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Farming Under Fire

Palestinian farmers contend with war, enforced drought, and the Separation Wall
Farming Under Fire: palestinian farmers contend with war, enforced drought, and the Separation Wall. Kate Rogers Gessert photo

In the autumn of 2003, my son Joe and his wife, Liv, were working on the West Bank, and I spent 10 days with them at Thanksgiving. As a gardener in Oregon, I was eager to visit Palestinian farms and gardens. I also wanted to see the everyday details of Palestinians’ lives, beyond newspaper reports – and beyond my basic sense that it is wrong for Palestinian suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians and wrong for Israeli soldiers to kill Palestinian civilians.

Joe and Liv work with the International Solidarity Movement, volunteers committed to nonviolence who accompany Palestinians to checkpoints, protests, work, and hospitals. They had been working with farmers in the northern part of the West Bank, and we visited growers in this region, near the Separation Wall.

With solemn friendliness, Mohamed Isa Abebi welcomed us. He lives among orchards and rocky hills on the outskirts of Zbouba village, north of Jenin, in one of the most fertile areas of the West Bank. He farms 20 acres with his two brothers. He was born here 52 years ago, and four generations of his family have lived on this land. Their main cash crops are almonds and olive oil. The Abebi brothers and other Zbouba farmers already have a contract with a European company for Fall 2004 almonds, and they sell olive oil to local customers who provide their own containers.

Mohamed grows most of his family’s vegetables and raises sheep for meat and dairy. Apricot and fig trees and grapevines provide fruit for family use and the village market. Mohamed gave us Fqaisee – green figs – to taste, with rose-colored seeds and an earthy perfume. He gardens organically, he explained, using sheep manure for fertilizer; he raises honeybees as a member of a local farmers’ bee cooperative. His wife brought us small cups of strong Arabic coffee as we sat and talked in the dooryard.

Mohamed conserves water carefully. In his big vegetable garden, he showed us his irrigation system, snapped-together pieces of black plastic pipe with holes every six inches. He plants seeds beside the holes so each plant receives exactly the water it needs, no more. His one flight of fancy is a small, patterned parsley garden, with pipes bent in a spiral beside the plants.

Mohamed relies on olive and almond trees for their drought tolerance. Almonds and oil olives need no irrigation; table olives taste best when irrigated near harvest time, but the trees can get by without water. Mohamed waters almonds twice a month the first dry season after planting, and olives not at all.

Mohamed Isa Abebi in his garden. Kate Rogers Gessert photo.

Water is a serious problem for Palestinians. West Bank summers are long and hot, and rainfall sparse; in 1967 the Israelis took control of all West Bank aquifers and they retained control under the Oslo Accords. Since 1967, permits have been required for Palestinians who want to drill, enlarge, or repair wells. During this time, Palestinians have been allowed to drill only three new wells in the West Bank, while Israelis have drilled many deep wells to supply their settlements with water. Israel and the settlements now use over 80 percent of water from West Bank aquifers, and Palestinians 17 percent. Many Palestinian villages and towns must buy West Bank water from Mekharot, the Israeli water company. Shortages are chronic.

Scattered through his orchards, Mohamed has built three concrete catchments to “harvest” rainwater, about 20 inches a year in his region. Two catchments are for crops, one for household use, with cisterns beneath. The three cisterns can store 260 cubic meters of water. Mohamed irrigates with this water from May, when the rains stop, until July. Then he buys water from a private well in a nearby village until the rains begin again in mid-fall. He doesn’t grow vegetables for market any longer, because the price of water has risen to $2 (US equivalent) a cubic meter and he can’t make a profit.

Water used to be cheaper and more plentiful, he said. It came from a large well between Jenin and Nablus. Then, in the 1970s, Israeli forces took over the well and directed its water to Israeli settlements. Tanker trucks used to deliver water to Palestinian farms, but Israeli bulldozers have blocked the road by pushing boulders across it. Now Mohamed and other farmers drive their tractors cross-country and bring water home in small wheeled tanks.

Mohamed and his brothers have 11 sons who, with their wives, help them work the land. However, five of the sons are currently in jail, a common predicament for Palestinian families. The sons’ sentences range from two to eight years, for “security reasons and acting against the occupation,” according to Mohamed. The remaining family members must manage the farmwork and support the young children of the men in jail.

In November, Mohamed plants garbanzo beans, wheat, and fodder crops between his rows of olive trees. In December, once he can count on frequent rain, he plants fava beans, lettuce, onions, garlic, and cauliflower. In May he plants hot-weather crops: cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, green beans, okra, zucchini, eggplants, and peppers.

Joe, Liv and I also visited the Turkmans, a family of 31 Bedouin Palestinians living on a 50-acre farm close to Jenin. The Turkmans bought this land in 1948, after they fled from Haifa. Four adult sons and four daughters live on the farm with their widowed mother, along with the brothers’ wives and many grandchildren, and the father’s sister and her family as well.

