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Gazan farmers sow wheat in the shadow of Israel's watchtowers Open in fullscreen

Rami Almeghari

Gazan farmers sow wheat in the shadow of Israel's watchtowers

Gazans have been able to farm border areas once more [Rami Almeghari]

Date of publication: 6 February, 2018

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In-depth: Palestinian farmers are returning to lands from which they were removed by Israel's military buffer-zone, thanks to a Red Cross project, reports Rami Almeghari.
Mahmoud Abu Snaima sheds a tear as he and more than 200 other farmers started to sow wheat seeds on their farmland, just outside the village of Shuka near the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, right alongside the border with Israel.

It's the first time Abu Snaima and his neighbours have been able to work their land for the past 12 years. Back in 2006, the farmers of Shuka were forced to abandon the land, after the Israeli army invaded the 14,000-resident village, along with other nearby border areas.

Today's cultivation was made possible with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza, with an initiative to help the farmers of the embattled Gaza Strip.

"As you see, in this area, which is very close to the Israeli barbed wire fence, my four brothers and I own land of around 17 acres - but this is the first time that we are able to reach it in the past 12 years," said 47-year-old Abu Snaima.

"Thanks should go to the ICRC, who came over our region and began combing the land, enabling us to start cultivating, while dressed in vests labelled with the red cross."

Less than 500 metres away, an Israeli watchtower looms over the land. 
We plant and we can not expect to harvest the crop. We plant today and we can not expect we will return to it the next day


Abu Snaima and his brothers have had it tough since being forced off the land. They have only able to cultivate a small area, 500 metres from a 300-metre buffer zone cut by Israeli military bulldozers into the narrow Palestinian strip along the border.

"In fact, over the past several years and despite frequent Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip in general and the Shuka village in particular, we have been able to plant some crops - mainly beans. In times of tension, we flee the land, while in times of calm, we keep working. One of our main concerns here is the shortage of water, and sometimes, like last year, we lose almost half of our produce," Abu Snaima told The New Arab.

Back in 2006, when the Israeli army invaded the village, they destroyed the brothers' crops, water management systems and green houses, worth an estimated $300,000.

'We do not expect to harvest this crop'

Another farmer from Shuka, 58-year-old Mohammad Abu Khaled, also returned to border farmland with the help of the Red Cross.

"Actually, we plant and we can not expect to harvest the crop. We plant today and we can not expect we will return to it the next day, due to the current political circumstances," he said.

"We call on the concerned parties to help farmers remain steadfast on their farm lands, so that farmers and their families can live and get by with dignity."
 
Mahmoud Anu Snaima (c) celebrates returning to the
farmland his family has worked for generations
[Rami Almeghari]


Hardship

Shuka's local agricultural committee spoke of many hardships faced by farmers whose families have for generations owned the land along the border. Such difficulties, are caused mainly by the Israeli blockade in place since 2007, as well as military violence visited upon the coastal enclave.

"This area has been badly affected by frequent Israeli army invasions. The village suffers from shortage of irrigation water, which is now coming mainly from the Jargoun private-owned water well, pumped via pipelines, through the western parts to the eastern parts," Ameer Abu Snaima, a local agricultural official, told The New Arab.

The ICRC's intervention has allowed these farmers to regain access to 200 metre-wide fields stretching about six kilometres along the boundaries of Shuka village, and a further three kilometres outside the nearby village of Fukhari. 

Highway to the buffer zone 

Over the past three years, the Red Cross has launched several small projects to help the Gaza Strip's farmers. These include paving 12 kilometres of agricultural roads, rehabilitating 540 acres of farmland, sponsoring the purchase of a variety of seeds, the construction of 100 irrigation pools, and restoring 200 greenhouses.
After sowing the seeds, the farmers don't need to go regularly to the area. They need again facilitation by the ICRC at the harvest season


"It's a facilitation, its bilateral talks between the ICRC and the Palestinian and Israeli authorities. At the end, what makes the difference in the lives of these farmers is to reach this, and this what we want," the ICRC's Suhair Zaqout told The New Arab at his Gaza City office.

"The type of crops are rain-fed crops, which means after sowing the seeds, the farmers don't need to go regularly to the area. They need again facilitation by the ICRC at the harvest season, which is expected at the end of April, beginning of May."

In 2000, a second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in the occupied Palestinian territories, including in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army's reaction to the uprising ended up with Israel closing border crossings to Palestinian workers and beefing up its military presence on land borders with Gaza, its naval presence in the maritime waters off the Gaza coast, and its airforce presence in the skies above.

In 2002-2003, Israel imposed a "no-man zone" 300 metres wide along the 40-kilometre Gaza-Israel border. According the Gaza-based Palestinian ministry of agriculture, the buffer zone wiped out a total of almost 6,000 acres of farmlands owned by local Palestinian farmers. 

Palestinian farming in border regions has continued, but only at great risk to local farmers, particularly during major Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Over the past 12 years, Israel has carried out four large-scale military attacks, most notably in 2006, 2009 and 2014.

Many farmers were among the victims, killed or injured. 

"Our main concern is to continue farming our ancestors' farmlands, without any interruptions," said Mahmoud Abu Snaima.

"We have nothing to do but farming, which enables us and our families to get by and to live with dignity."

Rami Almeghari is a Palestinian freelance journalist living and working in Gaza. 

Follow him on Twitter: @writeralmeghari

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