'We were too afraid to stay on our farmlands'
Since 2007, Israeli authorities have unilaterally and illegally established a so-called ‘buffer zone’ along the border, which officially extends 300 metres into the Gaza Strip. However, in reality, the ‘buffer zone’ can extend up to 1,500 metres from the fence, and is enforced with the use of lethal force. This area includes approximately 35% of the Gaza Strip’s agricultural land, which can only be accessed under high personal risk, as Israeli attacks may result in the injury or death of civilians. This seriously impacts the livelihoods of farmers who work in the border area.
Following the ceasefire agreement of 21 November 2012, it was reported that the people of Gaza would be allowed to freely access the land in the border areas once more. However, attacks against civilians in the border area have continued; since the ceasefire came into effect, 4 Palestinian civilians have been killed, and a further 67 civilians, including 14 children, have been injured. The lack of clarity regarding access to the border area causes great uncertainty for farmers. They are reluctant to invest time or money in their land, only to have their work destroyed once more. More importantly, they risk attack by Israeli forces.
Since 2005, Ahmed Saeed Khamis Hamdona (32) and his family have been jointly renting 30 acres of farmland in Beit Lahia in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, just 200 metres from the border. Ahmed’s family have experienced many challenges while attempting to farm the land, as he explains: “Farming on my land is too difficult because of all the restrictions. We face problems accessing our land and even choosing what we can grow. I can only sow strawberries and potatoes. I am not allowed to plant olive or lemon trees as they are very bushy, and the Israeli forces want this land to be clear so that they can watch what we are doing. We tried to harvest watermelons before but they were shot at and destroyed.”
Ahmed and his family produce export-quality strawberries but find it almost impossible to access foreign markets, as Ahmed explains: “The association for strawberry farmers tries to get our produce across the border for export. We hope to get better prices for the strawberries so we take special care to ensure that our strawberries are good enough for export. However, none of our strawberries have been exported since 2009. Every time, the number of truckloads allowed for export is either reduced or cancelled altogether. We cannot reach the markets across the border. I could earn around 15-20 NIS per kilogram for my strawberries if they were exported but, because I have to sell them in Gaza, I get only 4 NIS per kilogram. This results in losses as we have to pay 50,000 NIS every year just to rent the land.” Strawberry exports from Gaza have sharply reduced since 2007; prior to the closure, 1,500 tonnes of strawberries were exported annually but, by 2012, this amount had reduced dramatically to 357 tonnes.
This reduction of income has had negative effects on the lives of Ahmed and his family but, even more seriously, the land has been subjected to repeated attacks by Israeli forces: “Because of the war in November last year, I faced many losses, as parts of my land were shelled. This seriously damaged our crops. It took both time and money for us to make our land harvestable again. We had to plant our crops all over again, as all the strawberries and potatoes we had planted were destroyed.” Such disruptions are not new to Ahmed: “After the 2009 war, the Israeli forces did not allow us to work on the farmland in the afternoon. They shot at anyone who tried to access the farmland. On some days, we could only work for two hours, because we were too afraid to stay on our farmlands. We feared being the next targets. This slowed down the entire farming process and we had to wait a long time to be able to sell the produce in the markets. We used to be able to grow 20 tonnes of strawberries every year but this number went down to 3 tonnes since 2009.” Ahmed, nonetheless, holds out hope for a better future: “I am still hopeful because, since the violence ended in November, we have been able to work on our lands for longer times, though not beyond the afternoon. Still, I am not sure how long it will take for us to be able to get rid of all our problems. I really hope that this closure ends and that we will have peace. We just want to be safe and be able to do our job.”
The attacks on Ahmed’s, his family, and the land that is their source of livelihood, are part of a larger pattern of attacks carried out by the Israeli forces positioned on the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. The closure of the Gaza Strip, enacted by Israel as a form of ‘economic warfare,’ constitutes collective punishment, and is explicitly prohibited under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The closure regime also violates a number of provisions of international law, including, the obligation under Article 43 of the Hague Regulations to maintain the material conditions under which the occupied population lives. Furthermore, the denial of farmers’ right to freedom of movement, which results in the lack of access to their source of livelihood, violates these workers’ right to food, as well as various employment rights, which are guaranteed under the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in particular Article 6 and 7. The resultant poverty in the Gaza Strip and the foreign aid needed to support the people in Gaza clearly demonstrate that Israel’s policy also violates its obligations under international human rights law to ensure the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights in the Gaza Strip.
For more information please call PCHR office in Gaza, Gaza Strip, on +972 8 2824776 - 2825893