The soil is dry and rocky, with groves of native pines and extensive orchards. The Turkmans raise olives, sheep, goats, and cows. They sometimes sell their lambs, and the matriarch and her donkey take sheep cheese to sell in Jenin, a mile away. The family raises grapes, apricots, apples, figs, lemons, and plums for home use, but they don’t grow vegetables.

The Turkmans also have rainwater catchments, and during the dry season, water for people, plants, and livestock is brought by tractor. A water tank on wheels stands in the dooryard. The Turkmans’ dwellings cluster on a hilltop. The houses overlook Jenin in the distance and Qaddim, the Israeli settlement next door.

Qaddim was built in the 1980s on a hillside facing the Turkmans’ land, just above their lowest, most fertile fields. In the beginning, the Turkmans say, Russian settlers from Qaddim used to buy their cheese and come over for dinner. The children played together. But in recent years, things haven’t gone so well. Qaddim needed a lot of water for its shade trees and 70 houses, and the Turkmans’ wells went dry. The Turkmans had built their homes before there was a permit system. Last summer the Israelis posted demolition notices for all five of their houses.

Early one September morning, several hundred Israeli soldiers in Humvees, tanks, and bulldozers arrived. They gave the Turkmans five minutes to vacate two of their houses and then crushed the buildings. Now some family members live in Red Cross tents. Piles of debris remain, with window frames stacked neatly beside them. Although the Turkmans proudly insist that they will stay on their land, they are saving money to build one big house that they can all live in together closer to Jenin, if necessary.

When the Turkmans have tried to cultivate their fields that are closest to the Qaddim fence, Israeli soldiers who guard the settlement have shot at them. For almost three years, the Turkmans could not work in these fields, and they felt desperate to get there. Not only were there young olive trees to tend, but according to the Israelis, land that is not worked for three years reverts to the state.

Israeli soldiers are less likely to shoot at Palestinians when international volunteers are present, so in early November, Joe and Liv and other ISM members came to help the Turkmans. The internationals and Turkman women followed the tractor, collecting rocks and stacking them on rock walls, reinforcing the terraces on the steep hillsides. When the Israeli soldiers asked why the internationals were there, Liv told them, “We’re students learning about subsistence farming.” The soldiers held grumbling consultations with their commanding officers, and then days of tense but bullet-free plowing, planting, and rock collecting ensued.

I visited during Eid al Fitr, the three-day holiday that ends Ramadan. All the Turkmans were either cooking or resting, and pale green wisps of winter wheat and lentils were emerging in moist, newly planted soil down by the settlement. The Turkmans seemed relaxed and playful, not at all like people who were wondering when the rest of their living space would be demolished. In the daytime, the men talked, kids chased each other around riding on remnants of toy cars, and women did each other’s hair, roasted a sheep, brined green olives in plastic soda bottles, and cooked pita bread in a small outdoor oven. In the evenings, the family sat close together on mats around the edges of their biggest room and drank coffee, talking and laughing.

At night it was pleasantly noisy. Chickens, ducks, five cows, 20 goats, 60 sheep, and one muddy horse slept in a shed that shared a wall with the house where we were staying. But at five o’clock in the morning, these gentle animal noises were overlaid by a loud “chukka-chukka-chukka.” Adults and children woke and hurried outside until we were all looking up into the sky. Apache helicopters swung above us in arcs toward downtown Jenin. That morning, the second of the Eid holiday, Israeli tanks rolled into Jenin searching for militants.

At night, our hosts slept together on mats in the center of the house, mother and father and six children, well away from the walls. We guests were given beds in the outlying bedrooms. The next night, I got up for the bathroom and bumped into a door propped against one wall. It fell with a “whoosh!” – a soft sound, yet by the time it landed on the floor, the mother of the family stood beside me, breathing heavily. She must have flown across the intervening space when she heard this ominous sound. We looked at each other in the dark.

Back at home in Oregon in February, I learned that a local “security fence” will be built around Qaddim (even though many settlers from Qaddim have recently moved across the Green Line into Israel, leaving only about 30 houses occupied). Bulldozers have cut a wide strip through the Turkmans’ newly cultivated fields of lentils and young olive trees. An Israeli soldier, asked whether the Turkmans would still have access to their land across the fence, answered, “Who knows?”

In March, a friend who speaks Arabic helped me phone the Turkmans. Half their land, 25 acres, had been confiscated for the Qaddim fence.

In the background of West Bank landscapes, I often saw the path of the big Separation Wall (the Security Fence, the Apartheid Wall, depending on who you talk to) as a wide, pale strip crossing distant hillsides. Sharon’s government says the Wall is necessary to protect Israelis from suicide bombers. Many Palestinians say it is a way for the Israelis to annex West Bank land and water, separate Palestinians from each other, and make it impossible for them to survive in what is left of their homeland.

