but now I have to buy oil even for myself. Should we have to constantly rebuild everything? What will the future for my sons be? I am always arguing with my sons. They want to go to Algeria to find work, and then I will lose my sons too”. All these farmers want is the chance to have a future on their land.

Surveillance tower in the buffer zone in Khuza'a, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

Surveillance tower in the buffer zone in Khuza’a, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

Standing in the middle of the fields of Khuza’a, looking past the barren Palestinian land next to the fence and past the military watch tower, you can clearly see healthy looking green crops on the Israeli side of the border. The Israeli fields are close enough for us to hear the low humming of their fertilising plane as we leave.

Uprooting families in Beit Hanoun

Beit Hanoun has been one of the towns hit the hardest by Israel’s enforcement of the buffer zone. Located in the far north east of the Gaza Strip, only six kilometres from the Israeli city of Sderot and close to the Beit Hanoun (Erez) border crossing to Israel, the population is exposed to frequent incursions by the Israeli Occupation Forces and it shows. Approaching the buffer zone you walk past a big crater in the ground, the result of a 2012 F16 strike, and house rubble can be seen in the distance. The area is under constant heavy surveillance by Israel and several surveillance ‘balloons’ monitor everything that goes on on the ground. According to Saber Al Zaneen from the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative Israel bulldozed 9000 dunums of Beit Hanoun’s land between 2001 and 2009 including 70 houses. Most of it was farmland. As a result over 350 people living in the area have been displaced from their land. The Beit Hanoun Local Initiative, set up in 2007, is a grassroots group working with, and supporting, marginalised families and farmers living close to the buffer zone with the aim of helping them remain on their land.

Damaged building in the Beit Hanoun buffer zone, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

Damaged building in the Beit Hanoun buffer zone, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

In the past farmers in the area used to grow olives, lemons and oranges close to the border but all the trees haven now been bulldozed. “Communities now grow potatoes, peppers, tomatoes and watermelons on the outskirts of the buffer zone” Saber told us. “You can not grow anything tall at all, no trees are allowed. If plants get higher than about 80 centimetres they will be levelled”. Shortly after we visited the area, the Local Initiative assisted the planting of some new wheat fields nearer the fence, challenging the restrictions in the buffer zone.

On top of the access restrictions and the personal danger involved, farmers working the land face the big challenge of being able to access water for their crops. Approximately 60 water wells in the vicinity of the Beit Hanoun buffer zone were bulldozed or bombed between 2001-2009 and finding enough water to grow healthy produce is now a constant struggle for the community. The area we visited had one small mobile water tank for the fields but locals told us that as it requires either electricity or fuel to run they were not always able to use it. Instead they relied on a makeshift pit dug in the field and lined with tarpaulin in order to collect rain water. Gaza suffers from a severe and drawn out fuel crisis which, during our visit at the end of 2013, resulted in mains electricity only being available around 12 hours a day on a six hour off/six hour on basis at best. As a result fuel for personal use is both expensive and hard to come by (for an expanded explanation of the fuel crisis in Gaza see Corporate Watch’s briefing Besieging Health Services in Gaza: A Profitable Business)

Pit collecting rain water for crops in Beit Hanoun, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

Pit collecting rain water for crops in Beit Hanoun, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

House demolitions in Al Zaytoun

“We plant our plants here to claim our rights to the land. We are not making a profit, we are working for nothing”

Ahmad from Al Zaytoun

We met the farmers Ali, Rafat, Nasser, Ahmad, Jawad and Ishmael outside Ahmad’s house next to the Malaka intersection area of eastern Al Zaytoun just south of Gaza City. There used to be a three storey family home on this plot, but there is now a much smaller house next door. This is the result of continuous targeting of the area by the Israeli Occupation Forces, who have a military base close by. Ahmad, who was born on this land, told us that his family’s house had been demolished three times: in 2004, 2005 and during Operation Cast Lead in 2008.

“In 2008 they destroyed everything around here”, Ahmed said, “they even destroyed my jars of olive oil. We did not have time to bring hardly any of our things. The Israelis came through a gate in the fence in the buffer zone with 14 tanks and four military bulldozers. They were shooting a lot to make us leave before they arrived. We have had to rebuild our home three times”.

As in other buffer zone communities, it is not only property which is frequently targeted by Israel -it is anyone who attempts to farm the land. All the farmers we talked to in Al Zaytoun had some land within 300 metres of the fence. The last shooting incident had occurred just four days before our visit. When there is instability happening in the area, everyday activities for farmers become even more precarious.

Preparing to re-cultivate land near the buffer zone in Al Zaytoun, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

Preparing to re-cultivate land near the buffer zone in Al Zaytoun, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

The story of the farmers in Al Zaytoun is a familiar one: before the tightening of the siege in 2007 they all used to be able to make a decent profit from their land, with some farmers getting close to $30.000 a year but now they make no profit at all. Some of them used to export part of their produce, albeit through Israeli companies, but now none of them are able to export anything and all their goods go to the local Gaza market. “No-one has any money so we hardly make anything” said Ahmed. “Sometimes we have to feed some of the vegetables to the animals”.

Mustapha told us that farmers in this area have had some help from Norwegian People’s Aid who provided them with an irrigation system for the fields, and they also have a tractor but even with equipment taking care of the land is a challenge under siege. Just like the farmers in Beit Hanoun, they rely on access to electricity for the water pump and petrol for the tractor and those things are often not available. “The water is so salty here that we can only plant very specific plants like aubergines olive trees, potatoes, cabbage and spinach. Cucumbers and tomatoes can’t be planted”, said Mustapha. The salty water is the result of the Gaza aquifer having been contaminated by sea and sewage water, partly through a decline in ground water levels and partly as a result of infrastructure damage during Israeli air attacks in 2009. According to the UN 90% of the water from the aquifer, Gaza’s only water resource, is not safe to drink.

