Fenced Out: Life Cut off from Land in the Palestinian West Bank “Seam Zone”

In 2002, Israel began work on what was ostensibly a barrier to prevent suicide bombers moving from the West Bank into Israel. Its concrete slabs snake through East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, its dull grey covered in parts by graffiti and the art of Banksy.

The fence/wall through Jayyous land, all land to left is isolated from community
Alas, no matter how clever the slogan or ingenious the drawing the wall does not shift under their weight and stands impenetrable, the only gateways through it are at the checkpoints, notorious for their lengthy queues and the capricious nature of the permit system and those who control it. Elsewhere the wall appears less imposing, shifting from concrete to wire fencing. However, the

impact is not lessened and the fencing might as well be thick steel walls, they are as impassable. The wall does not follow the so-called ‘green line’  and in many places loops into the West Bank imprisoning farms and even homes within a no-man’s land between wall and green-line known as the ‘seam zone’. A 2007 Amnesty International paper, using UNOCHA 2006 figures, stated that 60% of farming families with land west of the wall could no longer get to their land. According to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the wall in this areas violates International Humanitarian Law in terms of violating access to work, to an adequate standard of living, movement rights and property rights. The wall, if viewed as a security response to terrorist attacks, also amounts to a case of collective punishment, prohibited under IHL.

Abu Azzam making his way to agricultural gate military check in Jayyous, he must go through here in order to reach his own land
Jayyous, a farming village in the north west of the West Bank is one of the communities whose livelihoods have been severely impacted in this way. On September 4th I spent a night there on an EAPPI placement visit and spoke with one of the leaders of the resistance movement against the wall, Sharif Omar Khalid (better known as Abu Azzam) and witnessed the morning checkpoint at one of the wall’s agricultural gates.

Jayyus is known for its rich agricultural land. Farmers here have for many years produced bountiful crops and a variety of produce from cucumbers to mango fruit, and of course olives. There are a total of 12,500dunums (1dn = 0.25acre) of land available to Jayyous farmers. In 1988 the Israeli government started the initial chipping away of this, by announcing that 1362dns were now state land. A court case was brought against Israel and in 1996 it was announced that 18 farmers would lose all of their land, others lost part of their land and more retained their land. In 2002 the construction of the wall began. The wall isolates 8600dns of land from the village. In addition 600dns were taken up by the fence itself and the buffer zone on either side of it.

Furthermore, the village’s five wells are now isolated in this ‘seam zone’ as well, forcing residents who do not have private cisterns to buy water by the thankful. Water brought from the nearby village of Azzun is only available in limited amounts during the summer and as a result families must sometimes wait days for their supply. In 2003 three large underground pipes were laid to bring water from Abu Azzum’s land in the seam zone to the village. The final connection to the village is still awaiting a permit, which they have been told for years will be ‘ready very soon’.
It is not simply that the land is now isolated from the rest of the village by the fence.

In order to reach their own land, farmers must apply for permits to go there. The system of permits is fraught with obstacles. In applying for a permit to reach their own land, the person must apply including a photo of their ID, a photo of their expired permit, land ownership document from Israeli Department of Land Registration, and a  certificate from the court to show you are the heir and a map to show the land is on the West side of the wall. The system on which the permits are based is, as with the permit system relating to landownership across Area C, a mishmash of Ottoman, Jordanian, British Mandate and Israeli military law. The resulting  combination is a cynical system whereby the possibility of proving ownership is made as difficult as possible.

Permits may be refused for a number of reasons. For instance, someone with, for example, 5dunums and 4-5 people in one family sharing it may be rejected because it is considered not enough land to give a permit. Other people are denied entry for supposed “security reasons”. Abu Azzam’s oldest son only has just received his first permit to farm his family’s land this year. At 43 years old, he had previously been denied on the grounds of being a “security risk”, a conclusion that is farcical when you learn that he has had a permit to work in Israel for years.

Once a farmer has a permit there are further barriers. The gate closest to the village is only opened for a half an hour in the morning and a half an hour in the evening. This means that if a farmer is late they cannot get in and if anything happens while they are working in the fields, for example if a worker is bitten by a snake or scorpion (a not uncommon occurrence here) they are isolated from receiving medical attention. Along with a member of the Jayyous EAPPI team I monitored the north gate (the one nearest the village) of the fence from 6.45am to 7.15am.

The farmers (almost all men and very few young) trundled to the entrance on tractors and donkeys and in trucks. At the gate they are checked by armed soldiers, they then move along to a second check and then enter their land. As soon as the gate closes there is no way anyone who is late can enter. In this case they will go to the next gate that is open all day, but is much further away. We saw one older farmer on a donkey, who was a couple of minutes too late, have to do this. Because those who had been professional farm-workers are not able to get permits anymore it means that a far greater workload falls on the individual farmers who have permits. 69 year old Abu Azzam had worked for 12 hours on the day I met him, planting and individually irrigating sapling olive trees. The impact on the village and its farming livelihood is blatant. Just to take one example, where before there were 136 greenhouses in the isolate land, there are now 72.

Jayyous is also a deeply resilient community. They have fought the wall from the beginning and suffered the consequences of the Israeli army response. Abu Azzam speaks of a desire to live in peace with his neighbours in Israel and also for the international community to wake up to what is being done to Palestinians. When I asked him what he would like to ask of people in Ireland, he replied comparing their struggle to South Africa’s fight against Apartheid and the support this struggle won in Ireland and Europe, “We the Palestinians have the right to expect the same thing. We too suffer from apartheid, a colder apartheid”. Asked about hope for the future, his reply summed up much of the character of Jayyous, where so many rights are ignored and violated, “we must hope, we have the right to hope”.