Palestine is known for its fertile land. It's famous for its quality olive oil (pdf)and other vegetables and fruits products. Many ancient conflicts were fought around this “land of honey and blessings”. The Gaza Strip in the south is famous for its olives, strawberries, and orange trees, and almost as famous for its grapefruits as the West Bank city of Hebron.
My uncles, Mazen and Arab, are merchants with agri-business connections. Upon my return to Gaza, they promised to take me to Gaza’s "countryside", which turned out to be a small village called Juhr al Dik, 1.5 kilometres from the Israeli border. As we approached, Mazen pointed his finger at the bulldozed wasteground beyond Salah El Din street, saying, "That was our friend Abu Ali’s chicken farm, Al Samouni Farm. Nothing is left. That farm alone, not so long ago, bred enough birds to feed the entire population of Gaza, instead of begging for aid from Israel."
An area bordering Israel, bombed then bulldozed by them, that used to be full of orange and lemon trees. Sameh Habeeb. All rights reserved.
Uncle Mazen worked in the vegetables and fruits trade in the late 1990s. According to him, prices of apples, potatoes, almonds and oranges (if they can be found) have more than doubled and are now unaffordable for those on low income. Poultry prices have rocketed. He reckons that the direct impact on Gazan agriculture of the Israeli siege and its military attacks are the key reasons for this. Many farmers cannot get close to their land.
Cultivated land in Gaza nearly doubled in size between 1948 and 1967, the year Israel occupied Gaza. But in the years that followed production deteriorated, and the contribution of the agricultural sector to local gross income dropped from 28.1% to 16.1%, due to Israeli land confiscation and other aspects of military occupation. In the 70’s and 80’s it deteriorated further as farmers moved to work in Israel where the incomes were higher. Tens of thousands of people left their lands and started to work in Israel on a daily basis.
Today, according to Gaza’s ministry of agriculture, there are more than 35,000 farmers in Gaza. The 196,000 square kilometres of land suitable for farming are based in the north, the centre and the south of Gaza. However, most of it is either destroyed or not farmed due to lack of resources. Since 2000 and the start of the Intifada, Israel has introduced a new policy into Gaza of uprooting and bulldozing land on a regular basis. Thousands of agricultural hectares have been bulldozed and millions of trees, uprooted. The Israeli justification for these practices was that they constituted "self-defense" and were for security reasons. But what was most obvious was their interest in taking control of the best lands in Gaza. Israeli settlements in Gaza established after 1967 – for example, the Israeli settlement of Gosh Katif in Khan Yonis - were on the most fertile lands, where water resources are plentiful. The water was moreover pumped from there into Israel through specially designed equipment.
As Israel pulled out from Gaza in 2005, many people hoped that agriculture would flourish once again. But this was not to be. The Israeli response to the launch of rockets from Gaza was to create a no-man buffer zone of between one and three kilometres in width for 36 kilometres along the border with Israel in the south of Gaza. Any Palestinian who wanders into this zone will be fired on from the Israeli side. Many Palestinian farmers have been killed in this area: many more injured. The farmers who owned this land were not allowed to harvest their crops, and watched olive groves being razed, citrus groves and sheep pastures flattened in the last war, if not before that. In the last war alone, Israel managed to destroy more than 57 square kilometres of agricultural land.
The road from Gaza City to the countryside. Sameh Habeeb. All rights reserved
My visit to the countryside arose out of a complaint I made about the food in the Al Haj restaurant in Gaza City. The shawarma - a sandwich-like wrap of shaved lamb, goat, chicken, turkey, beef, or a mixture thereof - and salad was nice enough, I said, but not how I remembered it – the cucumbers weren’t sweet anymore. They were rather bitter. That was when my uncle offered to drive me and my cousins out to Juhr al Dik, the small village to the south-east of Gaza City. So I waited for the power to come back on, charged my camera and jumped in the car. I was glad to be leaving the sticky heat of the city behind me and was looking forward to meeting the farmers they knew there.
Farmland at the entrance to Juhr al Dik. Sameh Habeeb. All rights reserved.
We soon turned off from the main road of the Gaza Strip towards the village. The remains of a factory for making concrete ran along the right hand side of the road, which was extremely uneven. The car was fluctuating like a roller-coaster by the time I begged my uncle to slow down, ‘This is Gaza’ I said, ‘not Europe!’ Quite a few TUK-TUK motors smuggled from Egypt chugged past as we arrived at the village. Here, we were greeted by a huge new poster, welcoming its guests. Since I had been looking for any signs of destruction and recovery - I started to take photos all over the place. Many houses were flattened as well as lands razed. But there were also some modern-style houses being built for a few lucky farmers by UNRWA.
Israel occupied Juhr al Dik in the last war: many houses were destroyed and lands bulldozed. Sameh Habeeb. All rights reserved.
