The farmers of Qaffin

I am back in Tulkarem for the night. I spent the last two nights in a town in the northwest corner of the West Bank (Palestine) called Qaffin. The town is surrounded on two sides by the green line, the border between Palestine (otherwise known as the Occupied Territories) and Israel. On the North and West Qaffin is surrounded by Israel, and on the South and East by Israeli colonies (otherwise known as settlements).

To add insult to that injury, a new wall is being built along the west side of the town, eventually intended to extend along the entire length of the West Bank/Israeli border. This wall is meant to protect and safeguard the security of the Israeli people, but in reality, it is an excuse to take even more land and water resources from the Palestinian people. The wall shifts the dividing line between Israel and Palestine six and a half km into current Palestinian territory. This means that hundreds of farmers are losing land. Given the dire economic situation confronting them, they cannot afford to lose another cubic centimetre of land.

In the area I visited, farmers have lost 80% of their land. The poor farmers desperately wanted to harvest olives in the area to be taken for the last time, and so they picked them early, before they had reached ripeness and were filled with the maximum amount of oil. The trees were cut, and taken away, often to be used to make tourist trinkets. The town is suffering and the people are terrified. The surrounding settlements make harvesting olives an extremely stressful and dangerous experience. Palestinians are harassed by colonists, and also by the army, on a regular basis.

Here’s a summary of my last three days: We took a tour of Tulkarem on Tuesday, and saw the destruction the occupation has caused this pretty city. We saw a university that was bombed at the beginning of the second intifada, and many homes and streets that have been shelled. We saw where the wall will go through this area, and were harrassed by security as we tried to photograph the beginning of the wall. Then we drove to Qaffin.

We encountered a road-block on the way, where the soldiers were harrassing the Palestinians in one of their usual ways. They had not let anyone through for two hours. The people were waiting in a long lineup on each side. We decided to use our power as internationals to persuade them to re-open the check-point. One other person and I went up to the soldiers and asked why it was we were not being let through.

The boy (he was only 19), gave us a dumb excuse about security and then when we made it clear we were not going to leave, they began letting people through. We stayed for 3 hours while people were let through, and until they let 3 boys through whom we found out they had been holding all day because they did not have papers. I think that the soldiers realized that we would not leave until the boys were gone, and so they finally gave in. Once they were safely through the checkpoint in a vehicle, we continued on to Qaffin.

We spent the evening getting to know the situation. We stayed at the mayor’s house. He told us about the wall and the settlements, and the difficulties of the olive harvest. In the morning when we woke up, we found out that there had been an attack on the settlement near the area where we were to have helped with the olive harvest. Four people were killed, including one of the attackers.

There was a great deal of fear in the town. The farmers did not want to go out because they were afraid of being attacked by colonists in retaliation. Two familes decided to go out with our protection (many many others did not go). We picked olives with them near the settler road for the whole day without incident. We were told that the farmers were sure that our presence was what kept them away.

This morning we got up again to go harvest. This time many more farmers were willing to go out. We spread ourselves out along the road and picked all day long. In the faternoon we heard distant gun shots, and found out that tanks had shot at kids who were throwing rocks at the bulldozers that were working on the wall. No one was hurt.

We also found out that the army killed a young man in a neighbouring town the night before. We did not find out why. Otherwise, the day went well with no incidents in our immediate area.

Towards the end of the day, the farmer that Thomas and I were helping asked us to accompany him home with his olives, because he had gotten a call that there were soldiers in the town, and he was afraid they would take his olives. We went into town with him. There were no incidents. Again, we were told that it was much better picking with us around, because no one bothers them.

Just after we came home for the evening we received a call informing us that the army was attacking the Tulkarem refugee camp. We also learned that people in the camp had been shot, and there were army helicopters circling overhead. Then we were told that there had been some arrests, including a 11 year-old boy, for climbing on a tank.

One of our coordinators was filming the incident and was arrested also. It was difficult to find out what was happening, and so we decided to come back to Tulkarem to help out.

When we got here we found out that things had calmed down, and that the coordinator had been released, but with her camera smashed and her film taken. Two people in the camp were shot, one in the abdomen, and the other in the arm. We decided to stay the night just in case, and then we will return to Qaffin in the morning to pick olives for a few more days. We will come back to Tulkarem on Sunday or Monday for the rest of our time here. We will be riding in local ambulances (to keep them from being shot at), sleeping in the refugee camp (to keep the army from shooting into it), and picking olives (to keep the farmers from being harassed by colonists and the army). But, for the next few days we will help the farmers of Qaffin who are so grateful for our presence.

Rachel Engler-Stringer left Montreal for Palestine to join the International Solidarity Movement’s olive harvesting campaign with Palestinians.