Jayyus farmers at the mercy of the occupation

Palestinian farmers plant trees during a demonstration against the Israeli wall, 30 March 2009. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

The wall Israel has constructed on occupied Palestinian land since 2003 has had a devastating effect on the 4,000 residents of Jayyus, a village northeast of the West Bank town of Qalqiliya. The wall near Jayyus separates the farmers from 75 percent of their agricultural land. This is a major disaster for farmers who cultivate seasonal fruit and vegetables, which require continual tending. The placement of entry gates (which remain locked almost around the clock) means that access to their farm lands is determined by whoever controls the gate keys.

Almost six years after Israel began erecting the wall and almost five years after the International Court of Justice July 2004 advisory opinion ruling that the route of the wall on occupied land is illegal, the community struggles to survive.

I went to Jayyus in mid-March to meet Mazooz Qaddumi, who works in the village’s municipality office for citizen complaints, and asked him to describe some of the problems faced by its residents.

“The permit system has been in place for five years,” Qaddumi explained, referring to the requirement that landowners apply for and receive a permit from Israeli authorities to go through the gate to access their fields. “From the beginning, we rejected the imposition of permits on us; we wanted to pass through the gates using our ID cards.”

He added that “the Israelis waited until the guava harvest season, and then they flooded us with permits. Everyone in Jayyus got one, whether living or dead, young or old. We didn’t know what to do; if we didn’t distribute the permits, the guava would rot. If we distributed them, we give legitimacy to the wall. The permits sat in the municipality for two weeks while the mayor spoke to various Palestinian Authority officials, and finally we were told to distribute the permits.

“The Israelis now give permits to whomever they want. Two days ago, I submitted 44 permit applications and got approvals for six. They might give to a farmer’s wife or his daughter but not to the one person in the family who needs it most. Or they give it to the handicapped father but not to the son who does the work. The length of the permits varies, too. It could be a week, a month, or a year. If I submit an application for someone who still has one, they say his permit is still good [and ask, so why are you applying?] Some get permits enabling them to work but if the permit expires before the harvest, there is no guarantee that they will be given another permit to harvest their crops.”

Qaddumi explained that when applying for permits, “There is an Israeli who has a map and a computer and he sees where your land is, whether inside the wall or beyond it. This is his specialty. He decides whether I have the right to enter my property or not.”

He added that “Since 15 February we’ve only received six permits out of 125 applications. We sent a list of applications over on 21 January but we haven’t had any response yet. But 25 percent of Jayyus farmers can’t get permits to reach their fields. The Israelis say we will get permits if we stop throwing stones at them.”

The granting of permits by the occupation forces is not only offensive for the obvious reason that it makes Palestinians dependent on permission from an enemy occupier to work their own property. It is also objectionable because it gives the occupation authorities an opportunity to control residents’ lives in a variety of ways. We were joined by Dr. Abdul Haleem Khalid, a landowner who was also awaiting a permit to access his land.

Dr. Khalid explained, “My brother Majid works in Bethlehem and so that was listed on his ID as his place of residence. As a result, the Israelis decided that he doesn’t have any real relationship to the land, and he was denied a permit. Several Jayyus landowners are facing this same problem.”

He added that “They even get involved in matters of inheritance. They look at your property and the number of heirs, and they insist that we apply for each parcel separately. Then they decide that each share is too small to warrant a permit, so the application is rejected. But we aren’t allowed to apply for the entire piece of property.”

Qaddumi described the many problems created by the gates, which are used to choke the villagers further. Just as the Israelis approved permit applications all the time when the wall was first built, they initially also kept the gates opened around the clock. Gradually they started to restrict the hours, and now they are open for hour-long intervals three times a day. Individuals can get through on foot, but no equipment. Nor are the Israelis committed to the times they say the gate will be open; a Bedouin family that lives beyond the wall say they took a son and daughter out of school because the gate openings made it impossible for the children to get to school on time.

As with many things involving the Israeli occupation forces, they act with impunity. They are the law. And the laws are designed to seize Palestinian land and water resources. The catch-22 nature of the laws reveals Israeli ingenuity at its cruelest, and almost certainly is designed to make sure the locals never for a moment forget that they are an occupied and defeated people.

Qaddumi offered one example, explaining, “When you go through a gate, you are subjected to a thorough body search. A machine does the search, like the kind in airports and at the [land border] bridge. If there is metal, it starts to ring. You have to return by the same gate you went through, and if that gate is closed, you are out of luck.”

Because access to the land is so limited and unpredictable, arrangements were made with the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli occupation authorities to allow construction materials through the gates so that farmers could build small shelters, which would protect them from the winter rain and summer heat and allow them longer access to their property. When these were completed, the owners were notified that the rooms were built without a license and would have to be destroyed. They were given three months to vacate.

“We have a lawyer from Jerusalem working on this; we can’t get a permit to go to a Jerusalem court. We believe that the shelters that are threatened with destruction are the ones that will be in the path of the wall when it is rerouted,” Qaddumi said, referring to the Israeli high court’s February 2009 decision to reroute the wall. The ruling restores to the residents about 10 percent of the land and one well; three wells will remain beyond the wall. Water is expensive, and most residents don’t have money to secure food, let alone water.

