Kamal Kafarna could not be happier. He is harvesting his wheat with his own hands from his land that he was prevented from accessing for fifteen years because it is located just a hundred meters away from the boundary line between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The 50-year-old Palestinian farmer was prohibited from approaching his land for over a decade because it lies to the east of Beit Hanoun, close to the Israeli military base on the border. “I am very delighted that I have been given one day to harvest my yields. This piece of land is mine, but I was not able to tend it for long years because it is feared that I might be shot by the Israeli soldiers who monitor the boundary areas with Gaza,” he explained.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has worked to extort an approval from the Israeli authorities to allow Gaza farmers to access land within up to three hundred meters of the border. Early this year, representatives from the ICRC escorted the farmers to their land so they could plough and plant their seeds in the soil.
Farmers like Kafarna were not able to take care of their land for the last couple of months. He was waiting impatiently to harvest at the end of May. “We cannot put ourselves at risk. We were given few hours in January to grow the seeds and now we are having a day to harvest them. That is it. I have never felt that this piece of land belongs to me,” he muttered while he was filling his truck with wheat.
With assistance from his sons he has to have the work done before dusk. His son Kareem said that the family only knows farming and agriculture. “It is our sole option, but the Israeli practices are destroying it to the extent that we faced destitution many times because we lost the harvesting seasons.”
Since 2001, Israel has denied Gaza farmers access to their farms as it has established military bases and monitoring towers along the Gaza border. Military jeeps and personnel are likely to inspect farmers’ land from time to time searching for armed groups or people attempting to cross the borders. The Israeli military forces do not hesitate to open fire toward any moving body there dealing with the region as a “closed military zone”.
The Palestinian Council for Human Rights said that 35% of the farming land in Gaza couldn’t be safely used for agriculture, and their owners cannot plant them in a frequent manner. This land constitutes 17% of the whole land of the Gaza Strip, which equals 360 square meters.
This policy deals a significant blow to the already crippled economy in Gaza, particularly to the farming sector. Overall conditions in Gaza are getting increasingly unbearable with unprecedented rise in the unemployment rate that now exceeds 41%.
Suhair Zaqoot, the spokesperson of the ICRC said that her organization has had tough negotiations with Israel to provide Gaza’s farmers with safe access to their land. “We spared no effort to let the farmers overcome their frustrations and approach their land again,” she said.
The committee has returned 1000 hectares that were confiscated following the Israeli military assaults in Gaza. In addition, it assisted local farmers in rebuilding their livelihoods that totally rely on farming activities.
Sajed Wahdan, 55, is very delighted to be able to harvest his four dunum piece of land, so he can make some living for his 13 member family. “I have never imagined before that I will step on my land again,” Wahdan said. But he fears that he will not be able to again. “We plea with the ICRC and all the international organizations to coordinate things with the Israeli occupation to secure us safe access to our land where we can work and feed our children.”
While being totally absorbed at harvesting his crops, Wahdan said that he cannot feel completely safe. “Our enemies cannot be trusted even when there is an agreement between us and them. It has happened many times before when they breached the accords and opened fire during the ceasefires.”
About a third of farmers in Gaza have their whole land or a considerable part of it within the dangerous boundary areas, which makes their livelihoods exceptionally precarious. Some of them have to put their lives at stake to plant seeds on their land in an effort to escape the economic perils in Gaza resulting from the Israeli military activities on the borders.
Jamal Sarhan, a farmer from Khan Younis, a southern Gaza city, recalled a time he went to his land in the eastern border area overnight to irrigate his tomatoes. “We cannot only rely on rainfall to irrigate some particular vegetables, so I went to water them. Suddenly, a swift barrage of bullets headed to the area where I was standing,” he said. “It was a miracle that I was not hit by any of them.”
Sarhan was lucky to survive the incident, but many other farmers have been reported injured or even killed when they tried to seed or irrigate their farms.
Zaina al-Amour, 54, was killed a month ago in the middle of her farm when she was feeding her goats and harvesting her crops. The Israeli military practices constitute a great menace for the poor villagers who have nothing but farming to sustain their livelihood. Sarhan fears that if the current conditions persist longer, the young generations are more likely to abandon agriculture looking for other options. Yet, he vows not to leave his land to work elsewhere. “All these difficulties will push us to withstand more regardless of the agony. Even our children will continue at the same path till we are able to tend our land freely wherever we go,” Sarhan says.