Adri Nieuwhof and Bangani Ngeleza recently visited the occupied Palestinian territories. On a hot summer day, they travelled with a Palestinian guide from Ramallah to Jarushya, north of Tulkarem. The aim of the trip was to visit families that are affected by the Wall. The guide had contacted a leader of the community in Tulkarem and arranged for a meeting. He would accompany the travellers to show the impact of the Wall on the lives of Palestinian families.
Driving to Tulkarem
The trip to Tulkarem is not easy for our driver. He complains that the roads in the West Bank are changing fast. The Israeli regime is working full speed on the construction of the network of highways cutting right through the occupied Palestinian territories and incorporating parts of traditional Palestinian roads.
Many signs in Arabic alongside the road directing the drivers to Palestinian villages and towns are disappearing. New signs in Hebrew are put up indicating how to reach the Jewish settlements. It is another expression of the self-centeredness of the Israeli regime and the denial of the existence of the Palestinian people.
When we finally reach Tulkarem our guide phones Mohamed (not his real name), a well-respected leader of the community. Mohamed was a rich businessman who lost properties and income due to the Wall. He is now involved in mobilising the families that are hit by the Wall. After a couple of minutes he arrives by taxi and joins us to go to a village near Jarushya where we will meet a family with the Wall in their backyard. On our way he explains that the village counts 130 members of one family.
The family used to export olive oil and almonds, but the Wall has separated them from their land. The financial situation of the family has been badly affected. Mohamed says, “We call the Wall the Apartheid Wall. Our situation is like Apartheid, although we feel our case is worse”.
The story of a farmer’s family
The family has been living for four generations on its land of 450 dunams (450,000 square metres). The father of the family, a fragile old man with a deeply wrinkled face, is informed about our visit and joins us in the living room, using his walking stick. He has British papers to show that he is the owner of the land. His wife has died but she is looking down at us from a large portrait on the wall in the living room. His son Jamal (not his real name) is proud of his mother and while he points to her portrait he repeats what his mother used to say: “peace is the way”. He continues, “our land is important for us. We have built our houses from this land. We were married on this land. Our children studied from this land. We used to produce 12 tons of olive oil and 8 tons of almonds per year.”
“In 2002, we received a confiscation order for our land. Our family is one of the first that was affected by the Wall. Look, there is the Wall in our backyard, less than 10 metres from our house. 3,000 of our olive trees were uprooted to create space for the Wall. It is built on our land and cuts us off from our farmland. We had to ask permission from the Israeli regime to work on our land. For two years we did not receive this permission, the trees were dying.”
“According to an old law from the Ottoman period, land that has not been fertilised for three years can be confiscated. Now we have a permit, but it is only valid for a restricted period. On the back of the permit it is stated that you acknowledge that the land is not yours. It makes me cry.”
He continues and tells us, “One of their other games is to give permission to work on the land only to the first owner and his son. In my case this means that my old father and I can go to our land, but my wife and son not. Israel is playing with old laws. Under British rule the taxes for land were high, so Palestinian farmers would state that they owned less land than in reality. The Israelis use the British papers to prove that some land is not ours.”
A view of the Wall
We all go to the roof to get a clear picture of the situation. As far as our eyes can see there are hills with the family’s olive and almonds orchards. But we also see the Wall in between in the backyard. Barbed wire, followed by a circa two metre deep ditch which will impede vehicle crossing. Then a dirt road that can be used for army patrols. The wired fence is three metres high; we are on the other side with a road of fine sand that will preserve footprints of anyone trying to pass. While we are there, a jeep sweeps it for possible footprints. This is done every day. Next to the sand path there is paved road for the border police. And again, there is barbed wire to finish the Wall off. Surveillance cameras are aimed beyond the fence at West Bank to detect approaching dangers. The Wall, including the patrolling roads and barbed wire on two sides, is about 40 metres wide.
Jamal tells us, “When they built the Wall, the bulldozer guy uprooted all the trees near our houses. Look there, 25 metres over there - there used to be trees. Than he said, sorry, we took the wrong line, and he started uprooting trees from another line, where the Wall is now. We were able to replant some of the trees, but not all”.
Harassment at the gate
The gates allowing one to cross to the farming land are five kilometres away. Jamal explains: “Can you imagine that we have to travel five kilometres up and down to reach our former backyard?” We are not allowed to go with our cars or tractors through the gate. We can only use our donkeys, but they can carry only up to 100 kilograms. It makes it practically impossible to bring in the olives that we still succeed to harvest. There are signs at the gates that they are open at specific hours, from seven to ten ‘o clock in the morning and evening. If you want to pass the gate, you had better be there at five and wait for the soldier to be in the mood to open. Last Ramadan we were humiliated, we had to stand in three lines, one for men, [one for] women and [one for] donkeys. We had to take off our clothes to prove that we don’t carry weapons”.
The old man does not speak one word, but his eyes are fixed on his land. He takes a seat on a plastic chair, one hand on his knee, the other hand on his walking stick. Mohamed is testing the ground by telling us that he could tell us about what is happening at the gates, but he refrains from it. It will make him cry like a child. We indicate that we can deal with it; he can tell us if he wants to.
We go back to the living room and are offered more delicious Arabic coffee. Mohamed starts to tell about what is happening at the checkpoint, tears in his eyes. And we are listening with wild beating hearts. He says, “Our people are harassed by the Israeli soldiers. It is not only that we have to deal with their tempers, do they allow us to pass. In one case five soldiers abused a farmer here at the gate. They forced him while they held him at gunpoint to take his trousers off and made him fuck his donkey. I am crying like a child, but I wanted to tell you this, so that you can tell the world about our humiliations.” The eyes of the family are fixed on us and we are speechless for a while. Our coffee is cold and untouched.
We will stay on our land
After some time Jamal continues, “Palestinians still shake hands with Israelis to make peace. But Israel does not want peace; they want our land. Israel asks for security, but where is my security? We live in a jail. How can we feed our families? I don’t have enough money for my daughter to marry. We will stay in our house. It will make the soldiers nervous and aggressive. They sometimes shoot at us.”
“Now Israel will declare this area a security zone. For what? Are they afraid of children throwing stones? We fear the next step will be the demolition of our houses. Palestinians don’t see any hope in the peace process. We will stay on our land. It is our land. We have to confront the Israelis and raise our children to face the difficulties. I know the Israelis have children. We want to have peace for our children. We want our land. We want freedom to move. We want to pray in our Mosque in Jerusalem. People have to join us in our struggle. We can’t get our hands free without the support of this world. We will not lose hope.”
Adri Nieuwhof and Bangani Ngeleza are independent consultants based in respectively the Netherlands and South Africa