After the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the middle of 2013, life for Gaza’s farmers has become even harder. The men in Al Zaytoun said that they used to be able to be able to buy cheap fertilizers which had come through the tunnels from Egypt at the local market. However, since the tunnels were destroyed this is no longer possible. Products are now both harder to get hold of and more expensive as they have to come through Israel which means that there are no cheap choices and that tax will be added.

Despite all the problems they face the people of Al Zaytoun continue to work their land, they have no other option. As we walked around their fields they showed us how they have started to re-cultivate land nearer and nearer the fence, moving the area of cultivation forward by around ten metres per week. In Gaza simply farming the land has turned into an act of resistance.

Uprooting history in Al Maghazi

“It is not the uprooting of the trees themselves that is the worst, it is the uprooting of our history”

Abu Mousab from Al Maghazi

Abu Mousab on his family's land in Al  Maghazi, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

Abu Mousab on his family’s land in Al Maghazi, occupied Gaza Strip. Photo by Corporate Watch, November 2013

For Palestinians, the buffer zones do not only create financial hardship and humanitarian crises, they also sever people’s connection with their history. In Al Maghazi, a primarily agricultural community in the central Gaza Strip, we met Abu Mousab, a farmer who also holds down a job as an iron wielder in order to make a living. Al Maghazi is a refugee camp established in 1949 and according to Mohammed Rasi el Betany from the Al Maghazi refugee council approximately 95% of the population are refugees. However, Abu Mousab’s family have lived on the same piece of land for generations. When we visited, his father, who is in his late 90′s and who used to work for the British Mandate before the creation of Israel, was asleep in the room next door.

Staying steadfast on the farmland has not been easy for Abu Mousab and his family. Their land is located approximately 300 metres from the border fence and, despite the fact that conditions have become a little bit safer since 2012, working the land is dangerous. “We have to play a kind of cat and mouse game with the soldiers” Abu Mousab said. “When the soldiers go away we turn on the water and quickly irrigate our plants, but as soon as they start shooting we have to leave”. Only a week before our visit Abu Mousab’s nephew Medhat had been shot at with live ammunition warning shots when he was trying to weed some crops on the part of the family’s farmland nearest the fence. Some years the family have been able to access their land so infrequently that the crops have failed, leaving them with no income from their land. During good years when they do manage to harvest their barley, wheat, almonds, citrus fruits, olives and apricots they sell their produce to the local market in the Gaza Strip.

However, many people do not feel able to risk their life to work on the land. One of them is Mousa Abu Jamal, another farmer from Al Maghazi. He used to have ten dunums of farmland planted with olive trees within the buffer zone, all of which have been uprooted by Israel. When he tried to go back to re-cultivate his land in the middle of 2012 he was shot at. He has not been back since.

“I was always told by my father that he who has been raised on his farmland must stick with his farmland until he dies and that is what we are doing” Abu Mousab said. His family are so determined not to give up their heritage that during the bombardment of the Gaza Strip in 2012 they made a decision not to leave the area for relative safety further away from the border. “Ten years ago the Israelis came with Caterpillar bulldozers and destroyed olive trees and several 200 year old sycamore trees on my land. Those were trees my grandfather used to sit under”, Abu Mousab said. “They had to use two of their bulldozers to uproot just one tree, they were so rooted in our history.”

Boycott Divestment and Sanctions

Israel’s siege of Gaza is slowly strangling life in the Strip. It affects farmers’ access to land, crops, water and electricity. It also limits people in Gaza’s ability to buy food grown in Gaza and makes people more reliant on imports of Israeli goods. The situation for exporters is even worse: only a tiny amount of agricultural produce gets exported each year, all of which has to go through Israeli companies. The ban on Gaza produce being sold in Israel and the West Bank amounts to a de facto boycott of Gaza’s export industry by Israel.

What can the solidarity movement do?

During Corporate Watch’s visit to the Gaza Strip the people we interviewed made their hopes very clear: they want boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel, but they also want opportunities to trade and make a living. This presents a challenge to the BDS movement. As the tiny amount of Palestinian produce that is being exported from the Gaza Strip is currently exported through Israeli companies it means that any boycott of, for example Arava, will boycott Palestinian produce too. When asked about this implications of this, farmers were still supportive of a boycott, as they hoped the pressure would be more beneficial to them in the long term than the minuscule benefits the current export levels achieve. “What we need is people to stand with us against the occupation”, said Mustapha from Al Zaytoun. “By supporting BDS you support the farmers, both directly and indirectly and this is a good thing for people here in Gaza”.

Farmers all over the Gaza Strip were particularly keen on getting the right to label their produce as Palestinian, ideally with its own country code, even if they have to export through Israel. Country of origin labels for Gaza goods is something the solidarity movement could lobby for.

There was strong support amongst farmers for increased action against Israeli arms manufacturers, as they are often on the receiving end of their weapons.

Mohsen Aby Ramadan, from the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network suggested that one good way forward could be to engage farming unions across the world and get them to endorse the BDS call in solidarity with Palestinian farmers -an avenue that has not as yet been properly explored.

Part two of this series of articles will look at the problems faced by Gaza’s export industry.

 

5 Responses to Farming under siege: Working the land in Gaza

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