Jayyous's farmers are used to surveying their land from their commanding hilltop village in the northern West Bank.
But for many, gazing is now all they can do.
Israel’s West Bank barrier has separated the village of Jayyous from 9,500 of its 13,600 dunums (a dunum is 1,000 square metres) of land, and the Israeli authorities have denied them permits to access it.
“In the beginning, they gave permits to pass through gates in the barrier to 90 per cent of the people here, including children,” said Mustafa Samha, 27, a psychologist whose father has been barred from his land. “But after six months they began reducing the number of people they gave permits to.”
Samha says about three-quarters of Jayyous’s 3,000 inhabitants depend on farming, but the number of permits issued has declined. “Now they have stopped giving them to farmers’ sons. If a farmer has 50 dunums of land he needs help to work it all. On his own he can only work about 10 to 15 dunums of land. This is stealing.”
Israel says it must have the barrier to prevent suicide attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militants. But the price paid for the wall by Palestinian farmers is high: more than 60 per cent of farming families do not have access to their land west of the barrier, according to a survey carried out by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Jerusalem in early November.
Human rights campaigners say that complex land ownership legislation – some dating back to the Ottoman Empire that ended with the First World War – makes it difficult for Palestinians to prove to the Israeli authorities that they own their land, and then obtain a permit to go to it.
“At places like Jayyous, people are increasingly being denied access to their land, and the reason given is increasingly a lack of ties to the land rather than security,” said Angela Godfrey-Goldstein, an advocacy officer at the Israeli Commission Against House Demolitions, a campaigning group.
Risk of land confiscation
Palestinian farmers who do not cultivate their land risk having it confiscated because, under Ottoman law, landowners who do not cultivate their land for three consecutive years, forfeit it to the authorities.
“We’re seeing some farmers preferring to farm at a loss rather than risking losing their land,” said Godfrey-Goldstein.
Jayyous’s produce of olives and citrus fruits has plummeted from 9 million kilos a year, to less than 5 million kilos since the barrier was completed in 2002, farmers say.
The barrier’s impact goes beyond simply barring farmers from their land, according to Abdellatif Khaled, whose family owns 70 dunums of land and who has a permit to get to it.
Photo: Tom Spender/IRIN
He told IRIN that thousands of olive trees south of Jayyous remain unharvested because traditional routes have been blocked by the barrier, turning a 100 metre walk, into a trek of more than 10km to get through the nearest gate. “There is now no road to get to the trees so farmers have to carry all the olives on their shoulders,” Khaled said.
In addition, because access through the gates near Jayyous is restricted to village residents only, farmers cannot easily hire labourers or bring in agriculture specialists to check on their greenhouses, he said. As a result, those labourers who do have permission, can ask for a greater share in the profits.
“Traditionally, farmers could employ labourers to harvest their land and pay them a third of the crop. These days, it is the labourer who takes the majority of the crop,” said Khaled.
Little point in working the land
“As a result, there is now little point in working the land and many people who could have a permit don’t bother. Although the number of people who are refused permits fluctuates around 60 per cent, in reality 99.9 per cent of Palestinians do not get to the land.”
A number of West Bank communities openly oppose the barrier. Bil’in, to the north-west of Ramallah, has become internationally known for its Friday demonstrations, which involve Palestinians and activists from Israel and abroad, and almost always end in clashes with the Israeli military.
“We have a strong legal case against the Israelis and the media exposure helps,” said Ashraf, a 22-year-old Palestinian demonstrator who refused to give his name.
In a statement to IRIN, the Israeli military said landowners whose land is along the route of the barrier itself would remain the owners, and would receive a one-off compensation payment from the Israeli government as well as an annual rental fee from them as they would not be able to use their land.
In its statement, the Israeli military said those unhappy with the barrier’s route, could launch legal challenges. Legal petitions have been submitted to Israel’s Supreme Court, some of which have led to changes in the route.
However, the municipality of al-Khader - a village of about 10,000 inhabitants near Bethlehem – lost its case after receiving a letter from the Israeli authorities informing it that the barrier would separate it from 77 percent of its land.
“All we got from the court was a pedestrian tunnel under the wall to be controlled by soldiers,” said Adnan Sbeih, the mayor of al-Khader. His own family’s land will be covered with concrete after being chosen as a site for a new Israeli military base.
“Everyone in al-Khader works on the grape vines,” he said. “What will we do now?”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions