Extending an olive branch

Victims of terror at Kibbutz Metzer attempt a joint farming venture with their Arab neighbors.

security fence 298.88 (photo credit: Ryan Nadal)
security fence 298.88
(photo credit: Ryan Nadal)
The ancient words of the Kaddish and the muezzin danced together in the air. The rabbi, uniformed in the grey of the Border Police, stood by the grave of Yitzhak Dori swaying to the ancient rhythms. Itzik, as he was known, was killed four years ago in a terrorist attack on Kibbutz Metzer. Itzik, the secretary of the kibbutz, was on guard duty when he heard shooting. A couple on an evening stroll stumbled upon an armed man hiding in the bushes near the center of the kibbutz. The couple ran in different directions. Tirza Damari tripped on a pipe. The terrorist shot and killed her. Her companion escaped. Awakened by the gunfire, Revital Ohayon turned on the lights and ran to her children's room. Recently divorced, she had moved to the kibbutz a couple of months earlier in an attempt to rebuild her life. The terrorist noticed the light, jumped the fence and broke into the house. He killed Revital and her two children Matan, five, and Noam, four, as she stood over them, trying to shield them. Itzik, following the noise, drove up to the house. The killer, trying to make his escape, shot him before he got out of his car. An armed member of the kibbutz chased the terrorist away. A year after the attack, IDF special forces tracked down and killed the terrorist, Fatah gunman Sirhan Sirhan. Itzik's tearful widow Tamar relayed her message at his graveside, "It's been four years, Itzik, but we continue to move forward." Metzer, on the Green Line east of Hadera in Wadi Ara, is home to 120 families, about 500 people. It is surrounded by the Arab towns of Baka al-Gharbiya and Meisar. According to kibbutz secretary Dov Avital, 40,000 Israeli Arabs neighbor the kibbutz. Directly across the Green Line are 20,000 Palestinians, 10,000 of whom live in the town of Kaffin, within eyeshot of the kibbutz. Founded in 1953 by South American immigrants, the kibbutz takes pride in the peaceful coexistence it fostered with its neighbors. As we walk through its grounds, Avital makes a special point of showing me a playground: "This is where Arab children from Meisar would come with their mothers and play." A small plaque commemorating the attack stands near the edge of the playground. It reads: "In memory of the victims of the terror attack on November 10, 2002... with the prayer that we and our children... will live to see Israel and her neighbors live in peace." The English text is sandwiched between Hebrew and Arabic. The children from Meisar do not come to play anymore. Now, in a pioneering proposition and as a continuation of this spirit of coexistence, Metzer has proposed a joint venture with the farmers of Kaffin. Dov Avital is the trailblazer of this project. Avital moved to the kibbutz from Uruguay in the early 1970s. He speaks English and Hebrew with a gentle, yet noticeable South American accent. His manner of speech carries a deep emotional undertone; even his simple invitation to lunch reflects an unexpected passion. Kibbutz members tapped Avital to take over as secretary the night of the attack, filling the void left by Itzik's murder. "We also used to have a joint school between Metzer and Meisar, but we found that it was too hard for the children to be integrated into their respective high schools after being in the school," he says as we walk away from the playground. IN 2002, the government began construction of the security fence. The proposed route would have cut off the farmers of Kaffin from 1,800 dunams (450 acres) of olive groves, about 70,000 trees. The groves are an important source of livelihood for the town of almost 10,000. In this area, the Green Line runs along a ridge demarcated by a dirt road and meter-high cement pillars about every seven meters. Standing on the dirt road, Avital explains the geography: "If you look west, you can see the coast; here Israel is only 12 kilometers wide. To the east is Kaffin." What I think are gun shots echo in the valley. Avital is unfazed by the sound. "This dirt road is the only thing marking the border," he says. A skimpy barbed-wire fence runs along the kibbutz land. "The fence is only to prevent our cows from wandering away," Avital says. "Before 1967 this road used to be shared by the Israelis and the Jordanians." He looks to be expecting a follow-up question to the confusing statement. He continues: "Two days a week the Israelis would patrol; two days a week the Jordanians would patrol the same road. The other three days a week they would have to fix the jeeps because the terrain is so rocky." Avital smiles at the irony of history and his joke. To the east, running down the side of the ridge into the valley, are the olive groves of Kaffin; the town is perched on a hill in the distance. To the west are Metzer's fields. The proposed path of the fence would run along the bottom of the valley, preventing direct access by the farmers of Kaffin to their olives. "When we learned about the fence, we protested the route. We realized that if our neighbors can't put food on their table, they will start to make bombs," Avital says. The kibbutz organized protests and petitioned the government to change the path of the fence. "We said the route should run along the Green Line, since the Green Line was specifically designed so it would not interfere with the fields. We felt that if the Green Line is eventually going to be the border, they should build the fence there." The kibbutz successfully lobbied Defense Ministry officials to come and see the area for themselves. "The problem was that you had officials sitting in air-conditioned offices in Tel Aviv drawing lines on maps. They didn't understand the reality here," Avital says. He offers his own explanation as to why the government would want to build the fence at the bottom of the hill. "There are two reasons: the first is obvious, the Green Line is on high ground. You don't have to be a general to realize that a border on high ground is bad strategically." The second reason is not as obvious: "The government specifically did not want to build the fence along the Green Line because it would have appeared that they are building a border. They didn't want it to be political; they wanted to be able