The not-so-strange case of the lost potato field of Jibata Al-Khashab

The Israeli government has taken advantage of the unstable political and security conditions in Syria and in the town of Jibata al-Khashab to extend its control within Syrian territory.

Rita from Syria
27 September 2012

Articles 17 and 23 of the Charter of Human Rights state the right for all individuals to own property and have the right to decent work without exception.

Abu Ali's story is typical of how the lives of ordinary Syrians have been turned upside down. Abu Ali is a simple farmer in his seventies from the town of Jibata al-Khashab located on the Syrian border with the occupied Golan Heights. All he wants is to harvest the potato crop from his field near the border fence, so that he and his family can survive the coming harsh winter. Abu Ali’s land is located entirely within Syrian territory, but the Israeli government has taken advantage of the unstable political and security conditions in Syria and in the town of Jibata al-Khashab to extend its control within Syrian territory. Due to this creeping occupation of Syrian territory, two-thirds of Abu Ali’s land now lies behind the new border fence. If this situation were not bad enough, Abu Ali can no longer access the remaining third which remains under Syrian control because Israeli border patrols threaten whoever is close by with live gun-fire.

Israeli forces place blue barrels two hundred metres beyond its border within Syrian territory: anyone who ventures past these barrels or gets close to them they shoot him – never mind the fact that he would be within Syrian territory. Abu Ali tells me: "Now they have placed the blue barrel in the third of the land which remained to me. If it’s not harvested, the potato crop will rot after a few days. I am a farmer and if I can’t sell my crops I won’t be able to eat and keep warm in the winter because the land is my only source of income".

Since the FSA took control of Jibata al-khashab two and a half months ago, Israel has seized nearly seven hundred square meters of Syrian land near the town, and built a monitoring post on one of the hills. The town is located in a buffer zone: under the UN-sponsored disengagement agreement signed between the two countries on 31 May 1974, the area in which Jibata al-Khashab is situated remains under civil Syrian administration. The terms of the agreement also stipulate that UNDOF, the UN peacekeeping force, should be the sole military presence in the area. However, Syrian army and security forces stormed the area on 6 July 2012 for one day and then withdrew and stationed themselves around the town imposing a suffocating siege.

FSA fighters, with their modest military capabilities and suffering under a military siege, cannot open a new front with Israel. The latter has taken advantage and devoured more Syrian land, capturing strategically located hills. However, areas closest to the border with the occupied Golan are considered by FSA fighters to be the safest. Here, regime forces do not target the FSA fighters for fear of igniting war with Israel. This clearly puts to bed the regime myth of its being a bastion of defiance and resistance against Israeli hegemony.

Despite the presence of UN troops, violations of international agreements continue apace. Even UN forces are at risk! FSA battalions stationed in Jibata al-Khashab threaten to strike UN positions in case they come under attack from regime forces.

Fear shrouded the face of the Austrian soldier serving in UNDOF when I asked him about the threats they had received from the FSA. He told me that talks were ongoing with regime forces concerning their safety. One of the officers in charge of UNDOF troops said “it was important”, but added that he does not know what the outcome of the talks has been. Though the FSA have threatened to strike UN forces, they have never done so till now: not when regime forces stormed the town or even when they were bombarded with heavy artillery. The truth is UN forces are still able to move freely in the region.

The ongoing violations of the disengagement agreement prove that UN power to deal with armed disputes in this area remains just ink on paper. It is purely cosmetic, as is the case with the entire United Nations system. However, UNDOF has been able to help Abu Ali get permission to harvest the rest of the potato crop in what remains of the little land he can access. But for the coming season - who knows? Perhaps all his land will be enclosed behind the expanding fence and he will completely lose his livelihood. Given the complex political and security circumstances in Jibata al-Khashab, as is the case in Syria as a whole, ordinary people like Abu Ali have little choice but to turn to the heavens and pray, "May God relieve this land".


A thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for translating this article


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