The term “seam line,” which refers to the separation fence erected in the West Bank, sounds as if it refers to very narrow suture, a humane boundary on both sides of which (“the seam zone”) life goes on for two civilian populations who enjoy freedom of movement, each person under their vine and under their fig tree, secure, benefitting from the fruits of their labor. But, in reality, that fence separates Palestinian farmers from their lands, which are now trapped between it and the Green Line (which had once been Israel’s “virtual” eastern border as established by the armistice agreements at the end of the 1948 war). That’s the area known as “the seam zone.” The fence serves, among other things, as an very problematic obstacle limiting the farmers’ access to their lands. It severely restricts their ability to make a living, causes great suffering and creates a constant feeling of insecurity.
The separation fence (sometimes called “the seam line” or “the obstacle”) was erected east of the Green Line in order to include the settlements in Area C which, although occupied territory, is under complete and exclusive control of the Israel Defense Force. The fence has thus trapped in the seam zone thousands of dunums of Palestinian land, the majority of it agricultural, as well as a number of villages. These lands have belonged to Palestinians for generations. They were (and are still) the source of their livelihood and human dignity. Except that now, in order to reach them, Palestinians require a special crossing permit not granted to everyone, and must cross through specific locations in the fence – “agricultural gates” (the equivalent of checkpoints) – which are open only at certain hours. To obtain these permits, which are valid only for a specific period of time, or to renew them, they must apply to the Civil Administration and wait weeks for an answer – refusal or approval. The farmer can never be sure whether his permit will be renewed or whether he will again be forced to make his way through an intricate, cruel, bureaucratic web in order to realize his right to work his occupied land. (We won’t address another problematic issue: How do the occupation authorities decide who’s entitled to receive a crossing permit?).
According to data the government provided to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the number of permanent crossing permits granted to Palestinian farmers on the West Bank declined by 83% between 2006 and 2009 – from 10,037 to 1,640. During the same period Israel enlarged the seam zone – the area trapped west of the fence - by 30%. It currently covers approximately 119,500 dunums.
The information we posses regarding crossing permits, collected as part of our attempts to assist villagers during 2013, testifies to the continuation of this trend. For example, 750 applications for permits were submitted by villagers from Masaha; only 150 were approved. This reduction is clear evidence that people continue to be dispossessed of their land through bureaucratic means. The occupation authorities implement in a perverse manner an old Ottoman law dating from 1858, which states that a person who for more than five consecutive years had not cultivated land they owned located more than 2.5 kilometers away from the edge of built-up area of the village (as it had existed in 1858), lost their right to the land. The original intent of the Ottoman regime was to encourage the farmer to cultivate his land so he could be taxed. The situation is now reversed, but the exploitation continues: the goal of the Israeli authorities is to annex the farmer’s land however they can. In many cases the harsh, inflexible permits regime prevents Palestinian farmers from cultivating their land, and as a result they lose it.
The life of a farmer who has a crossing permit to access his land trapped in the seam zone
A farmer and his donkey go to clear weeds and grasses from his olive grove, the source of his livelihood, which is located beyond the fence. The olive harvest approaches; he must prepare the grove. Three months ago his son helped him fill out the application for a permit to cross through the agricultural gate to work his land. The gate is three kilometers from his home; his land is one kilometer from home. He also applied for permits for his adult sons and his grandchildren, to help with the harvest. He waited three months for the coveted permit; to his great disappointment and despair it was valid for only two people: for him, who owns the land, and his young grandson, aged 7. None of the others received a permit.
It’s 6 AM, cold, the trees wet with dew. In 15 minutes a military vehicle will arrive, the soldiers will open the checkpoint gate for 20 minutes and then it will close behind him. If he wants to return home for any reason he won’t be able to go back to his land later that same day. In the afternoon, usually at 16:00, the soldiers will return to open the checkpoint for those returning from their lands. The agricultural gate is open in only one direction. Whoever arrives after it closes won’t appear in the computer as having returned, so the next time he comes to this checkpoint his valuable permit will be confiscated, since he’ll be considered to have been present in Israel illegally. To renew the permit he’ll again have to travel the Via Dolorosa of agony and humiliation described above, an example of the occupation regime’s heavy hand.
A few men and women gather by the checkpoint gate, waiting for it to open. The dawn breaks in the east; it looks like the day will be nice. The military vehicle doesn’t arrive, the hour grows late, people are frustrated, they’ve lost another day of work. If the soldiers show up and the farmers complain they’ve come late, the soldiers will blame the locals. It’s better for them to say nothing. If the checkpoint fails to open, they won’t get any explanation. Nor will anyone compensate them for the time they lost and the work they were unable to accomplish.
A farmer comes with his donkey; he only wants to clear weeds and grasses from his small plot of land. He has the necessary permit. Will he be able to get there, to work, by the sweat of his brow, will he safely return home after a long day?
Many Palestinian farmers have been separated from their land and the source of their livelihood. Their land, their private property, is not under their control. Others decide whether and when they may access it. Even had the soldiers opened the gate on time the farmer would still have suffered torments, anxieties, restrictions and damage to his livelihood. Had the separation fence been erect west of the Palestinians’ agricultural lands the entire permit regime would have been unnecessary, and Israel’s security would not have been impaired in the least. But then all the settlements would have been located in Area B, or even in Area A – under the control of the Palestinian Authority.