to say it's only for security reasons and we'll move it when we decide on a final border." As we walk back to the car, a bus of tourists pulls up to the Green Line. A group of pensioners file out, their tour guide in the lead. Some carry umbrellas to shade themselves. Avital exchanges greetings with the leader. He turns to me and says, "That guy used to be a high-ranking Shin Bet [Israeli Security Agency] officer, now he leads tour groups explaining the situation on the ground to Israelis who have no idea what it's like." TAISIR HARASHI, the mayor of Kaffin, offers a different, blunt and simple explanation for the fence route. "I know the main reason for the security fence is to confiscate land. If they really wanted security, then the fence would have been on the Green Line. Because it is built deep beyond the line, they really intend to confiscate land, to annex land." Harashi has been the mayor of Kaffin for the past six years. A small man with a delicate mustache, an engineer by training, he speaks English well. He summarizes the history of the town. "Before 1948, Kaffin had 28,000 dunams; in 1948, we lost 18,000 dunams, the land where Metzer is now and beyond. The town used to border Hadera. With the construction of the wall, we lost between 4,000 and 5,000 dunams." Harashi embraced the support of the kibbutz. "The kibbutz acted differently than other Jews... they felt that if the people of Kaffin suffer, it will give them motivation to be violent. I agree with that." The Defense Ministry stresses that the fence is purely a security measure, stating plainly: "Security considerations dictate the route of the security fence and Kaffin is not an exception." Ministry officials were scheduled to visit the area on November 11, 2002. The goal of the meeting was to show the officials the geography and the reality of life in the area. The night before the meeting, the kibbutz was attacked. The meeting did not take place. The fence was constructed according to the original route, cutting the farmers off from direct access to their land. "There are certain groups that want to prevent cooperation; Kaffin was the only town which was willing to agree to the construction of the security fence. Some people didn't like this. Extremists, who don't want there to be any cooperation between Arabs and Jews, specialize in proving there is no hope, otherwise they are out of business," Avital says. "In my opinion," says Harashi, "we don't know really who attacked the kibbutz. It was a revenge killing; someone might have had brothers or sisters killed. They chose the kibbutz because it's a calm place without many weapons. The incident was expected because of confiscated land." Choosing his words carefully, he explains the effect of the attack on Kaffin. "The accident affected the Kaffin area worse and worse. The wall was originally supposed to have agricultural gates, but they were not installed as a military reaction to the accident." The gates provide farmers access to land cut off by the security fence. In addition to the construction of agricultural gates, the government also offered compensation to farmers whose fields were expropriated. Furthermore, the judicial channel was consistently available for Palestinians to lodge formal complaints with the government. The situation in Kaffin is dire. According to Harashi, unemployment is around 80 percent. "The farmers of Kaffin used to only live off the land; now we only have 5,000 dunams to support 10,000 people. People also used to work as laborers in Israel; 80% of the population used to depend on working inside the Green Line. With the fence we lost both sources of income, the farming and labor over the Green Line." The members of the kibbutz are again trying to improve the lives of their neighbors. This time, however, they rejected the bureaucratic path and have struck a business deal. THE BLACK Suburban sporting diplomatic license plates idles as the slow moving kibbutz gate retracts. It lumbers through the rusted yellow gate; one of the occupants rolls down the window. Wearing ties and jackets, the officials in the back look around awkwardly; the driver asks me where the meeting is. The Suburban is carrying US government officials, invited by the kibbutz and two NGOs working on the project, to a presentation explaining the proposed joint venture between the farmers of Kaffin and Metzer. The project needs money. There are two aspects to the proposed project: the production of organic olive oil from trees owned by the farmers of Kaffin and the production of organic herbs. The olives will be harvested from the groves east of the Green Line and the oil will be produced on kibbutz land in presses yet to be built. The 60 dunams of greenhouses for the herbs will be built both on kibbutz land and Kaffin land. The exact layout of the infrastructure is not yet finalized. It was assumed that 30 dunams would be on Kaffin land and 30 on kibbutz land, an equal partnership. Avital, however, believes that the inevitable establishment of a Palestinian state warrants that the majority of the infrastructure be built on Palestinian land. "If there is a possibility that the eventual border between Israel and the Palestinian territories will be closed, we want most of the project on the Arab side of the Green Line because they need it more than us," he says. But to meet local and international health standards, a portion of the infrastructure has to be in Israel to receive the needed licenses for domestic sales and international export. The production of the herbs will employ 40-50 individuals, the majority of whom will come from Kaffin. AVITAL BRINGS the meeting - six officials from the US Embassy and USAID, kibbutz officials, Mayor Harashi, the head of the Kaffin farmers cooperative and the directors of the NGOs Ahali Community Development and the Palestinian Agriculture Relief Committee - to order. "We are sitting here trying to do something together as if there is no war, no killing," Avital says. "This is something wonderful." Privately, he says to me, "The meetings are amazing - Jews, Arabs and Palestinians sitting and talking about what to plant." Avital stresses that the project is one of partnership, not patronization: "Through cooperation we create better lives for ourselves and for our children rather than just fighting." For him, the goal of the project is simple: "We want to help our neighbors. We had the opportunity to do something and create jobs and added value with things we know and resources they have. Neighbors should help each other, but it is in our own self-interest too. If they don't have life, we won't have life. There is no such thing as one-sided security, but this won't stop the crazies." The justification of the project in the face of the tragedy the kibbutz suffered is not as simple: "If they stop our way of life, the way of cooperation and human values, if they change our way of life, they have won. This requires courage. The people of the kibbutz naturally decided to continue a cooperative way of life." Explaining the attitude of the kibbutz members, Avital talks of the day after the attack. "The next day, media from all over the world came here. I have never seen so many reporters. I made the decision to allow people to speak freely. The most amazing thing happened. Everyone sent the same message: We are not going to allow this to destroy our values." Avital however says that "the attack destroyed our naivete that just because we are good neighbors, we are exempt from crazy elements. We need to protect ourselves, but we cannot let our armor destroy our essence." Harashi sees the project from a different vantage point. "We want to do this because we are afraid of losing our land. The way of keeping our land is by having access to it. We are happy to have an excuse to have 40 or 50 farmers with access to the land throughout the year. It shows ownership." He adds, "I think this is a model of cooperation. The best way to live with somebody is to know them through relationships." Mustafa Natour, director of Ahali Community Development, adds another component. "The first goal is economic; if it is not economically feasible, then it is not going to work. The second goal is for this to be a model for future cooperation. If it's not a model, then it's not worth investing the time. The economic aspect determines if the project is a success. The social and political effects are by-products." He describes the role of the NGO as a facilitator. "We will perform the technical support and work on the fund-raising. But day-to-day management of the project will be between the kibbutz and the cooperative. Together with the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee, we are sponsors and organizational planners." The Agriculture Ministry, through its community consulting arm, is also advising the project. All parties involved hope the project will be a model for others, but the expectations are modest. "We are responsible for our neighborhood, not the entire Middle East," says Avital. "This is not a grand statement. It is just olives, a microcosm. If we are an inspiration so be it. We are just trying to live our lives according to our values." "This is a pilot project. If it succeeds, other places can duplicate it," says Natour. He is already looking into the feasibility of a water-sharing project between Kibbutz Magal and its Arab neighbors. AFTER TWO presentations to the US delegation outlining the technical aspects of the project, such as which herbs will be planted, how much it will cost and what type of greenhouses to build, Natour turns to them and asks, "What do you think?" Mike Martin, the program economist for USAID, responds. "A year ago we sponsored such projects in agrobusinesses. But after the election of Hamas, we have been given different guidelines and we now focus on domestic household projects. Under the circumstances, we cannot move forward with this project. We would need special permission. We have been given clear guidelines that we can't pursue these types of projects." Alan Pieper, of the Palestinian Agribusiness Partnership Activity, a division of USAID, confirms that policy. Neither Pieper nor Martin would elaborate on the reasons why the State Department has cut off funding to such projects that have no relation to the Hamas administration. The excitement and hope seep from the room. The Americans said no. Avital quickly stands. "It is easier to say no than yes, but we are a stubborn people and will push forward," he declares. THIS GROUP of pioneers faces many challenges. The project continues to seek sources of funding. Of the $2 million requested for the venture, the group is seeking $15,000-$20,000 to conduct preliminary planning and design. The financial, perhaps, is the least of their worries. The political roadblocks are at the forefront. "I don't expect it will succeed because of political problems. But I agree that the two groups should continue working together," says Harashi. Reflective of the internal conflicts plaguing Palestinian society, some level of official sanction is required for the protection of the participants from extreme Palestinian elements. "We need written support from [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas' office in order to protect us. We won't proceed until we have that," said Khalil Shiah, executive director of Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee. "I believe his office would be supportive of this." According to Natour, PARC "has the power" to influence the necessary parties to ensure the protection of those involved in the project. The simple logistics of the project also pose complexities. Attaining daily permits for the workers from Kaffin to cross the security fence is not a simple matter. "This is another reason for the project to be mainly on the Arab side of the Green Line," says Avital. The political issues even affect the agricultural realm. "We also need to take into account if the border is closed for three or four days, can the crops survive without workers," he says. Again, the good intentions of the kibbutz hang on the political climate. A meeting with military officials is scheduled for the end of November. At the memorial ceremony, Avital defined the message of Metzer: "We come here to build the future." Echoing the words of Itzik's widow, Tamar, the kibbutz continues to move forward against the political and social currents, breaking boundaries and mending social fences. Avital understands the place of this project in the context of the greater issues facing the Middle East, yet he is not overwhelmed by the enormity of those issues. "We are a lighthouse in a storm - we can't stop the storm, but we can help one ship's skipper."