By Muki Najaer, August 19, 2013
Israel’s occupation of Palestine is physical, (controlling borders and checkpoints), psychological (creating a constant state of terror, humiliation, and fear for Palestinians), and cultural (erasing Palestinian connection to their heritage and land). A common mistake is viewing the physical occupation as simply an occupation of land.
Instead, a shift in perspective reveals that the occupation is also vertical. It is a three-dimensional occupation. Israel occupies not only the land and access to it, but also the water beneath the ground, and the airspace above it.
Generations of Palestinians have lived from the land for thousands of years. Farmers above all experience the brutal impacts of the intersection of Israel’s water and land occupation. Many Palestinians owned lands that were seized by Israel in 1948. These lands are referred to as area 48 and are now inaccessible to the Palestinians who own them. Other Palestinians have their land destroyed by the Israeli Occupation Force (IOF). Others still are put out of work by Israel’s intentional corruption of the Palestinian economy or are prohibited from accessing water resources or digging additional wells, and are therefore unable to sustain their agriculture. All these are strategies employed by the IOF and Israeli government, to starve Palestinian farmers, displace them from their lands, and fracture Palestinian farmer’s connection to their land.
Occupation and Destruction of Palestinian Lands
On Saturday, Zeiad Salah, coordinator of the Bethlehem district Palestinian Farmers Union (PFU), spoke at the Alternative Information Center (AIC) in Beit Sahour, about Israel’s destruction of Palestinian lands and the resulting displacement of Palestinians.
The Israeli Occupation Force (IOF) uses techniques such as burning down olive trees and dumping chemicals on Palestinian farmlands in order to permanently ruin the valuable natural soil. In the village of Nahleen, the IOF dumped sewage water on Palestinian lands, thereby permanently ruining 500 square km of farmland, displacing the farmers, and forcing them out of work.
“These techniques serve a dual purpose,” Salah explained, “on the one hand they ruin the land, and on the other, they destroy the livelihood of Palestinian farmers, and thereby, slowly and silently displace them.”
It is also common for the Israeli government to claim Palestinian lands to be in use by the military or air force ‘for security reasons’. This is especially common when Israel is unable to officially seize the land, because it effectively prevents Palestinians from accessing their lands.
A Beit Sahour local said, “We used to have land just past where they drew the wall. My family had lots of olive trees there. Two years ago we decided to take the kids there. We packed a picnic and sat under an olive tree, hoping to eat a meal in the land that was unjustly taken from us. But just a few minutes after we got there, some young Israeli soldiers came over and said we were trespassing on military land. I told him that this is our land and we just want to eat there. Besides, we weren’t a threat. The soldiers insisted that they had seen the children throwing rocks in their direction. But they were lying. No one threw any rocks. And the kids were just toddlers. One of them was still wearing diapers. How were they going to hurt the soldiers in their military tank?”
In other cases, Israeli settlers cultivate Palestinian lands and put up signs stating that the lands have been reissued to the Israeli families. Israeli settlers cultivate lands in area 48 with seeds of Palestinian grapes and olives, which are world renowned for their unmatched quality. Since Israel subsidizes water for Israeli farmers, Palestinians pay 10 times the price for water as their Israeli competitors, including what those living on settlements pay.
The result is that it is ten times more expensive for Palestinians to produce their grapes and olives as it is for Israelis. That means that in order for Palestinians to sell their crops at competitive market prices, they must lower their prices so that they earn a far smaller percentage on their goods as Israelis selling the same Palestinian products. In short, Israeli’s are growing Palestinian grapes and olives at a much lower cost due to the Israeli government’s subsidization of water, and are thereby putting Palestinian farmers out of work and effectively destroying the Palestinian economy.
Salah, of the Palestinian Farmers Union (PFU), says there is hope for Palestinian Farmers, despite Israel’s inhumane and illegal actions against them. The PFU works with farmers to initiate creative and sustainable solutions to the Israeli occupation of farmland. The PFU, for example, works with international organizations and co-ops to sell locally produced Palestinian products, in order to help sustain farmers.
One of Palestine’s most popular exports is olive oil. Salah said, “While Palestinian farmers are forced to pay export fees to the state of Israel, most of the money from the olive oil goes directly back to the farmers. One of the most important things internationals can do is to boycott Israeli products, especially those produced in the illegal settlements, and to buy products farmed and manufactured in Palestine.”
Although the additional income these co-ops provide is not nearly enough to sustain the families working on them, they continue the legacy of farming among the younger generations. Much of Palestine’s youth has never had the chance to live on their family’s lands, which were seized either in 1948 or in 1967. The youth are therefore forcibly disconnected from their own history of farming. It is vital for Palestinians to maintain the legacy of farming, Salah explained, especially because one of Israel’s cultural tactics of occupation is to sever the future generation’s connection with the Palestinian land.
