In Gaza, farming under fire

Palestinian farmers harvest their crops near Israel’s “buffer zone” in the Gaza Strip. (ISM)


KHAN YOUNIS, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - “They’re always shooting at us. Every day they shoot at us,” says Alaa Samour, 19, pulling aside his shirt to show a scar on his shoulder. Samour said he was shot on 28 December last year by Israeli soldiers positioned along the border fence near New Abassan village, east of Khan Younis in the south of the Gaza Strip.

“We were cutting parsley like we do almost every day, and the soldiers began shooting. We started crawling away. When I got out of the line of fire I realized my shoulder was bleeding and that I had been shot.”

A month later, out of necessity, Samour was back in the fields. Like many other impoverished laborers from the Khan Younis area, Samour is employed by farmers to harvest parsley, spinach and pea crops in the fertile eastern region. He brings home 20 shekels ($5) per day of labor, his contribution to a family where the father cannot earn enough to cover their food needs.

Sayed Abu Nsereh works on the same land. Well accustomed to the firing from the Israeli soldiers at the border, Abu Nsereh explains how farmers on the field crawl to a “safe” area — a slight depression in the field — when the shooting begins. Lying face down, they are temporarily safe, though they must still wait for the shooting to cease and the soldiers to leave before they can leave.

The field is roughly half-way into a kilometer-wide band of land running along the Gaza side of the boundary with Israel, an area unilaterally designated by Israeli authorities as the “buffer zone,” or more recently, the “no-go zone.” At inception a decade ago, the “buffer zone” encompassed a 150-meters-wide stretch of land flanking the border south to north. In this region Palestinians could not walk, live or work due to what Israel described as “security reasons.” It became wasted land, though extremely fertile.

At the end of Israel’s three weeks of attacks on Gaza late last December through January, which left more than 1,450 dead and over 5,000 injured, many critically so, Israeli authorities declared an expansion of the “buffer zone” into what they dubbed a no-go zone, expropriating yet more land from farmers and civilians in the area.

Prior to the attacks on Gaza, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees reported that of the 175,000 dunams (42,000 acres) (one dunam is 1,000 square meters) of cultivable land in the Gaza Strip, 50,000 dunams (12,000 acres) had been damaged by the Israeli army. These are the most fertile and productive agricultural areas, the “food basket” areas, the group reports. Following the attacks on Gaza, international bodies put the amount of destroyed land much higher: 60,000-75,000 dunams of farmland they say is now damaged or unusable.

In early February, the Guardian reported on the severe hit to Gaza’s agricultural sector. The article quoted representatives of the World Food Program and the Food and Agricultural Organization as saying that anywhere from 35 percent to 60 percent of the agriculture industry was destroyed by Israel’s attacks on Gaza, much of it not useable again due to the damage.

Even before the attacks, Gaza’s farming sector had been seriously devastated by the crippling siege on Gaza. Whereas Gaza had been producing half of its agricultural needs, the combination of siege and warfare on Gaza has led to the “destruction of all means of life,” including destroyed farmland along with hundreds of greenhouses, hundreds of wells and water pumps, and farming equipment.

The ability to produce food is vital to combating staggering malnutrition levels in the Gaza Strip, a region rendered impoverished by Israel’s blockade and the consequent soaring unemployment levels. According to PARC, due to the Israeli ban on fertilizers, seeds, plastic sheeting for greenhouses, and irrigation piping, among many other things, there has been a steady regression away from qualitative and productive farming practices: now farmers are planting crops requiring less care, such as wheat and barley, in place of the diversity of vegetables formerly grown. Many, such as Jaber Abu Rjila, believe that Israel’s real intention is further land annexation and control. Abu Rjila lives on a farm just under 500 meters from the border in al-Faraheen, slightly south of Abassan. He and neighbors had jointly cultivated the 300 dunams of land between his home and the border fence, growing a variety of crops including wheat, chickpeas and various greenhouse vegetables. But now, he says, he is only working on four dunams of land.

Since November 2008, Abu Rjila, his wife and their six children have not been able to live at home. The house, pock-marked by bullet holes along its border-facing walls, was subject to regular Israeli army shooting and violence prior to the recent 22 days of Israeli attacks.

In May 2008, all but 500 of Abu Rjila’s 3,000 chickens were killed by invading Israeli soldiers, said Abu Rjila. Soldiers at the same time also destroyed what Abu Rjila said was a $12,000 grain harvester and an $8,000 tractor. The asbestos roofing covering the chicken barn shattered from the explosions below which tore out barn walls and killed the poultry.

