Creating new perspectives since 2009

Farming in the shadow of Israel's separation wall bears bitter fruits

July 9, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Muhammad Amira’s small garden in the West Bank village of Ni’lin is crammed with lemon trees, tomatoes and lettuces; his balcony is home to creeping vines bearing bunches of tiny grapes. These patches of land remind the father of four of his farming days. After losing all his land to Israel’s separation wall, the few fruits and vegetables he manages to grow serve as a bitter reminder of time when life was sweeter.

“As a farmer you feel that there is a difference between the smell of the food you grow and the food from the market,” said Amira as he gave us one of his grapes. “There is a connection between the farmer and the land, his soil, his plants… You see, the people of Ni’lin love to farm the land, but now it is more difficult.”

In 2004, the Israeli authorities started to build the separation wall; protests from the villagers managed to halt its progress on their land for 4 years. Amira remembers the arrival in 2008 of people who started to mark the area, and the bulldozers followed a week later. Without warning he was cut-off from his 30 dunums (7.5 acres) of land and upon the wall’s completion Ni’lin was left with just 56 per cent of its original land.

Amira gestures across the 8 metre-high concrete slabs where his land is still visible. Unkempt and unploughed, olive trees dotted all across it still bear buds and will be ready for harvesting when the season arrives.

Unfortunately, his application for a permit to cross the wall to tend his land is likely to be rejected and he will not be allowed to take part in the olive harvest, just as he has been in preceding years. He is not alone. The agricultural livelihoods of approximately 150 communities have been undermined severely by a permit and gate regime, which restricts access to farmland behind the wall. The majority of permit applications are rejected regularly on the grounds that the farmer failed to prove his “connection to the land” to the satisfaction of the Israeli authorities.

“It is not just olive trees,” says Amira. “We planted tomatoes, peas and corn under the trees. My wife made many foods from the corn; breads, pizza. The olive oil I put on my children’s skin as a medicine, any left-over I gave to my neighbours as gifts.” Amira’s sons have severe eczema which covers most of their bodies and the oil helped enormously.

Ni’lin’s residents and their supporters still protest every Friday in the hope that one day the separation wall will not exist; the protests have claimed 5 lives over the years. The village, which was once 58,000 dunums in size and stretched as far as the now Israeli cities of Ramle and Lod, is surrounded by illegal Jewish settlements, split by a road that divides the village into two halves, and hemmed in by the concrete wall.

Ten years ago today, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) deemed Israel’s separation wall, 85 per cent of which is built on Palestinian land, to be illegal under international law. The ICJ called on Israel to stop the construction of the wall in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem; dismantle the structure built in the occupied Palestinian territories; and make reparations for all damage caused by the wall’s construction. Israel has ignored the court.

On top of the land dispossession which has caused Amira to give up farming, upon completion of the wall Israel will have appropriated a total of 70 per cent of the West Bank’s share of the Western Aquifer Basin’s recharge area, making life for those who do get to keep their land even harder.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has long been strangling the livelihoods of Palestinian farmers, pre-dating the effects of the wall. Around 63 per cent of agricultural land in the West Bank is located in Area C and under Israeli military and civil control as stipulated in the Oslo Accords. Farmers whose land falls in that 63 per cent can no longer farm their land freely.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank have mushroomed, and settlement farms are able to produce a large quantity of crops at a low cost using pesticides, leaving traditional farmers unable to compete. Unequal water resources allocated to Palestinians and Jewish settlers living in the same territory makes keeping up almost impossible.

According to the Israeli occupation authorities, the value of goods produced in settlements and exported to Europe amounts to approximately $300 million a year. At the same time Israel is flooding the Palestinian market with cheap Israeli products whilst simultaneously controlling the Palestinian exports and imports. To ensure the limitation of the Palestinian agricultural market Israel has introduced a complete ban on fertiliser, which has cut agricultural output by an estimated 20-33 per cent.

The worsening economic situation gives farmers no other choice but to accept employment on the very same Israeli settlement farms that have destroyed their own livelihoods. Palestinian workers in illegal settlements earn, on average, less than half the minimum wage stipulated by Israeli law. As many as 1,000 Palestinian children are employed in Israeli settlements at any one time, with children as young as eleven working adult shifts as fruit-pickers.

Mohammed Amira struggles to see a time when he can return to his land. Like many others, he has now abandoned his days as a farmer and scratches a living by teaching in the local school and growing what he can in his backyard. As Ni’lin continues its fight 10 years after the ICJ advisory opinion, the farmers of the West Bank continue their struggle to survive in the shadow of Israel’s separation wall; it does indeed bear bitter fruits.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.