“Damming” West Bank farmers

Sixty-two-year-old Shafiqa Massoud is, for all intents and purposes, the head of the household. Hers is a typical peasant family that lives in the Qalqilya area directly up against the Green Line. Her husband, 66-year-old Amin Hindi is unemployed due to chronic illness and her four children are all married. In all, her extended family comprises 27 members. They live in small but individual homes and together work a communal piece of land of 30 dunams. On it they plant vegetables, cauliflower, eggplant and mulukhiya. The produce is the family’s only source of income and Shafiqa is proud of the fact that none of her sons has ever worked inside Israel.

The rainy season should have been the best time of the year for farmers like Shafiqa’s family. But in Qalqilya, the season brought more hardship than joy this time around. Israel’s separation barrier, in this area an eight-meter high wall, formed a concrete dam, trapping the water and preventing it from flowing out west. Rain fell for seven days in February and because the water was trapped, pollutants mixed in with it, overflowing into the houses, fields and greenhouses in Qalqilya and even into neighboring villages such as Ras Atiyeh, Khirbet Salman and Falamiyeh.

This satellite image of Qalqilya and of Israel’s West Bank Barrier surrounding the city was taken on 7 June 2003. The progress of construction of the barrier can clearly be seen, ultimately cutting off residents from their surrounding agricultural land. For larger versions of the image, see EI’s BY TOPIC section. (Image: ©Space Imaging/NTA Space Turk)

The worst damage was in the Qataa region west of Qalqilya and directly adjacent to the Green Line, where the separation wall is built and where Shafiqa’s family land is. According to the Rhodes Agreement of 1948, Israel is to allow a sewage system so sewer water in the Qataa region can reach the sea. However, the construction of the wall has since blocked off these drainage channels and sewage lines, which have been replaced by gates and drainage channels completely controlled by the Israeli army.

For three days, the gates remained closed, so the rainwater mixed with the sewage water. Only after contacts and coordination at the highest levels did the Israeli authorities agree to open one of the channels. However, it was too late. The delay had already caused considerable damage to the crops.

“In my worst nightmares, I never imagined rainwater could ever be such a curse,” says Shafiqa. “May God forgive me for what I have just said. Rain is the only blessing that has fallen on the Palestinians. Rain is a blessing and grace from God. But the wall has turned it into curse. The rain flooded our crops for three days, the plants have all drowned and died; the cauliflower rotted and the eggplant plants have frozen from the frost. We are ruined. We have even gone to the Red Cross to register as a needy family so we can receive food. Is this fair? How will I pay the water and electricity bills that keep piling up?”

Shafiqa says the family would send 50 crates of vegetables to the markets every day before the rains came. “Sometimes we would even give the cows and sheep the extra eggplant so its price would not go down in the market or when it would not bring in a good price in the first place. We have endured the threats and harassment of the settlers and soldiers and we continued to harvest our crops. Sometimes we would even hire workers to pick with us. Israel is responsible for this disaster, not nature.”

Rashad Zeid, 50, who works with his three sons on 45 dunams of land, planted with everything from lettuce and spinach to cabbage and radishes, thinks the Israelis kept the gates closed on purpose to cause as much damage as possible. “They don’t want us here. They are pushing hard so we will all move and leave the place to them. But where will we go? We have no alternative.”

The Fateh-affiliated national institutions association in Qalqilya has assessed the damage and is carrying out a campaign to compensate the afflicted farmers. Mohammed Saleem, director of the association, says water flooded an area of 700 dunams of plant and vegetable crops. He said the rain also destroyed 10 greenhouses and killed 6,000 birds and 120 sheep. “A total of 170 families in Qalqilya were affected and 130 more from Ras Atiyeh and Khirbet Salman,” Saleem said. Additional losses are estimated at NIS1.5 million (approximately $350,000).

Qalqilya Municipality sources say that because there are no large pieces of privately owned land in the area, land is divided into smaller farming units. This, they explain, is why the damage was even worse for individual farmers as in the case of Zeid.

Today, his harvest is yellow and wilted. “It’s all ruined,” he told Palestine Report. “Nothing of is of any worth now. The rains drowned most of our harvest. We tried our hardest to save whatever we could,” he said as he pointed to the meager remains.

The land is not even his own. Zeid rents it from its original owner for JD100 a year per dunam. Zeid puts the overall damages of the last rainfall at NIS120,000 ($32,000). “I will have to borrow money now,” he says, adding that even during the Intifada but before the wall, he could make up to NIS3,000 ($700) a week on his share of 15 dunams.

But the trapped rainwater is just one grievance the residents of Qalqilya have with the wall. While much was made in the Israeli and international media over the amended route of the wall, it will still annex large parts of the West Bank, and, Palestinians fear, even more than advertised by the Israelis. While the Israel High Court claims the new plan will cut into 7 percent of West Bank lands, Palestinian sources claim it will include up to 10 percent with the inclusion of most of the 240,000 Jewish settlers currently living in the West Bank, especially once the wall is completed around the settlement of Maaleh Adumim, which stretches 10 kilometers east of East Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the farmers of the West Bank are dealing with the day-to-day consequences. One farmer says the army prohibits the use of certain fertilizers, because “they tell us these materials could be used to make explosives”. But access to land is one of the most common grievances. Mohammed Al Sheikh has a problem with the military gates. “There are eight gates in all in the wall. However, soldiers have only left one open for farmers and owners of land on the western side of the wall to use. And they need special permits to cross. The gate is closed many times, for ‘security reasons’ and farmers are forced to go all the way around to the northern gate. So instead of it taking 15 minutes to cross, it takes two and a half hours. Fields and harvests need constant care. Being cut off from them means death for the harvest,” Al Sheikh says.

Talk of political calm means very little to these farmers, who say despite this talk, the wall is continuing to be built in their area. “Three weeks ago, the Israeli authorities resumed construction of the wall along with the expansion of settlements. We can see them building a new neighborhood in Tsufim settlements on lands belonging to Jayous, Qalqilya and Falamiyeh. They are also completing the wall around Ariel and Emmanuel, which means the confiscation of more lands,” says Al Sheikh.

“Before the wall was built, it would take me five minutes to reach my fields,” he continues. “Now that they closed the northern gate [after an attack on September 15, 2004], it takes me two and a half hours to reach the only open gate, which is close to the Tsufim settlement. This gate is used by the farmers and the settlers and of course, the priority goes to allowing the settlers to pass.”

According to Maarouf Zahran, Qalqilya mayor, the wall has resulted in the confiscation and isolation of over 7,000 dunams of the most fertile land in the city. It has also encircled Qalqilya from all sides. “The eastern and northern sides of the city do not abut the borders of Israel, so why build the wall there?” he asks, not pausing to answer himself. “They want the people to leave.”

All of the farmers’ and residents’ complaints to the Israeli authorities have fallen on deaf ears. “Our area is calm but our nerves are shot,” says Al Sheikh. “The Israelis ignore our complaints and insist on completing the wall and confiscating more land. In this way, they are breaching the Israeli-Palestinian understandings of reaching a ceasefire and truce. All the Palestinian Authority does is mediate with international organizations to provide those affected with food aid to compensate for part of their losses.”

This article was first published on 2 March 2005 in Palestine Report Online, a project of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center in Jerusalem, and is reprinted with permission. Palestine Report Online is a continuation of the print Palestine Report, which was established over twelve years ago as a means of informing English-speakers about Palestinians and their daily lives in the context of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also in this week’s edition, PR looks at prospects for the economy in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal and interviews ISM activist Brian Avery, who has filed suit against the Israeli army.