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Palestinians reclaim Gaza 'buffer zone'

Despite threats to their safety, Palestinians are farming in Gaza buffer zone as a way to regain land and livelihoods.

Last updated: 05 May 2014 09:57
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Israeli restrictions on farming in Gaza border areas have affected 113,000 Palestinians [Lena Odgaard/Al Jazeera]

Umm an-Naser, Gaza Strip - Last year, Mahmoud Abu Madek was not a farmer. Sitting on his knees between newly planted potatoes and beans, 27-year-old Abu Madek expertly ensured that water from the irrigation system reached the seedlings. He carefully selected these two types of crops so their harvest seasons would overlap, guaranteeing him an income for a longer period.

"I haven't had a job before. This is the first opportunity I've had to work on land," Abu Madek told Al Jazeera. "For me it's a way to make an income and cover the needs of my family."


VIDEO: Israeli blockade limits Gaza farm exports


Before he began farming, Abu Madek was among 65 percent of residents in Umm an-Naser who were unemployed. With a population of about 5,000, the Palestinian-Bedouin herding community sits in northern Gaza Strip, only a few hundred metres from a tall concrete wall, part of the Israeli barrier that surrounds the besieged Palestinian territory.

Umm an-Naser is in one of the poorest and most food insecure areas of Gaza. Bound by the wall from the north and Gaza City's expanding urban areas from the south, residents are cut off from grazing areas for their flocks.

For years, as a result of these restrictions, the villagers relied largely on foreign aid for food and basic necessities. Frustrated by this aid dependency, the mayor of the village, Zeyad Abu Freiya, requested help from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in October 2011 to make the community more self-sufficient.

Before, it was hard to get food. This is a different and real source for food access and income generation. It's a dream that has become a reality.

- Zeyad Abu Freiya, mayor of Umm an-Naser

"We wanted to create jobs for people so they could cover their needs and not depend on others," Abu Freiya told Al Jazeera.

The village's agricultural land previously consisted of only sand dunes. But with funding from the Dutch government, that land was levelled, a well and irrigation system was built, and clay was added to enrich the soil with minerals. In the fall of 2013, the farmers planted their first crops.

"Before, it was hard to get food. This is a different and real source for food access and income generation," Abu Freiya said. "It's a dream that has become a reality."

Abu Madek is one of 83 new farmers from Umm an-Naser who leases two dunums of land (one dunum equals 1,000sq m). When the farming project is complete, another 42 farmers will also have a plot of land. In total, including agricultural access roads, the village will regain access to 271 dunums of land.

This new farming area allows not only for the production of food for domestic use, but also for selling at nearby markets. It has increased the income of the families by an average of $2,000 per household, per year.


BLOG: Inside Israel's 'buffer zone' - Palestinian farmers in Gaza risk their lives


But farming in this area is not without risk.

While Abu Madek was absorbed with tending to his new crops, an Israeli drone buzzed in the sky, and behind him - half a kilometre from the fields - a tall grey watchtower served as a reminder of how close the Israeli military is.

The fields are in the so-called "buffer zone", the territory leading up to the Israeli-manned border fence. The UN refers to this area as "access restricted" or "high risk". But how far into Palestinian territory these off-limits areas actually extend is unclear.

In a November 2012 ceasefire agreement signed between Israel and Gaza's Hamas government that brought an end to 22 days of fighting, the Israeli authorities agreed to allow Palestinians to come as close as 100m to the fence. Still, 58 shooting incidents were recorded in the area during the first half of 2013 alone. In most of these cases, people were approximately 300m from the fence.

Two separate incidents were recorded by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In one, a Palestinian toddler was injured and a farmer killed even though they were at least one kilometre away from the wall. In another, 58-year-old Amna Atiyeh Qdaih was shot and killed near the Israeli barrier. According to reports, Israel said it had fired at Palestinians suspiciously approaching the border; Qdaih's relatives, however, said she was mentally ill and suspected she wandered too close to the border area by mistake.

The goal of the [Israeli army] is purely to prevent dangerous and imminent threats, whilst facilitating the ability of Gazan residents, especially farmers, to continue with their daily routine.

- Israeli military spokesperson

A recent UN report warned of increasing friction at the border areas mostly due to weekly protests against the wall and restricted access in the buffer zone. Since the beginning of the year, four Palestinians (including one woman and one child) have been killed, and 57 people (including seven children) have been injured, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"When Gaza citizens approach within the limit without [a] permit, they are warned according to a regulated and thorough procedure," the Israeli army spokesperson's office wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

The Israeli military specified that the current limit for Palestinians in Gaza is 300m from the fence and that regulations are communicated to Palestinians via military liaisons.

But UN agencies and Palestinian and Israeli human rights organisations say the Israeli guidelines are unclear, and have condemned the Israeli army's use of live fire to enforce access restrictions.

"The majority of the population try to avoid coming closer than the 300m but the Israeli [military] targets people even beyond 300m - farmers while they are accessing their lands or workers collecting gravel and stone. You cannot talk about a secure life in that area," Khalil Shahin, from the Gaza City-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), told Al Jazeera.

He added that restrictions on access to the buffer zone also have a detrimental economic impact on Palestinians. As of 2010, UN-OCHA estimated that 35 percent of Gaza's agricultural land is located in restricted-access areas, affecting the lives and livelihoods of approximately 113,000 people.

This comes on top of significant losses to the agricultural sector during escalations in violence. The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture estimated direct losses of $268m as a consequence of Israeli attacks during the 2008-09 Israeli military invasion into Gaza, dubbed Operation Cast Lead.


RELATED: Opinion - The food and farming sector in Gaza


Since Palestinian farmers in Umm an-Naser were granted access to their agricultural lands, no shooting incidents were reported.

According to Cyril Ferrand, the head of office for the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), an agreement was reached with the Israeli authorities whereby the farmers agreed not to come closer than 550m to the border fence, and not plant crops that would exceed 80cm in height.

"We could not encourage people to go to farm in an area if they are exposed to insecurity," Ferrand told Al Jazeera. "The area is super sensitive and it was difficult to get the approval to work there," he said. "It doesn't mean we can guarantee 100 percent security for our farmers," he added.

"Unfortunately incidents in the access-restricted areas do exist," Ferrand added.

But the risks don't deter the farmers in Umm an-Nasser.

"We know there is a risk, but we don't want to lose our investments here," said Abu Freiya, the mayor. "I ask you to come a year from now - this has so much potential. Next year, the farmers will be more developed and use the lands during different seasons and benefit from every single sand grain. It will change family life. The only obstacle is the security."

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