Palestinian farmers demand access to fields

As a veteran farmer, Shareef Omar Khaled knows that the heat of a summer day is no time to be out in the fields working in his grape vines and cactus fields. But he has no choice, given that he is a Palestinian who lives in the village of Jayyus in Samaria, outside the security barrier, while his 175 dunams of agriculture fields remain on the Israeli side. At one time, before the fence was completed in this area in 2003, he and his wife and three sons would spend the week sleeping in a simple hut in the fields. This allowed them to work in the evening, at night and in the early morning. "It is better to irrigate the land during the night," he said. The gate's operational hours no longer allow him that luxury, he told a group of reporters who came to visit him on Monday on a field trip organized by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Now, he must enter the fields between 7 and 8 a.m. and leave no later than 5 p.m., the 65-year old farmer said as he stood on a hill overlooking his fields, wearing a simple white hat to protect him from the sun. In a report on Jayyus released Monday in advance of the fourth anniversary of the ruling against the barrier by the International Court of Justice at the Hague, OCHA said that the barrier has had a devastating effect on the 3,500 people who live in that small agrarian community. Israel has said that the barrier, aimed at physically separating Palestinian areas from Israeli ones, is necessary to protect its citizens from suicide bombers. Ray Dolphin, a UN consultant on the barrier, said his organization had no issue with Israel making use of a barrier as a protective device along the Green Line, but it objected to the fact that 87 percent of the barrier ran through the West Bank. On July 9, 2004, the ICJ said in a non-binding ruling that the West Bank sections of the barrier were illegal under international law. In the four years that have passed since that ruling, life has only gotten worse for the Jayyus farmers, who have 8,600 dunams of farm land on the Israeli side of the barrier, including 50,000 fruit and olive trees, six ground-wells and more than 70 greenhouses. According to Dolphin, the access hours as well as the permit system have made it impossible for farmers to continue to produce crops at the same level they did before the barrier was erected. The greenhouses, which need constant irrigation and care have been hit particularly hard, Dolphin said, and many of them are no longer operational. In the Jayyus fields, one could see that empty greenhouses dotted the landscape. There are fewer people available to work the land because only those who can prove that they have a connection to it can obtain permits, said Dolphin. Initially, in 2003, it was easy to get a permit and some 630 of them were handed out. According to Monday's UN report, only 168 permits were granted in June, and that was after the farmers presented a slew of documents that included ID cards, certificates of inheritance, ownership and or land taxation documents. The report stated that a 2007 UN survey showed that less than 20% of those who worked the land before the barrier was constructed were granted permits to farm. In the 2007 olive harvest season, according to the report, 419 workers applied for permits, but only 100 were granted, and those for one month only. The report charged that distribution of the permits is irregular, so some families received more than one while others were granted a single permit - often not given to the person most fit to work in the fields. Khaled, for example, noted that he had one, but none of his three sons did. Dolphin said the farmers are now planting low-maintenance crops such as grain instead of citrus, on which the economic yield is less. As a result, the report warned, "Jayyus is transformed from a net exporter of food to a community where social hardship cases receive food aid." In the past, the civil administration has denied such charges and said that permits were only denied for security reasons or when it was believed that Palestinians were trying to exploit them to cross into Israel to work illegally. The civil administration added that in the past, it has worked to ensure that Palestinian farmers can cultivate their land. But farmer Saleh Taher from Jayyus said that before the barrier was constructed, he was able to harvest 50 dunams' worth of crops, but now he could only cultivate two dunams's worth.