Gill Swain photograph

The Farmers and the Fence

November 18th 2007

It was 5.30am, the light was pearly grey and an old couple on a donkey cart were on their way to harvest their olives. They had everything ready for the day's work -plastic sheeting to collect the olives they stripped from the trees, bags to carry them in, a packed lunch -and had trotted down the dusty lane leading from their village to their fields.

But now they had to wait because between them and their land was a pair of mesh gates topped with razor wire, behind that was a big, heavy, metal gate painted yellow, then another pair of mesh gates set in a 12 foot high wire fence, then a road, then an army checkpoint manned by three soldiers.

Click to enlarge all photographs

A farmer waiting for the gate to open as dawn breaks

The first farmers going through the barrier to work their land on the other side

At 5.45am the old man pointed at his watch, sneered and clicked his fingers in a gesture which spoke volumes of frustration and contempt. At 5.47am, only two minutes late, the soldiers crossed the road and, with a clanging of chains, swung open the three sets of gates and the old pair trotted hastily through.

As the sun rose over the horizon they were followed by a steady stream of farmers, some walking, some riding donkeys, some in a pony and trap, a few rattling along in the back of a cart pulled by a tractor, all heading for the land their families had worked for centuries. Land that now lies on the far side of the Israeli security barrier.

Donkey carts are the usual transport for poor Palestinian farmers.

This was Jayyous, a village on the north west side of the West Bank and the most badly affected and the best known of the scores of Palestinian communities which have been cut off from their land and crops by the construction of the wall or fence. The only way through is via two gates - the north gate, which is opened three times a day for up to an hour and a half, and the south gate which is opened for just 15 minutes at a time. But only those with a permit from the Israeli authorities can pass.

The 60 or so farmers I saw at the north gate were the lucky ones with permits. At the time I was visiting at the height of the olive harvest, the mayor had submitted a list of 419 villagers needing permits but it had been rejected twice and the people had been told they had to apply individually.

And those who had permits were not happy. At the gate I met one farmer who originally had a two year permit but when he renewed it had been given one for only 30 days, just to cover the harvest. Waving it at me angrily he said: "Even two years is not enough. It's my land. I want my land back. I want my son to work it after me."

On the previous day I had looked down on the Jayyous farmers' land from the balcony of the local town hall on the hill above with Sharif Omar Khaled, better known as Abu Azzam, meaning 'father of Azzam' (Palestinian men are familiarly called after their first born son). Abu Azzam, 65, who travels abroad three or four times a year to talk about his community's plight, is one of the main reasons Jayyous has become a symbol of all the villages whose land has been swallowed by the fence.

Abu Azzam overlooking Jayyous farmland
now cut off by the Israelis' apartheid barrier.
His own land is next to his right shoulder.

He pointed out the Mediterranean sea and the beaches and skyscrapers of Tel Aviv 40 kilometres away, though they might as well have been on the moon as they were just as unreachable for the locals.

Inland from there were the towns and villages of Israel, built right up to the Green Line (the border drawn in 1967 after Israel won the six day war and began its occupation of the West Bank). And nearest to us I could see a long, wide curve in the security fence, bulging away from the Green Line and biting up to six kilometres into the West Bank to embrace an area full of fruit trees and greenhouses.
Within that curve lies 70% of Jayyous's fertile farming land and all six of its water sources. It covers 900 hectares of land, includes 15,000 olive trees, 50,000 citrus trees and 120 greenhouses. Before the fence, this land produced 90% of the area's agricultural income. Now the economy is crippled and the farmers impoverished.

The first the farmers knew of the fence was when they found notices fixed to trees in September, 2002, saying it was being constructed for security reasons. In July, 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the route of the barrier -90% of which is built on Palestinian land - illegal and said it must be demolished and the people it damaged compensated. Nothing happened.

"The claim that they built it for security is a great deception, or else they could have put it on the Green Line," said Abu Azzam. "The route is actually to allow for the future expansion of Israeli settlements on our land and to take our water."

Initially, permits were issued to nearly everyone in Jayyous, including babies and dead people, but excluding anyone who had taken part in acts of protest against the occupation. Gradually, however, more and more people are being refused, and refusal is never either justified or explained.

A farmer complaining to EA Maria that
his pass to work his land only lasts for 30 days


On the day I visited, the EAPPI's team in Jayyous was meeting the mayor, some other farmers and a group of visitors from Sweden who fund various projects.

I looked around the table at the farmers as they described their deepening poverty and their profound sense of grievance for what must have been the thousandth time to concerned internationals who listen and sympathise and then go away and change nothing, and I wondered how they coped with their feelings of anger and impotence. They complained that legitimate political protest only brings further punishment, and there is plenty of evidence to support that claim.

Abu Azzam, who owns 3,600 trees of olive, citrus, avocado, apricot, almonds and guavas, has built strong links with Israeli peace groups.

The olive oil factory in Jayyous

In February he went to Britain to speak at a debate at Cambridge University. After he got off the plane on his way home he was forced to strip to his underpants and was held for four hours. In June, his permit to pass through the fence was not renewed. "I feel I am being punished because they don't want me to tell the Israeli public or the world what is going on here," he told me.

He introduced me to Salah Tahir Qudomy, a 42-year-old father of five who was involved in demonstrations and left wing politics before the fence was built and who has never been given a permit to go to his five greenhouses and 160 olive trees.

"I feel a lot of pain about this," he told me. " I have a family, I must feed them and pay for their studies. My land is three kilometres away. I can see it with my eyes but I cannot reach it with my feet.

"I believe the Israelis want to deprive us of our land and our water so that people will have to emigrate. But I will never emigrate and I don't want my children to. I send them with farmers who have permits so they will build a relationship with our land just as I did when I went there with my father and grandfather.

"If we Palestinians have bread and olive oil, that is enough for us. We can survive. But I am one of tens of thousands who cannot work our land and if we protest about it, things get worse.

"The pressure gets more and more. I think, in the end, this pressure will be so much there must be an explosion. The people will explode."