Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Palestinian farmers are being treated like criminals

Amira Hass 

By Amira Hass, Haaretz Correspondent

Under the cover of the incessant noise from the roads in the Hebron district, an anonymous Arab is perpetrating a serious crime: With a small hammer, he is digging a cistern so he can collect rainwater on his rocky land. Other such criminals have other methods of carrying out their evil schemes - which is to say, to prepare their land for cultivation of vegetables, grain, grapevines or almond trees.

"When someone builds a terrace on his land, he does it by taking a stone from the ground and adding it to the supporting wall once a month or once a week at most, so that it will be hard to discern the change," a Hebron resident said, explaining one of the methods.

Experience shows that if you use heavy equipment to rehabilitate the land, it immediately attracts Civil Administration inspectors and local settlers, and is followed shortly afterward by stop-work injunctions.


In the spirit of the popular saying along the lines of "Give a man a fishing rod rather than a fish," the European Union has been devoting attention and money to Palestinian farmers in recent years. These projects are designed to increase the income of poor agricultural families by allowing them to reclaim their land and expand the area under cultivation. The logic of "Give a man a fishing rod" also meets the need to return to traditional, environment-friendly agricultural methods and to heritage crop species, while making the best use of the water - thus also fighting desertification.

"And we were actually convinced that the Palestinians and Israel have a common interest: developing Area C, which supports the Palestinian economy, and projects that suit both sides in terms of the environment," said a European diplomat - who discovered he was mistaken.

Over the past two years, the Civil Administration in the Hebron area has issued dozens of stop-work orders to Palestinian farmers trying to reclaim, rehabilitate and prepare the land on their property. That is how European officials, representatives of the donor nations, discovered that Palestinians "are not allowed to move a stone or plant a tree or collect rainwater on their land without the approval of the Civil Administration," as one of them told Haaretz.

The Palestinians have several veteran agricultural associations that have been in operation since the early 1980s; they did not need the Europeans to invent the wheel for them. But they do need financial support.

The system works like this: The Europeans transfer the money to international non-governmental agencies, which have connections with the local organizations. One of these is the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, one of the oldest non-governmental Palestinian organizations. This organization received 2.25 million euros from the EU for a three-year project to reclaim and rehabilitate 2,000 dunams of agricultural land in the Hebron district. This means removing rocks and stones, leveling the ground, building terraces and stone fences, digging cisterns, and improving the access roads to the plots. The project involves several hundred families, all of which agreed to one of its main conditions: They pay for 25 percent of the cost of the work on their land.

About 70 percent of Palestinian agricultural land is located in areas that Israel has defined as Area C, under full Israeli control. Therefore, for the non-profit organizations, reclaiming the land is part of the political, popular struggle against its annexation to Israeli settlements and outposts. But for the farmers themselves, this battle also involves many risks, which many prefer not to take.

In the wake of the flood of stop-work injunctions that arrived in 2008 , said the European official, fewer farmers were willing to join the land reclamation project in Area C. Some borrowed money in order to pay for their share of the work. Then came the injunctions. The work was stopped, but their debts remained or their savings went down the drain. In several instances, the heavy equipment leased for the work was confiscated by the Civil Administration. This equipment requires a permit, because using it is considered "construction." Their owners were left without a source of income for several months. Some digger operators were arrested for several days. The Union of Agricultural Work Committees confirmed: Some of those who were signed up for the project changed their minds.

Ordered to stop

Nobody wants to experience what happened four months ago to the family of Rabi'a Jaber . In October, Israel Defense Forces soldiers and the Civil Administration raided the family's dry, rocky 10-dunam plot, southeast of Hebron. An IDF bulldozer scattered the stones of the terraces, turned over the ground and destroyed the cistern.

The work on the very rocky plot on the mountain slope opposite the Jaber home began in May 2008. A large Palestinian digger removed and split rocks, and dug a cistern for collecting rainwater; a smaller digger broke the split rocks into smaller stones and began to form terraces on the slope. The family - four brothers, 35 people - planned to plant grapes, olives and almonds, all crops that do not require irrigation. But in October 2008, when the work was almost complete, stop-work injunctions arrived.

According to the injunctions, it turns out that the Civil Administration had decided that they were invading land that was not theirs, even though the Jabers had documents indicating that taxes were paid on the land from the time of Jordanian rule, and even though not only they, but their neighbors too, owners of the adjacent plots, have always known that this is their land.

The demolition made waves after written and filmed reports appeared on pro-settler Web sites. The latter also enthusiastically made a point of identifying the partners in this invasion of the homeland's lands: the EU and Oxfam (Belgium).

Khader Shibak of Halhoul received his stop-work injunctions in August 2008, four days after he had begun work. Up until 10 years ago, he and his brother had land planted with grapevines and almond trees. In late 2000, a military camp was set up on the mountain peak. That, and the travel restrictions during the intifada that began late that year, prevented the family's access to both the vineyard and the orchard. In 2008 the army camp was removed, and the family decided to reclaim and rehabilitate its land - and to plant new trees.

Both the Jabers and the Shibaks - both beneficiaries of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees project - were asked to show the Israeli authorities the documents proving their ownership of the land and their right to cultivate it. That is an expensive and time-consuming process that involves fees, a lawyer, trips to the Beit El headquarters of the Civil Administration, and digging through archives, with results that often do not satisfy the Israeli authorities, with their very flexible definition of state land and private land. Both families got stuck in the middle.

Hani Zema'ara of Halhoul, 56, wanted to reclaim three dunams of his land. His work was also stopped. Zema'ara's land, incidentally, was cultivated before 1993, but his crops were destroyed when the Hebron bypass road was paved. He actually brought all the necessary documents to show the Israelis that he is the owner of the land - including a detailed area map and plan sketched by a surveyor especially for him. He invested NIS 3,500, which he doesn't have, in obtaining all the necessary papers. More than a year has passed, and he is still waiting for a permit. The almost completed terraces on his plot stand out in their aridity, on the slope of the mountain. "For Israel, when we work on our land, it's as if we killed an Israeli," is how a member of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees puts it.

European officials who are involved in the funding process are convinced that the Civil Administration has become more stringent in recent years in acting against Palestinian farmers, under pressure from the settlers in general and from the Regavim association in particular. Regavim, which calls itself "the movement for preservation of the nation's lands," is steadily expanding its work of detecting Palestinian "violations" in Area C.

A Regavim spokesman told Haaretz that the organization "is taking a very serious approach toward the illegal takeover by Arabs of lands in Area C in Judea and Samaria, including by means of agricultural cultivation designed only for this purpose.

"Regavim is following with concern the increasing involvement of foreign countries and entities in establishing facts on the ground unilaterally, while violating the laws of the State of Israel and brazenly undermining its sovereignty ... Regavim calls on the Foreign Ministry to convey an unequivocal message to the international parties, and state that Israel is very upset by their behavior and demands that they immediately desist.

"The Regavim movement is pleased to hear that the Civil Administration has responded to its demands and has been enforcing the law in an egalitarian manner, among Arabs as well."

At the time of publication, the Civil Administration had not responded to Haaretz's questions.