According to Abu Rjila, the Israeli soldiers destroyed two water pumps for his cistern, and used bulldozers and tanks to raze costly irrigation piping, along with approximately 2,000 different fruit and olive trees and grain plantations over 150 dunams. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) report on the invasion noted that 225 dunams of agricultural land had been razed in the area.

PCHR notes that the destruction of civilian property, including agricultural land, and the targeting of civilians are illegal under international human rights law including the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The siege is undeniably on Palestinians’ minds, but for farmers in the “buffer zone,” it is the regular and ongoing shooting from Israeli soldiers that concerns them. Their worries are reasonable: at least two farmers have been shot dead and at least five more injured by Israeli soldiers’ gunfire, all since Israel declared ceasefire 18 January.

Maher Abu-Rajileh (24) from Huzaah village, east of Khan Younis, was killed by soldiers that day when he returned with his parents and brother to farmland 400 meters from the boundary with Israel following Israel’s announcement of a ceasefire. At 10am, after he had spent two hours cleaning up the land from the destruction wreaked by Israeli bulldozers and tanks, Israeli soldiers opened fire, shooting Abu-Rajileh in the chest, killing him instantly.

On 20 January, Israeli soldiers fired on residents of al-Qarara, near Khan Younis, shooting Waleed al-Astal, 42, in his right foot. Soldiers opened fire on Khuzaa village, east of Khan Yunis, on 23 January, shooting Nabeel al-Najjar, 40, in the left hand. On 25 January, Israeli soldiers shot Subhi Qudai, 55, in the back while he was on Khuzaa village farmland. On 27 January, just outside of al-Faraheen, also east of Khan Younis, soldiers killed Anwar al-Buraim, 26, shooting him in the neck while he picked vegetables on land approximately 500 meters from the boundary with Israel.

On 3 February, Ismail Abu Taima was among a handful of farmers working to harvest parsley on his land near the border.

“The plants have not been watered for six weeks,” Abu Taima said, picking up valves and pieces of irrigation piping. The piping, destroyed by an Israeli army invasion prior to the war on Gaza, has become valuable in a region whose borders are sealed and where replacement parts for most things are unattainable or grossly expensive.

Over the course of a year Abu Taima invests about $54,000 in planting, watering and maintenance of crops on his land. From that investment, if all goes well and crops are harvested monthly, he can bring in about $10,000 a month, enough to pay off the investment and support the 15 families dependent on the harvest. “The borders are closed. We have no feed for our animals,” said Abu Taima, pointing to a lone donkey grazing in growth close to the border fence.

Before the afternoon’s work had finished, we were subjected to around 45 minutes of intense shooting from three or four soldiers visible on a mound less than 200 meters away, bullets flying within meters of the farmers’ heads and feet.

On 17 February, farmers returned to harvest land approximately 500 meters from the boundary with Israel where Anwar al-Buraim was shot dead weeks earlier. As the farm workers were leaving the land, Israeli soldiers targeted Muhammad al- Buraim, a deaf 20-year-old and cousin of Anwar. Muhammad was with a group of approximately 10 farmers pushing their stalled pick-up truck loaded with harvested produce when Israeli soldiers began sniping, hitting Muhammad in the right ankle and continuing to shoot as the farmers, surrounded by international human rights observers, moved away from the field and took shelter behind a nearby house.

The incident was sufficient to deter farmers from returning to that area for a month. When Mazen Samour and Sayed Abu Nasereh returned 19 March to the plot they had been working for roughly two years, it was not to harvest but to rip out the plastic irrigation piping they had carefully laid down months before. At roughly $70 per 250 meter bundle, the 30 bundles of piping covering the fields was too great an investment to simply leave behind.

“We haven’t come back here since Muhammad was shot,” said Abu Nasereh. Now, too afraid of being hit by Israeli border soldiers’ bullets, the men are abandoning the land for safer ground further inland.

Samour was present when his nephew Alaa Samour was shot in December, as well as when Anwar al-Buraim was fatally targeted. “We can rent land much further away from the border,” said Samour.

Across the border, on the Israeli side, tractors and crop-dusters can be seen working the land immediately next to the boundary with Israel. The “buffer zone” has been imposed solely on the Palestinian side.

These rural eastern border areas of the Gaza Strip are emptying, the land becoming more and more barren because farmers, many of whom have farmed here for generations, are now too frightened to live and work on their own land. The confines of the Gaza Strip, which is just 40 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide, are being shrunk even further by relentless Israeli invasions, by the imposition of an arbitrary and expanding “buffer zone” and by the targeting of civilians and farmers trying to live on and earn a living from their land.

Eva Bartlett is an activist-journalist who came to Gaza in November on the third Free Gaza boat. Along with other international witnesses, she was present with farmers during many of the shooting incidents reported.

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