Battir Residents Successfully Halt Building of Israel’s Separation Wall
The village of Battir, located just west of Bethlehem, is a site that holds some of the world’s oldest and most valuable history. Hundreds of kilometers of 5,000 year-old human made terraces stretch across the landscape. A 2,500 year old Roman water system utilizes narrow canals to redirect water from seven natural springs, and divides it among the eight large families of Battir, who switch off, each receiving a day of water. This irrigation system is used on a daily basis, by the farmers of Battir, to irrigate their crops.
One third of Battir’s lands lay within the green line. The green line is an unofficial border that was drawn to mark the 1949 borders between Israel and its neighbors (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It also marks the territories captured by Israel during the Six Day War, which include the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Sinai Peninsula.
Although the 1949 Rhodes Armistice agreement signed between the Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian, and Israeli governments gives Battir’s residents the right to continue ownership of their lands inside the green line in exchange for protecting the train (built in the 1890s by the Ottoman empire) Israel could, and threatens to, continue the construction of the separation wall.
Residents, farmers, and activists in Battir fear that Israel will build the separation wall along the green line, which would take away one third of their land and destroy the effective and historic irrigation system. While many Palestinian communities attempt to halt construction on the wall through peaceful demonstrations, such as in the infamous Bil’in, the residents of Battir utilized a different approach. They conducted studies about the importance of the natural landscape and brought international media attention and peacemakers to aid them in making a case to UNESCO to stop the wall. For now, the case has successfully and effectively halted the Israeli government from continuing construction on the separation barrier.
Battir received the Melina Mercouri International UNESCO Prize for preserving and protecting the natural landscape and landscape terraces. According to UNESCO’s website, “The project’s goal is to strengthen the capacity of the government and the inhabitants to manage this unique cultural landscape. Important elements of the project include sustainable use, development of the village infrastructure, as well as the establishment of an eco museum in Battir.”
Battir’s innovative approach to stopping the wall is an inspiration to all Palestinians under occupation, and especially to those whose lands have been stolen by Israel or are inaccessible to them due to the wall. “We are sitting and planting, according to our vision, in Battir, on the Green Line.” Mahmood Obed-Allah, from the Society of Land Friends Middle East said on Sunday.
Water does not Stop at Political Borders: Israeli Restrictions on Water Access in Al Auja
Auja, a town 12 kilometer north-east of Jericho, is situated near the Jordan Valley, one of the most water-abundant areas in the West Bank. According to international law, the water belongs to Palestine. Israel, however, now controls most of the water infrastructure in the region, such as wells and pumps. The emergence of settlements near Auja was followed by Israeli control over water, and soon thereafter, tragic water shortages for Palestinians.
Auja’s economy used to be supported by banana, watermelon, and date crops. The Auja spring used to provide enough water for over 90% of the town’s inhabitants, who relied on the spring for agriculture. In turn, they relied on agriculture as their main source of income. Despite the abundance of water in the region, that number has recently dropped. Currently, less than 5% of Auja’s residents and farmers are able to support themselves and their agriculture with the little remaining water Israel has allotted them.
“The Auja Spring used to have about 2,000 cubed meters of water. The Israeli’s got eight wells, and Palestinians got two. Those two were the shallowest and least effective wells,” Fadi Dweijat, director of the Auja Environmental Education Center explains. “There are many aquifers in the region. If Palestinians were just given one, then everyone could be fed,” he continued.
Palestinians are also not allowed to dig wells in order to retrieve underground water themselves, unless they obtain a special permit from the Israeli government. Dweijat said, “of course they never get them [permits] because the Israeli government wants Palestinians to buy water from them.” Palestinians in Auja are dependent on buying water that legally belongs to them, at a high price, from Mekorot, an Israeli company.
Israel’s control of water in Al Auja has resulted in a collapse of the town’s agriculture based economy. This is forcing most young Palestinians in the Auja region to work in the settlements which are illegally built on Palestinian land. Instead of cultivating their own farms, they are forced to work on Israeli settlers’ farms, which receive as much water as they need or desire. Additionally, the Palestinians working in the settlements have no insurance, benefits, labor rights, or protection.
The Auja Environmental Education Center works in collaboration with Friends of the Earth Middle East with the objective of promoting cooperation to protect the people’s and region’s environmental heritage. The environmental center utilizes modern technology innovatively in the areas of solar energy, solid waste, and grey water.
“Solar energy provides electricity while the grey water from showers, bathrooms, and laundry is reused to water the plants,” Dweijat explains. The grey water system has been extremely successful in combating Israel’s inhumane and criminal water distribution. According to USAID, Auja’s 5,000 residents are beginning to see improvements in their daily living conditions.
Yet most of Israel’s destruction is irreversible. “My father used to be a farmer,” Dweijat said, “Now he doesn’t have a single tree. Not a single one. And he’s just one farmer.”