I saw the Wall up close only in Zbouba, where it was outside the back windows of every house we visited. In Zbouba the Wall consisted of multiple rows of high barbed wire fences and trenches, with a raised roadway in the middle. After a mighty Palestinian feast at the home of Joe’s friend Mahmoud Jaradat – hummus, stuffed zucchini and grape leaves, roasted chicken, olives, greens, and chickpea soup – we strolled through olive and almond orchards on the outskirts of the village. We adults talked and picked a few last soft-shelled “Fareek” almonds, and Mamoud’s children frolicked along, until the lane ended abruptly in barbed wire. An Israeli jeep whizzed past on the patrol road.

Many Palestinians we met were worried about the effect of the Wall on Palestinian agriculture, already in steep decline because the Israel army has destroyed many fields, greenhouses, and orchards, and because Palestinian farmers and consumers have trouble reaching each other through checkpoints and road closures.

Arguments can be made for and against the idea of a Wall. However, 89 percent of the Wall is being built on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, the accepted boundary between Israel and the West Bank. The Wall often cuts deep into West Bank territory, twisting around to embrace 66 Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and up to 98 percent of settler population. One hundred twenty-two Palestinian villages and towns are or will be caught on the Israeli side of the barrier, some completely encircled by the Wall. Israel will grant or deny permits allowing Palestinians to live in their homes or enter these “restricted miltary areas” for jobs, farming, and other reasons.

Plans for the Wall often change. According to various estimates, 14.5 percent to 52 percent of the West Bank, including much of the richest agricultural land and best water sources, will be on the Israeli side of the Wall. On the West Bank, there are about 250 substantial wells. So far, 50 of them, many among the highest-yielding, have been cut off behind the Wall or destroyed during construction.

The Wall takes different forms in different regions. It is a 9 to 24-foot-tall barrier made of concrete, metal, or barbed wire, featuring guard towers, electronic sensors and fences, razor wire, trenches, and military roadways. Before new sections are built, broad areas of farmland and villages are razed. Caterpillar bulldozers accompanied by Israeli soldiers begin the work by clearing a 100- to 300-foot-wide strip. To date, 50,000 fruit trees and over 100,000 olive trees, many of them hundreds of years old, have been uprooted. Bulldozer drivers sell the valuable olive wood in Israel.

The Wall separates many Palestinians from their farmland, their friends and relatives, from neighboring towns and villages, from hospitals, schools, markets, and workplaces. The UN estimates that when the Wall is completed, it will directly harm 680,000 Palestinians, 30 percent of the population. At this time, 108 miles have been built of the 380 to 440 planned, and construction is proceeding rapidly.

Although there are gates in the Wall, Palestinian experiences with these gates have been discouraging. They are guarded by Israeli soldiers, who sometimes beat people and may or may not let them through. Palestinians have lost their vegetable crops because they have not been permitted to reach their fields. Farmers have harvested olives across the Wall and then not been allowed to bring the olives back until after they had rotted. Goats have been stranded for days on one side of the Wall and herdsmen on the other, farmers’ children on one side and parents on the other, when return passage is denied. Often the gates are just closed. Many businesses and agricultural operations have closed since the Wall was built. Basen Hussein, a vegetable seller in Nazleh Issa, passes scallions through a four-inch drainage hole at the base of the Wall to his son, who lives on the other side now and sells small vegetables from a pushcart to Basen’s former customers.

Gates are widely separated. Palestinians might need to walk a mile to a gate to reach their land 200 feet from their houses. Palestinians are often forbidden to pass through the Wall in cars or tractors. Pedestrians and donkey carts are sometimes allowed, but this way it is harder to travel, to transport crops or work the land. In emergencies, widely separated gates can decide life and death. A toddler with a high fever and convulsions died earlier this year on a 15-mile trip to get through the Wall to the hospital in Qalqiliya, only 1.5 miles from his home.

Many West Bank communities have attempted to resist the Wall. Legal challenges have resulted in an Israeli High Court order to reroute 19 miles of the Wall near Jerusalem. The International Court of Justice at The Hague called in July for the entire wall to be dismantled. Sharon’s government has denounced The Hague’s decision, but will reroute the Wall to comply with its own High Court decision. Palestinian, Israeli and international protesters have been arrested, beaten, teargassed, shot, and killed. Homes, shops, olive orchards, greenhouses, irrigation systems, wells, and fields have been demolished. And the Wall rolls on.

Kate Rogers Gessert is a writer, teacher and gardener. She lives in Oregon.

For more information, contact: Many excellent informational resources on the separation wall can be found on the Web. One of the best is the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories


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