Then we arrived at our destination. I had been taken to see a man called Mahmoud Al Uwaidat. He was a dark-skinned man with a graying beard and eyes that seemed full of some emotions I couldn’t put my finger on. I soon understood the amalgam of sadness, frustration and happiness in his eyes a little better. At first I felt uncomfortable meeting him.
Mahmoud Al Uwaidat, 57, has inherited considerable agricultural lands and is a father of twelve children: seven sons, five daughters. This is not remarkable in Gaza. His house is at the edge of the village and within sight of the Israeli army. As you come close to the edge of his land, you can see the border with Israel – a paradoxical sight – the green of the Israeli side of the border fiercely contrasting with the yellow and brown scrub of empty lands on the Palestinian side.
I don’t know which of Mahmoud's sons prepared the tasty tea boiled on a wood fire, but I couldn’t stop drinking it. (Far better than tea with milk in Britain.) As we started to chat, some fresh corn was placed on the glowing embers.
Farmers return home after a day’s work in Juhr al Dik. Sameh Habeeb. All rights reserved.
Mahmoud was telling us his recent life story,
"Before he died, my father, as well as my brother Talal, were in charge of a huge farm. We were irrigating, harvesting and selling the products. After that, we split the land up between ten of us, but by this stage the Israeli army had a habit of turning up just before each harvest to flatten his landholding or shell it with missiles from their tanks.
The Israeli army had me on the run for nothing. They imprisoned my son for years: he is still in jail in Israel. I planted my land with corn, watermelon, eggplant, almonds, lemons and oranges. All have been either bulldozed or harvested by the Israeli army. The army shelled my land many times. Then they destroyed one of my cottages. In the other, the soldiers tied up all my family members in one room and used us as human shields. When they left, they left behind them all their garbage, and words of hatred which remain as they were written on the walls."
After a while, I asked him about the deteriorating quality of food. Was I imagining things? Mahmoud thinks that the Israeli bombardment has affected the quality. He fetched some water melons to show me:
"Before, in the old days, this watermelon would have been huge – anything up to four kilos easily. Now, it doesn't grow. It remains very small. This might be due to lack of water or it could be due to the use of uranium or other radiation, such as phosphorous and artillery shells. We have a tough time getting any water here now in this area. No water pumps remain – so we have to dig our own wells and that’s also a costly business as you need power and fuel to run them."
Juhr al Dik sheep grazing. Sameh Habeeb. All rights reserved.
Statistics released by the Popular Committee to End the Siege on Gaza confirm this picture. Their report says that Gaza’s agricultural sector is in big trouble. More than 1,000,000 chickens had to be put down due to lack of fodder in 2009 and more than 12,000,000 in 2008. Agricultural tools like insecticides, seeds and fertiliser are simply not available. This already damaged the sector under the siege. Now it's much worse. Any supplies to Gaza now come from Egypt: almost nothing through Israel. As a result, Gaza needs around 150 tons of animal feed a day but is getting nothing like this. Agricultural products are being held in Gaza as Israel has prevented exports of any kind for a year and a half. The report also confirms that farmers face increasing problems in procuring water for irrigation.
As we talked another farmer came in and introduced himself as Abu Yousef. He has a family of eight children - all jobless. His is the only source of income. His land suffered a similar fate to that of Mahmoud. But he has a further story to tell of local marginalization:
Abu Yousef. Sameh Habeeb. All rights reserved.
"Our area is not being supported by local authorities. No information or advice is being given to the farmers. No compensation is given them by the Hamas government. Israel continues to attack us and our lands. We are trapped in this spot of land. The best choice is to leave this land! Nothing is left here for us."
He had brought some grapefruit with him. I tasted one – and beautifully sweet it was too. Abu Yousef had worked in Israel some years ago. He had a reputation as one of the best workers. But like tens of thousands of Palestinians, he had suddenly been turfed out of this job:
Abu Yousef. Sameh Habeeb. All rights reserved.
“Nowadays, I grow some seasonal vegetables. I can turn a quicker profit on them than on trees. Trees, for sure, will be bulldozed by the Israeli army. The army hate our olive trees because it is our symbol of hope for the future. They have bulldozed millions of these. But it’s not enough for them. Now they have clamped down on fertilizers. They don't allow many kinds of seed that we need. They don't allow irrigation equipment. We used to harvest 90% of what we grow – now it’s just 10% if we’re lucky.”
Abu Yousef. Sameh Habeeb. All rights reserved.
Gazans have no choice in these matters. Not surprisingly, they are doing what others seem to require and giving in to trauma and depression. This is not rhetoric. I am reporting facts. The policy of Israel is hostile towards everything in Gaza. Clearly, hostile against man and nature. Even trees are punished! I am not saying the Hamas Government is blameless. Meanwhile, we are trapped.