As the olive harvest begins...

Barrier prevents some Palestinians to cultivate thousands of dunams.

October 13, 2007 22:06
As the olive harvest begins...

palestinian olive trees . (photo credit: AP)


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The olive-picking season, one of the seminal events in the Palestinian agricultural calendar, officially begins on Sunday when people all over the West Bank are due to begin harvesting their annual crop. But it will not be a festive day for Shareef Omar, 65, head of the Agricultural Cooperative Society of Jayus, a village of 3,700 located at the edge of the security barrier, 15 kilometers east of Kfar Saba. Eight thousand dunams, or 2,000 acres, some 80 percent of all the farmland owned by Jayus villagers, is located on the Israeli side of the barrier. According to the government, all the lands owned by Palestinians that are situated on the Israeli side of the barrier are known as "seam zones." To protect the Tzufin settlement and a large, undeveloped industrial area adjacent to it, the Defense Ministry and the army designed the route of the barrier such that thousands of dunams belonging to Jayus and two smaller villages, Azun and Nebi Elias, ended up on the Israeli side. In defending the route of the barrier around Tzufin and many other Jewish settlements, the state promised that Palestinian farmers who owned land in the seam zone would be given special permits to cultivate it. Access would be arranged through 60 small gates to be built along the length of the barrier. The permits and gates were meant to prove that the separation barrier was built solely to protect the settlements and not to establish Israel's future border or annex the Palestinian-owned land. Omar owns 175 dunams in the seam zone, including about 2,000 olive trees. Last year, the trees yielded a bumper crop that translated into five tons of olive oil. This year, neither Omar nor his sons have permits to enter the seam zone. Omar's wife is the only one in the family with permission to harvest the olives. He is not the only one in that situation. There are 650 families in Jayus. More than 100 people, most of them presumably heads of families or their sons, have been barred entry to their lands. Of these, about 34 have lost their permits for security reasons. More than 70 others have been barred entry for technical or bureaucratic reasons. The civil administration refuses to accept Palestinian documentary proof. Proof of ownership must be demonstrated with Israeli documents only. Omar gave an example of the problems this creates. In the years before the Six Day War, his family name was Omar. Israel decided to change the family names so that they would reflect the larger extended family, in this case, "Khaled." Shareef's father was known as Muhammad Omar Muhammad. Shareef is listed in Israeli documents as Shareef Muhammad Omar Khaled. In two more generations, both the names "Muhammad" and "Omar" will disappear from the Israeli records and Shareef's grandson will not be able to prove he is the rightful inheritor of the land. Omar is a unique figure in the Palestinian rural hinterland. He is charming, eloquent, self-confident and worldly. During the village's losing battle against construction of the barrier, Omar made many friends among Israeli peace activists as well as with Palestinian and international supporters. In 2004, during the deliberations of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the barrier, he testified against it at The Hague and presented a list of farmers Palestinian farmers from the area who were being barred from accessing their lands. According to Omar, Israeli officials who were observing the court's procedures later asked Omar for the list. When he returned home, he found that many of the names he mentioned had been given permits. "They wanted to show that I had been lying to the court," he said. When he asked how he could get a permit, Israeli officials allegedly told him that he could do so by keeping his mouth shut. Soon afterwards, on April 1, 2004, he received a permit for six months. The permit was extended for another six months and then for two years. Then, on June 18, 2007, he was informed that it would not be renewed. According to Omar, he asked for a hearing and met with Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) officials the following month. "They asked me about left-wing Israeli organizations and about what I had done during a visit to the UK in February," he told The Jerusalem Post. "They did not explain why they refused to renew my permit," he said. He has not been to his orchards since. After spending a year planting, watering and taking care of his avocado trees, he had been forced to hire laborers to harvest the crop. "I do not suffer financially from Israel's refusal," he told the Post. "The loss is the feeling that I am deprived of my land." Omar is convinced that his permit was not extended because he participated in a debate at Cambridge University in February in which he was asked whether he supported Palestinian suicide bombings and other terrorist actions. He told the Post he had unequivocally rejected them. He was not the last resident of Jayus to lose his permit. Abdel Rauf Mustafah Mahmud Khaled's permit expired on September 26 and has also not been renewed. Abdel Rauf, 64, is a retired school teacher. He did not inherit family land but managed to put aside money from his wages and his wife's work to buy 22 dunams of land, all of which is located on the Israeli side of the barrier. According to Abdel Rauf, the land cost him a total of 60,000 dinars (roughly NIS 400,000). It includes three hothouses, four dunams of fruit orchards, two dunams of orange trees and 12 dunams of olive trees. "I bought the land for my sons," he told the Post. But some of his sons are also apparently the source of his troubles. Abdel Rauf has never been in trouble with the authorities. But his second oldest son, he said proudly, was a leader in Fatah's Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades. In December 2006, the 22-year-old student was shot and killed by IDF troops. Two other sons are currently in jail. Another son, Bakr, was in charge of the hothouses. He left school when he was 13 and devoted the next few years to farming and to developing them. He, too, does not have a permit to cross the barrier. As a result of the loss of his work and the death of his brother, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Now he is back home with nothing to do. Omar has a similar story. One of his sons studies agricultural engineering and is now working for US Aid, the United States Agency for International Development. He was supposed to take over the land and develop it according to the modern techniques he had learned. He too, however, is barred from entering his land. In the meantime, according to Omar, a Kafkaesque story has developed over the Palestinian lands in the southern section of the Tzufin enclave. The current route of the barrier includes hundreds of dunams of farmland on the Israeli side, even though the land is empty. The area was designated for a future industrial area for the settlement. The High Court of Justice ruled that the barrier could not be built to protect nonexistent settlers and ordered it shifted further north. Since the ruling, the army has come up with a proposal for a new route that would "reunite" the farmland with its owners from Jayus, Nebi Elias and Azun. On the ground, the old barrier still exists and farmers from Nebi Elias must still enter through a farmer's gate near their village. But guards at the gate allegedly refuse to recognize their permits because the farmers don't need them any more since the area is no longer a seam zone. Since the original barrier still exists and no permits are recognized, the farmers from Nebi Elias are simply not allowed in, according to Omar. Jamila Biso, a Syrian-born Jewish Israeli activist who has "adopted" Jayus does not mince words. "The government wants to demoralize the farmers so that they will abandon their lands," she said. Some Israeli left-wing organizations are convinced that the government is denying permits to the farmers as a first step toward expropriating their land. They also believe that the government envisages the barrier as the final border with a future Palestinian state. Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Coordinator of Activities in the Administered Territories, categorically denied the allegations. The only Palestinians who were prevented from entering the seam zones were those who were blocked for security reasons or who had not conclusively proven they owned the land in question, he told the Post. Dror added that any Palestinian who had been denied a permit for security reasons could appeal the decision to a committee made up of Shin Bet officials. Many of these appeals had been accepted, he added. He also said the civil administration must carefully check land titles because there had been occasions where Palestinians cultivated land that did not belong to them, or exploited the permits to cross into Israel to find work. Dror stressed that when a farmer was barred from entering the seam zone, the civil administration allowed others, members of the family or hired workers, to cultivate the land on his behalf. The civil administration would make sure that "every last tree" in the West Bank, including in the seam zone, was harvested, he said. Dror said the allegations regarding Nebi Elias were unfounded. "The civil administration makes certain that Palestinian farmers can cultivate their land everywhere," he told the Post. Even Palestinians who owned land inside the residential area of Modi'in Illit were allowed to cultivate it, he said.

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