On the way to the plant nursery beyond the fence
A relatively small number of Palestinians have founded businesses in their parts of the seam zone, but can access them only through checkpoints, while the businesses are accessible to Israelis. On a bright August day, 2018, the Israeli authorities notified the owners of nurseries in the Alfei Menashe enclave, that the trucks that have been carrying saplings and trees to nurseries in the seam zone for 15 years, will no longer cross the agricultural Checkpoint Habla that is adjacent to them. This, although not a single ‘security incident’ had been recorded in all those years. From that moment on, they had to cross the large, crowded, and distant (Eliyahu Crossing).
The Eliyahu Checkpoint could only be entered after 9 a.m., in order not to disturb the Jewish settlers leaving for their workday inside Israel. The trucks undergo a thorough inspection there: cargo is unloaded onto special areas and wait for the sniffer-dogs who trample and dirty the saplings. Every truck is inspected for 30 minutes and only two trucks may be inspected simultaneously. In other words, a long wait is expected at the checkpoint, with cargo that needs to get to the nurseries, in addition to the stress and damages caused by the dogs.
All requests to lift this draconian edict were left unanswered, and the desperate nursery owners continued to suffer quietly. When we asked the authorities, why? We got the usual answer: Security reasons. 8 months went by and suddenly those reasons evaporated and with no explanation, the edict was canceled and the former order of things was retrieved.
“If you are concerned about security,” we are told, “build a wall as high as the sky. But on the border. Not on our lands.”
The way to one’s farmland is long and arduous
At dawn, a group of farmers waits by the agricultural checkpoint of Izbat Jal’oud, opposite the Israeli settlement of Nirit.
They must not be late, for the gate will be opened for a mere 15 minutes.
Farmers come there from the whole area, including distant villages where nearby checkpoints have been closed or are opened at inconvenient hours. They tell us about the long and arduous way they are obliged to make, the difficulties of matching farm work with the schedule and restrictions imposed by the Israeli army.
A farmer from Azoun Atme, for instance, must first get to the checkpoint and immediately make all the way back on the west side of the fence to his lands far away in the opposite direction, directly facing Oranit Gate which was terminally closed in 2018. Instead of the 10 minutes, he would have had to spend reaching his fields from his village, he now wastes about an hour (8 kilometers).
Most of the farmers try to use moderate, withheld language, but the insult and pain are obvious. It has been this way for years, and they still have not gotten used to it. If the soldiers are late – there is nothing anyone can do. Just wait. If a farmer is even one minute late – they do not wait and will not let him through. Under such conditions, tending the earth the way it needs is difficult. The farmers are forced to give up some of their crops, but hold on to whatever is possible.
At the agricultural checkpoint Habla we meet the children of Arab A-Ramadin village and their school teachers, going through an inspection on their transport to school at nearby Habla beyond the fence. Also inspected are the women who must return from their work in the West Bank through the checkpoint, and search for transport to their isolated villages.
According to UN data, at present (2020) there are 11,000 Palestinians living in villages of the seam zone enclaves, which the fence has disconnected from the West bank. In these isolated villages – such as Arab A-Ramadin on the way to the Israeli settlement Alfei Menashe, Umm Al-Reihan in the northern West Bank, or Nabi Samauil near Jerusalem – the villagers’ lives are unbearable. They must hold permits to live in their own homes, and little children must carry their original birth certificate in order to get home from school.
In order to reach the neighboring village or nearby town (east of the fence) to school, to work, and any other life need, they must have permits and cross checkpoints on their way to and fro. Their families and friends, living in the West Bank, may not ever visit them. The absurdity is that from these villages they could reach anywhere inside Israel without crossing any checkpoint whatsoever, but as holders of Palestinian IDs, they may not be inside Israel without a permit…
No doubt the tearing of these villagers from their immediate environment has harshly impacted all aspects of life – economy, education, health, and family and social fiber.
The State of Israel recognizes Palestinian farmers’ claim to their land in the seam zone and behind the separation barrier. The military system committed itself in the Supreme Court not to hurt the livelihood of the farmers in any ‘disproportionate’ manner, and enable them to access their land, tend it and enjoy its crops and keep their bond to their land.
The state also determined what the Palestinian may grow in every area, what kind of farm work was needed for that purpose and how often. That is why the ‘agricultural gates’ were installed along the fence. From the start, the gates erected in the fence were distant from one another and from farm tracks, and sometimes access to them with tractors was difficult or even impossible. And then the gates turned into checkpoints.
Of the 76 gates opened for farming needs along the hundreds of kilometers of the fence, only about 26 are active all year round, and even they are closed most of the day. Half of the 26 are active all days of the week, the rest only 2-3 times a week. All these are opened and locked by soldiers for very short periods of time, about 15 minutes, and are subject to tardiness and a long wait for the soldiers to arrive.
As for the 50 remaining gates - about half of them do not open at all, and others, called "seasonal gates", are closed most days of the year. Also, Receiving the permit to pass over to fields the materials and tools necessary for their tending requires a long and exhausting negotiation with the Civil Administration.
The gates/checkpoints have not made things easier for the farmers and did not prevent the ruin of farming in the area. Instead of accessing his lands by the shortest way possible, unlimited in time and with the workers and equipment he needs for his work, the farmer found himself facing a new situation: He may not enter his own grounds unless he holds a special permit, for better through a distant gate opened 2-3 times a day for short periods of time. A farmer entering his area in the morning to work a few hours or even just to turn on his irrigation system must remain there for hours, even the whole day – if the checkpoint is opened again only at noon or in the evening accordingly. Under such conditions, very few farmers have installed irrigation systems in their fields in the seam zone, and the possibility to have efficient farming in the whole area is denied. This impacts the livelihood of about Palestinian 200,000 inhabitants.
In recent years we have been following areas that were returned to Palestinians in the villages of Jayous, Falamiya, and Kafr Jamal when the separation fence was moved westward following a Supreme Court ruling. From nearly desolate land except for some abandoned olive trees, the land became a flourishing and fruitful garden, with fields orderly and surrounded by stone fences to protect them from wild boars, as well as a well-planned irrigation system that enables the owners to grow various crops.
About the olive harvest and the "Seasonal gates/checkpoints"
The olive industry is the `Sumuud` (holding on)` lagricultural branch of the Palestinians, the only kind that does not require constant tending, and therefore it is the main crop in areas to which entry has been forbidden without a permit or special coordination. In spite of all the commitments made to landowners in the seam zone, in the winter every village is allowed only 2-3 days to tend to its groves, and sometimes even that is denied them. Over the years, conditions enabling the olive harvest have worsened considerably: seasonal gates are opened for every village for very short periods of time and not several weeks, and the dates are set without any consideration for the farmers’ needs.
The olive harvest season, which used to be a celebration of family gatherings, has become a practically impossible mission because of insufficient permits and working hands. The Palestinian farmers are helped every year by human rights organizations, Israelis, and internationals allowed to access the seam zone. The family celebrations have been canceled.
Experts have stated recently that the harvest of olives in these areas is smaller than the harvested crops in areas where access is free. But the restriction to work these groves seriously impacts not only the farmers’ livelihood: if the groves will not be tended and their fruit not harvested, the areas might be considered ‘state land’ and confiscated for the sake of the nearby Israeli settlements.