Olive tree planting in the “Buffer Zone” near Zaytoun, Gaza, February 2013.
(Reporting from “Khor Zanon” -East Jabalia Refugee Camp Northern Gaza Strip)
Eight months after the truce between Hamas and Israel following the November 2012 Israeli offensive, life in the border areas of the Gaza Strip struggles on, desertification increases, and farmers and fishermen risk their lives to work their boats and land.
Since 1967 Israel has imposed a “buffer zone” on the north and east borders of the Gaza Strip, gradually increasing it until by November 2012 it stretched 1,500 meters along the boundaries, swallowing 25% of Gaza’s agricultural land.
Since the truce the Gaza-based Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) calls it the “border area” rather than the “buffer zone”, but others rejected the term even beforehand because “buffer” implies that the zone is part of the territory of the state imposing it.
Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights, in Gaza, reported that the buffer zone is a military no-go zone, and its imposition, and the lethal restrictions that go with it don’t serve the application of military necessity that is stipulated Geneva Convention.”But it aims to impose severe restrictions on the population of the Gaza strip,” according to the same report.
The MOA observes that the border areas also include 85% of Gaza’s marine zone, which should extend 20 nautical miles according to the Oslo Accords, but which Israel reduced to three nautical miles in 2005, and only increased to six miles in the last ceasefire agreement.
On land the recent truce supposedly allowed Palestinians free movement up to the border, but farmers and local institutions emphasize that there is still a risk, as Israel has violated the truce numerous times.
From 22 Nov 2012 until 22 Feb 2013, 4 Palestinians killed, 91 wounded, 13 army incursion and 30 navy attacks by Israel according to United Nation OCHA, Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, and media sources.
For more, here is a full list of 217 Documented Israeli Cease Fire Violations recorded over the last 8 months.
Regeneration Efforts Stymied
Following the November truce, the MOA and some NGOs developed strategies with local farmers to rehabilitate the border area, to protect farmers and provide necessary material support such as agricultural and other tools and labor to repair wells and improve the land.
In “Khor Zanon” in Gaza’s north, and 500 meters from the fence, Shukri Zayed Al- Er wanders around his empty farm, unable to cultivate his land due to the shortage of water, and the risks he still faces from Israeli soldiers.
Desertification characterizes this place, land without life, full of slopes needing leveling and regeneration. “Look how dry the land is!” he exclaimed.
As we passed a repaired well some 700 meters from the fence-line he pointed out that “Although this solves the problem of the water shortage, I can’t afford the cost of an irrigation network.”
Shukri pointed to the other side of the fence where military jeeps, illegal Israeli settlements, and green fields lie.
“We are hundreds of meters away from the fence, and yet we can’t cultivate our lands, while the people who stole our land freely cultivate it and move anywhere they like,” he said resentfully.
Saad al Deen Zeyada, director of “Fighting For Our Rights Project,” in the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) and endorsed his comments, “Israel has never respected the Oslo agreement, which designated a 50 meter zone on the borders between the Gaza Strip and the 1948 lands. While the Israeli Occupation cultivates lands very close to the borders, Palestinians on the other side are prevented from coming within 1000 meters of the fence,” he observed.
Mr Zeyada affirmed the continuation of Israeli violations against the Palestinians since the truce. Zeyada added that one reason for the Israeli imposition of geographic limitations on Palestinians is so they will become accepted as a fait accompli, “We should demand our rights in all the regional lands and international waters,” he said.
UWAC reports and documents on the Israeli violations here.
Israel isn’t the only obstacle to reviving these areas. International NGOs claim that their funding is conditional, and they cannot approve any project outside the boundaries of 300-700 meters from the fence for safety reasons.
Farmers’ reject this pretext, saying “Bring us tools, and we will cultivate our lands.”
“UAWC carried out projects in restricted areas of Joher El Deek eastern and Khor Zanon northern Gaza, even before the ceasefire, yet many international NGOs still refuse to implement projects within these areas,” one noted.
According to Bashir Al Ankah, project director of UAWC, the union is one of the organizations that work in the border areas regardless of limits.
“The union is free of any constraints on reaching farmers and fishermen to help them earn their living,” he said.
Huda Abu Nada, an agronomist within the MOA Department of Monitoring and Evaluation and one of the supervisors of Agricultural Wells Rehabilitation projects in the Khor Zanoun area, reported “We are working on the restoration and maintenance of about 60 licensed wells out of 134 in the border area.”
“Local and international NGOs are also involved,” she added.
Israeli Truce Violations
Since the truce, the MOA work team has faced many risks during the rehabilitation process. According to Huda Abu Nada, Israeli Military Forces (IMF) have opened fire against some contractors, and work was suspended because of the threat to their lives. “The contractors were 500meters from the fence when IMF shot them, we withdrew and returned after few days to continue the well rehabilitation,” she said.
Nabil Abu Shammala, Director General of the Planning and Policy Department, said “A strategy has been developed to empower residents of the border area.
Our goal is to achieve sustainable development in these areas. We started working on this a while before the last offensive.”
“We are prioritizing necessary infrastructure, such as road rehabilitation, land reclamation, and maintenance of wells damaged between 2000- 2012,” he continued.
Quantifying the Situation
Last September, MOA launched a pioneering socio-economic analysis project to develop a comprehensive database on the border area including population data, plant and livestock holdings. Final results are expected to be published soon, but initial statistics indicate that there are 2547 plant holdings, 59 livestock, and nearly 435 mixed farms in the border zone.
The area with the highest percentage of plant holdings is the Gaza governorate, at 55.9%. Juhr Al Deek recorded the highest percentage in livestock holdings, with 60.7%, and the highest percentage in mixed holdings, with 70.8%. Of the 35,944.7 dunums of Gaza governate’s agricultural lands in the border zone, only 19,689 dunums are able to be cultivated (1 dunum=1000m²).
The northern governorate recorded the highest percentage of cultivated areas (29.14%), while the lowest percentage of cultivation is in the middle governorate (5%). while the middle governorate area formed 4.5%.
Where to now?
The obvious sustainable solution is for the international community to ensure Israeli compliance with international maritime and humanitarian law, thus the integrity of Gaza’s borders – and the lifting of its crippling siege.
Only then will Gaza’s farmers and fishermen see the spring, as they will be able to work their lands and boats safely, and productively. They believe that spring will find its way to those areas, paint it with life and end the description as the “killing fields” to the “fields of freedom”.