He added, “There are barracks that the farmers have cows and goats in. The Israelis served them a demolition notice. Their excuse is that from these barracks, kids are stoning the soldiers and that this poses a threat to the security of the soldiers when they pass by. So the families hired Palestinian lawyers from within Israel.

“When farmers can’t access their lands, they have to hire people to harvest their crops. Sometimes we get Palestinians in Israel and some of our supporters to work the fields and pick the olives. They enter from the Israeli side. We have a coordinator who works with [the Israeli human rights group] B’Tselem, and he gets them group permits. They need a permit to come to us, because this is considered a closed military area.

“When a farmer sends produce to the [the areas of the West Bank under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority], an Israeli soldier stops him at a checkpoint and tells him to unload all the crates in his truck so that it can be searched.”

The difficult Israeli-imposed conditions have made it impossible for farmers to make a living. But still the people are desperate to keep their land productive; if the land remains unplanted for five years, Israeli law says it can be seized. And Jayyus farmers know that the state is eyeing the land in order to expand the nearby settlement.

“Farming is no longer even profitable. A farmer doesn’t make two dollars a day, and still he has to fight to get to his land. And then he sells his goods for a pittance. We have a young man who lost three greenhouses in the rains. Who will compensate him for that? For 60 days he planted and tended to the shoots. And then he can’t get a permit and all his effort is wasted. I can give him a letter from the municipality to take to higher authorities describing the situation, but that’s all I can do. From there it goes up the chain, and it ends up in someone’s drawer.”

After the Palestinian Authority announced that 18 farmers were eligible for compensation for their losses, they made the trek to Qalqiliya, only to receive 300 shekels (less than $75) — not a fraction of the actual losses and almost not worth the time and expense incurred to receive them.

Like the village of Bilin, Jayyus too holds weekly nonviolent protests against the wall. Likewise, its residents have come under vicious attack by the occupation army.

“The Israelis come to us all the time, at night. No one gets any sleep. On Fridays, there are 10 to 12 military jeeps that come here. They use tear gas on residents, and the gas pervades the residential areas. This causes miscarriages, and we’ve raised complaints to the relevant authorities.

“On 17 to 18 February, they imposed a curfew on the village and entered the village at night and arrested 11 people. They searched house by house and destroyed property. They took passports, hard discs from computers and money. They converted this school over here to a detention center like Guantanamo. They interrogate. They brought 120 men here and divided them, each 10 in a classroom.”

Dr. Khalid recounted his family’s experience: “They put me and my wife and kids in the kitchen and searched our home. They trailed mud on the rugs and went through my son’s closet, not leaving anything in place. They made me and my five kids go downstairs so they could search upstairs. For half an hour they made me stand outside barefoot at 2am. They are trying to destroy us psychologically.

“Because the villagers continue to protest the wall, they have found that their youth are vulnerable to attempts by the occupation authorities to turn them into collaborators. Many young men [16 to 20 years old] have been detained and beaten and told that the price of their permit would be to name the leaders of the weekly protests.”

Qaddumi took me to meet 22-year-old Mohammad Khaled, who was “invited” to become a collaborator in exchange for securing a permit. He explained that:

“On 18 February at 1:30am they took me from my home to the school, and from there they transferred me to Huwwara, a military installation. They took me for interrogation and accused me of throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. I told them I had nothing to do with this, and I refused to sign a confession. When I got home, I found that they had taken my permit. [It had been good for a year.] So I went to the DCO [District Coordination Office], and they told me, you want your permit, there is one condition — you have to cooperate with us. They wanted names of the young men who were throwing stones. I refused. He said, that’s the only way you will get a permit, and I said, I don’t want a permit. Yesterday I was told to just go directly to the gate and try my luck. So I go back and forth.”

He added, “Some young men with me, they were threatened and they confessed even though they hadn’t done anything. They were imprisoned for three months and fined 1,000 shekels. They frightened them with dogs. One 16-year-old was charged in the car and fined. Where can his father come up with 1,000 shekels? His father is unemployed.

“The DCO can’t do anything. I submitted an application, and they told me they don’t know what will happen to it. It’s been a month now. We have two dunums [of land] planted with tomatoes, and now they are ripe. I’m sending workers there, and it costs me 70 shekels. And now tomatoes are very cheap, so the whole thing is a loss.”

Despite the crushing odds, the entire village seems determined to resist at all costs. Qaddumi explained that “No Israeli soldier or prime minister is going to change our opposition to the occupation and to the wall. There can be no peace as long as there is a wall and there is an occupation. This is the belief of the people of Jayyus, and I say that as the coordinator of the popular resistance to the wall. If I don’t get rid of the wall, my son will.”

Ida Audeh is a Palestinian from the West Bank who lives in Boulder, Colorado. Her op-eds and articles have been published by the The Rocky Mountain News, The Daily Camera, The Electronic Intifada, Countercurrents, and Counterpunch. She can be reached at idaaudeh A T yahoo D O T com.