New Abasan village in South Eastern Gaza looks, and feels, almost haunted.
Every third or fourth house is a mound of rubble, or else has been partially
destroyed, and the village streets are dusty and devoid of life. Many local
Palestinians have been driven out of New Abasan by relentless Israeli incursions
into the village. The Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) have bulldozed huge tracts
of land in and around New Abasan, and demolished dozens of local houses.
Beyond the village itself are hundred more donumms of rich agricultural
farmland (a donumm is the equivalent of 1,000 square metres) lying near Gaza’s
eastern border with Israel. Abu Jihad Shaheen is a local farmer who owns a farm
about a kilometer outside New Abasan village, nearby the border. He used to live
on his farm with his family, but after years of Israeli invasions of his land,
was finally forced to leave when the IOF demolished his water well earlier this
year. When he and his family left the farm the IOF destroyed their farmhouse.
Now Abu Jihad and his family live in New Abasan village. “My brother, Yousef,
and I own our farm together,” he says, as we stand at the beginning of his land,
gazing towards the border. “We own 86 donumms of land, but we can only farm the
20 donumms furthest from the border – it is too dangerous for us to work on the
rest of our land.”
Twenty donumms of fresh parsley surround us, ripe for hand-picking - but
beyond that stretch another 66 dunumms of dry, yellow dry earth leading right up
to the border. We walk to the far end of the parsley fields. Now we are standing
450 metres from the border with Israel, and Abu Jihad will go no further. When
he points out the ruin of his house just a couple of hundred metres ahead, there
are tears in his eyes. “Yousef and I have lost more than $300,000 because we
can’t farm our land any more” he says. “We had almond, olive and citrus trees,
and we exported fruit and vegetables to the West Bank and Jordan, and to Israel.
Now we will be lucky to make $300 from selling the parsley.”
The most striking thing about the expanse of farmland along the south
eastern Gaza border is the almost total absence of people: apart from Abu Jihad,
his brother, Yousef and a local farm-worker who’s come to help them pick the
parsley, there is no-one to be seen. The Shaheen brothers, who now have to pipe
water from a nearby house to their parsley fields, say dozens of local farming
families have been driven from the area, leaving fields and farmhouses empty.
Abu Jihad says the Tahdiya or “period of calm” that came into force on 19
June has made no difference to his access to his own land. “I still cannot farm
my land” he says. His brother agrees. “They [the Israelis] still open fire every
day” says Yousef. “They fire warning shots into the air, and we see drones and
helicopters circling in the sky above us. We do not feel safe here on our land.”
At the beginning of the Second Intifada, in September 2000, a 150 metre
buffer zone was established either side of the Gaza / Israel border. Over the
last few years the IOF have unilaterally extended the buffer zone to more than
300 metres, whilst at the same time continuing to deliberately destroy thousands
of donumms of Gazan farmland, including farmland way beyond the buffer zone. A
400 metre buffer zone around the border of the Gaza represents a net loss of at
least 20 square kilometres of fertile farmland. But this year alone, 3,400
donumms of farmland inside Gaza have been bulldozed by IOF, the vast majority of
it along the south eastern border, including farms that stood 2.5 kilometres
from the border with Israel.
The deliberate destruction of civilian property is illegal under
international human rights and humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva
Convention [articles 33 and 53]. Although IOF has stopped bulldozing Gazan
farmland since 19 June, many farmers living near the border remain frightened of
returning to their own land.
Abu Jihad takes us to meet another local farmer. Yunis Khalil Abu Latifa is
56, and owns fifty donumms of local land. We sit under the olive trees outside
his house, and eat fresh, sweet figs from his garden. “I had ten dunumms of
fruit trees just behind my house” he tells us, “but the Israelis bulldozed them.
Our land is fertile, but we cannot farm here anymore.” Regarding the Tahdiya,
Abu Latifa says he thinks it has made some difference. “My family feels more
personally secure in this area now that they [the Israelis] are not shooting and
invading [our area] every day” he says. “But I still can’t work on my land”
One week before the Tahdiya started, an IOF rocket struck Abu
Latifa’s house. No-one was injured, but the family home was badly damaged. Abu
Latifa is adamant no rockets had been fired by Palestinians. “We are all farmers
here” he says, “and we just want to farm.” He suddenly gestures in the
direction of the border. “I have forty dunumms of good land up there” he says.
‘It is just 800 metres away, and I could walk there in ten minutes. But if
anyone goes onto their land [near the border] they will be shot, even now. I
haven’t been able to farm those 40 donumms for more than four years.”