Gazan farmers unable to work their land in the 'buffer zone'

Gazans don’t want to rely on aid. They want to work on their land, reports Catherine Weibel.

Driving along the buffer zone, a military no-go area that extends along the entire perimeter of Gaza and borders Israel, is an eerie experience.  A long, horizontal brownish strip of earth runs along the Wall that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel. The desolate landscape is only dotted with the ruins of destroyed buildings, while a large, silver observation balloon, fully equipped with video cameras by the Israeli army, floats slowly by in the sky. What used to be a green, fertile area of rich farming and grazing land has turned into a deserted place where no one dares to go and cultivate. Gazan farmers are now forbidden to enter the zone by the Israeli army.

According to reports, Israeli soldiers shoot towards farmers working on their lands along the buffer zone nearly every week. This year, people have been injured in such incidents about once every two months. Israeli incursions occur almost every week, with bulldozers leveling the area to the ground and ruining the land.

“Many people in Gaza consider the rule to be ‘if I can see you, I will shoot you," a local aid worker recently said.

The Oslo Accords* allowed the Israeli army to maintain a security perimeter between Israel and Gaza. This buffer zone soon turned into an area which was effectively off-limits to Palestinians that the Israeli authorities expanded unilaterally after the second Intifada in 2000.

During Operation “Cast Lead” which ended in January 2009, private houses, workshops, cattle farms, tree groves, agricultural roads, water wells and rain-fed crop fields located within the area were demolished by the Israeli army. In June, the latter dropped leaflets all over Gaza to warn people that the buffer zone would now encompass a 300 meter-wide stretch of land on the Palestinian side of the Wall separating Gaza from Israel. In practice, the zone is even wider and local farmers don’t dare approach closer than up to one or two kilometers depending on the location. They fear being shot at by Israeli soldiers and don’t know where the exact limits are.

“When you see this deserted stretch of land, it is hard to believe that until 2000, farmers felt safe enough to grow high plants over the fence separating Gaza from Israel,” said Ahmed Sourani, the Director of Projects and Cooperation for the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC) in Gaza, an Oxfam partner. “The whole area used to be green and intensively cultivated. Now most of the land has turned brownish and is deserted, as farmers are too scared to go.”

According to PARC and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between a quarter and a third of Gaza’s agricultural lands lie within the confines of the buffer zone. Many Gazan farmers can no longer access their own land safely and as a consequence have lost their livelihood.

"The Gaza Strip was already a small territory which has been further reduced by the buffer zone, Sourani added. Hundreds of families can no longer access their land.”

Since the buffer zone expanded and turned into a “no-go” area, Gaza’s agricultural sector has suffered immensely. The most fertile lands and many water wells are located within the zone, which used to be known as the “food basket” of the Gaza Strip. Many farms with livestock were also located in this area which offered available space, cheap land and good grazing lands.

“The inside of the Gaza Strip is progressively turning into one big, densely-populated urban zone, Sourani continued. “This is why the areas located along the borders are vital to our food security.”

He described how frustrated farmers have become.

“They can see the land on which they used to work. They know it is key to supporting their family. Yet they cannot reach it anymore as they would run the risk of being killed.”

Diab Tarabin, a 50-year old Bedouin and head of a 16-member family, is one of these farmers. He can no longer access his land, even though he and his family poured their sweat into cultivating it for years.

“I used to have 150 olive trees and 25 date-palm trees, and good, fertile land in what is now marked by the Israeli authorities as the buffer zone,” he told me. “I can no longer access my land, and my trees were uprooted by bulldozers of the Israeli Army during Operation “Cast Lead”. I can no longer live in my house as the Israeli army thought it was too close to the buffer zone and razed it to the ground. Even our water cistern was destroyed.”

All that Tarabin and his family have left are a few goats and some chickens, and they grow a few vegetables.

I used to have a good income, but now I rely on food aid to feed my family and I cannot afford to buy clothes for my children anymore.”

Since Operation “Cast Lead”, the whole family has been living under a tent donated by an NGO and a shelter made of rags nestled a few meters away from the ruins of their former home. Shrapnel shards are still scattered all over the place. Under a flimsy cloth that offers inadequate protection from the weather lies Dunia, Tarabin’s 4-year old daughter who has been paralyzed since birth. She watches me and moans softly as her mother holds her hand, with no proper roof over their heads.

Oxfam is currently supporting a relief program in the area, implemented by PARC, Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) and Ma’an Development Center, that includes the rehabilitation of destroyed wells, greenhouses and orchards. The UN Food and Agriculture organization recently reported that Gaza’s battered agricultural sector had the capacity to recover if there were access to the buffer zone, rehabilitation of its agricultural assets and full opening of Gaza’s commercial crossings.

Standing atop the hill that overlooks the Gaza Strip, PARC’s Ahmed Sourani insists that Gazan farmers need to be able to cultivate their lands in the buffer zone.

“Gazans must be allowed to redevelop intensive agriculture within the buffer zone. They don’t want to rely on humanitarian aid, they want to work on their land.”

* Annex I of the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreements

More about Oxfam International's work around the Gaza crisis.

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