Palestinian farmers endure ‘constant war’ in Gaza

A high rate of food insecurity and a deteriorating agricultural sector are the result of Israeli policies.

Strawberry cultivation in Gaza
Gaza farmers are being 'particularly badly affected' by Israel's tight restrictions on their movement, according to rights group [Getty]

Gaza Strip – Amjad Abu Ayash, 56, stood atop a hill and looked out across a patch of charred agricultural land spotted with busted water pipes. “They call this area the ‘land of death’ because even the birds that come here die,” he told Al Jazeera.

Explaining that the Israeli barrier sealing off the northern Gaza Strip touches his land, Abu Ayash, a melon farmer, said: “Any time someone or something is within 300 metres of the border, the [Israeli army] shoots at it.”

A recent report issued by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that Israeli tanks breached the border into Gaza’s agricultural land twice in the last week of January alone.

The group also documented 26 incidents of Israeli forces shooting live ammunition in “access restricted zones” on land and by sea during the first week of January. 

A resident of Beit Lahia, Abu Ayash estimates that he needs more than $2,000 to repair his land. “We cannot afford to repair all this destruction, so we don’t have work,” he said. “My house was also damaged badly, but we are living in it.”

“The world doesn’t see us,” Abu Ayash added.

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For 51 days last summer, Israel launched a major assault on Gaza – “Operation Protective Edge”. By the time a ceasefire was reached in late August, 73 Israelis, including five civilians, were killed. An estimated 2,257 Palestinians died, according to OCHA.

One of the most densely populated places on earth, large swaths of Gaza still bear the markings of war: flattened homes and destroyed buildings line the rubble-filled streets.

Just down the road from Abu Ayash’s farm, Abu Khader Khatib, 50, was one of more than 300,000 people displaced to UN-administered schools during the fighting. “I came back from the schools after the war to find that most of my animals were dead,” the strawberry farmer told Al Jazeera. “My house was totally destroyed, but we’re living in it.”

“The situation hasn’t improved at all,” Khatib said. “The blockade makes it impossible and the international [humanitarian] organisations don’t support us in a way that really helps us. We just become dependent on them because we have no other options.”

Israeli forces continue to carry out a long-standing, unlawful policy of shooting at anyone who crosses an invisible line that they consider to be too close to the Gaza perimeter fence.

by Bill Van Esveld, senior researcher, Human Rights Watch

Due to his farm’s close proximity to the “buffer zone” between Israel and Gaza, Khatib explained that drones, monitoring balloons and planes frequently fly overhead. “This is a daily reality, and when we get close to the fence [between Israel and Gaza], the military fires at us,” he said. “They shoot and shoot. For us, it’s a constant war.”

Bill Van Esveld, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, explained that “farmers are being particularly badly affected” by Israel’s tight restrictions on their movement, which exacerbate the already difficult conditions caused by the eight-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza.

“Israeli forces continue to carry out a long-standing, unlawful policy of shooting at anyone who crosses an invisible line that they consider to be too close to the Gaza perimeter fence,” he told Al Jazeera.

An Israeli military spokesperson defended the measures Israel takes on the border and declined to define the exact size of the buffer zone. “Due to security concerns targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers, access to the immediate vicinity of the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip is forbidden,” the spokesperson told Al Jazeera. 

Jaber Abu Daqqa, 61, and his family have land in al-Faraheen, a village on the border of Israel in southern Gaza, where they grow lentils and beans. His home was partially destroyed by Israeli shelling during the war.

“We had around a dozen sheep before the war,” Abu Daqqa told Al Jazeera, recounting that he was unable to access the area in order to feed the animals during the war. “We came back and they were all dead. Some had been shot and others had starved. I also used to raise birds, but they died as well.”

Pointing to a drone buzzing in the sky above, Abu Daqqa, a father of six children said: “There is only one today, but sometimes there are more.” Then motioning to an Israeli military jeep creeping along the border fence, he said: “If it stops, we need to move. That means they will fire. They have been firing at us a lot during the last three weeks.”

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A five minute walk down the dirt road, Maram Hussein, 60, said that “tanks rode through the land and tore it to shreds” during the war.

“My chicken coop was destroyed and 12 sheep died,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that her family had fled the area during Israel’s ground invasion. “I had 300 chickens before the war. They are all gone now.”

No humanitarian organisations have come to the Hussein family’s aid yet. “If there are people out there that can help us, please come. We are suffering here,” she pleaded, adding that Israeli forces fire in the direction of the farmers “almost every day” in the buffer zone.

As Al Jazeera spoke to the farmers in Faraheen, gunshots rang out nearby. “Don’t worry,” Abdullah Abu Daqqa, 17, said as he loaded bags of lentils onto a trailer. “They sound closer than they are. We would know if they were firing at us.”

Gaza’s urban and rural reconstruction has moved at a snail’s pace since the war concluded nearly half a year ago. Although international donors pledged $5.4bn in aid for Gaza at an October conference in Cairo, only five percent of that amount had been delivered by January.  

HRW’s Van Esveld explained that Israeli forces’ shooting at farmers renders “food insecurity and fragile aid-dependency even worse” because it limits their ability to work.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Gaza is struggling with an 80 percent food insecurity rate and its agricultural sector “suffered over $500m of damages with over 43 percent of its production … lost.”

Back at his Beit Lahia farm, Abu Khader Khatib said that he will continue farming his land “no matter how dangerous it becomes. What else are we supposed to do? There’s no money and nowhere else to go”.

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera