By preventing Palestinian farmers from reaching their land for most of the year, Israel is reducing many of them to poverty - claims campaign group.
The farmers of the West Bank village of Beit Surik used to make their living selling oil from their olive trees. Now, says Abu Rami, the head of the village farmers' association, they cannot produce enough olive oil for their own families. The problem is the system Israel has set up for getting access to their land in the West Bank is on the other side of Israel's separation barrier. In effect, Israel treats all Palestinians living in or seeking to reach their own lands on the Israeli side of the barrier as though they were security threats.
Israel began building its separation barrier – in some places a fence, in others an eight metre-high concrete wall with guard towers – in 2002, for the stated purpose of preventing Palestinian suicide bombers from attacking Israeli civilians. The International Court of Justice ruled, in 2004, that the barrier route violates international law where it veers into the occupied Palestinian territories. Today, 85 per cent of the barrier's route lies inside the West Bank, cutting tens of thousands of Palestinians off from lands they own or previously farmed without restriction.
Israel argues that it has opened gates in the barrier to allow West Bank Palestinians to reach their lands. But the daily reality belies this claim. By preventing these Palestinian farmers from reaching their land for most of the year, Israel is reducing many of them to poverty. To pass through the gates, Palestinians must "coordinate" - the Israeli term for getting advance permission from the military. The Palestinians must also obtain special military permits to reach the more than 18,400 hectares on the other side that Israel has designated "seam zones": areas that are closed military zones to Palestinians, though not to Israelis.
In a confidential report from July 2011, which was later leaked; European Union heads of mission dealing with Palestinian issues recommended that the EU should "encourage Israel to open the gates to the seam zone on a more regular basis without prior coordination". One affected area is known as the Biddu enclave. It consists of eight villages with 30,000 residents surrounded by the barrier on three sides. The barrier has cut off a group of Palestinian farmers there from 50 per cent of their farmlands and 70 per cent of their grazing lands.
In response to petitions to Israel's High Court of Justice, the military built five gates for Palestinian farmers in the barrier around the enclave. All five gates require advance "coordination". And one is also a seam zone gate, meaning Palestinians need special permits to use it. The result has been that farmers from the enclave were unable to reach their farmlands for 268 days in 2009, 282 days in 2010, 328 days in 2011 and 84 days in 2012 - as of April 3, according to UN monitors. On the limited days that Israel grants access, it does so without adequately considering the seasonal variations in farming and harvesting. A farmer from the village of Biddu, Faruq Radad, says that he owns two hectares of grape vines beyond the barrier - but that for the past two years, the days that Israel allowed access did not correspond to the grape harvest season. His grapes rotted on the vine.
Israel's High Court has rejected arguments that security needs could be met with a less restrictive system, such as soldiers checking farmers for weapons before allowing them to cross the barrier. But Israel imposes a much less restrictive system on Palestinians working in Israeli settlements. For example, about 150 Palestinians from one of the villages in the Biddu enclave work in the settlement of Har Adar - according to the Beit Iksa village council. Their settler employers collect their identification documents and give them to the Israeli military for security checks. The Palestinians receive permits that are typically valid for three months, generally renewed, and they can cross through a gate in the separation barrier six days a week. It appears that Israel is willing to adopt a more discerning security system when the issue is the convenience of settlers, but not when it concerns Palestinian farmers trying to make a living on their own land.
The Israeli military now allows only 15 farmers from Beit Iksa to pass through the same gate, and has only opened that gate to them on 10 days so far in 2012 - according to United Nations monitors. In November 2010, the military granted permits to 70 farmers - which were valid for three weeks. Months later, in March 2011, the military renewed only 15 of the 70 – for bureaucratic rather than specific security reasons. It has been 10 years since Israel began constructing its separation barrier. Without meaningful pressure on Israel to change its barrier policies, Palestinian farmers are likely to suffer continued rights violations. The EU could best help Biddu's farmers avoid being forced into poverty by vigorously advocating for Israel to allow them to work their land.
*Bill Van Esveld is a senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch*