The 'olive branch' that ought to cross the wall
JAYYOUS, WEST BANK — The autumn olive harvest used to be a time of celebration in this West Bank village. Entire families would spend days together in the groves. Even Israelis would make special trips here at this time of year to buy our olive oil. But with new Israeli restrictions on access to the fields, Palestinian farmers now have to leave their families at home, and may never even get to their olive grove.
Today, picking olives is no celebration. In the past few weeks, Israeli bulldozers began clearing agricultural land that belongs to Jayyous residents in anticipation of building 50 new houses for Israeli settlers.
After four years of intifada and the resulting intensification of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the natural and social continuity of the Palestinian landscape is severely disrupted. In Jayyous, as in many towns here, the most significant change has been the tall militarized fence constructed through village lands in 2003. This "security fence," - what we Palestinians call simply "the wall" - has brought social, environmental, and economic catastrophe. In our village it has cut off our farmers from the olive groves, tomato greenhouses, and wells that lie west of the village.
But the wall doesn't just separate us from the livelihood of our land, it also creates a cultural barrier of forced separation from our Israeli neighbors. This can only harm prospects for peace. When interaction between Israel and the West Bank was at its height in the 1970s, there was greater security for both Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians and Israelis could drive freely between Israel and the West Bank, and it was normal for Israelis to visit Palestinian villages to buy olive oil directly from our presses in October and November. When I was a child, Israeli TV came to make a film about the oil presses in Jayyous.
Progress toward peaceful solutions must come from the people themselves, not solely through governments. Communication and interaction, not separation, are necessary for us to work together. This can never be done with a wall between us.
In Jayyous, we're resisting this separation through nonviolent protests of the wall. Joining us are hundreds of others - Palestinians, internationals, and Israelis. We persist in resisting this separation, but the hardships caused by the wall persist as well.
The situation in Jayyous is a microcosm of what is happening all over the West Bank. Villagers must apply for Israeli permits to access their farmland; these permits are not always granted. Access is also restricted by allowing passage through the gate in the wall only at certain times. With such restricted access, it is hard for farmers to maintain their plots, and much of the farmland is deteriorating. The neighboring Israeli settlement, which will cut across the farmers' main access road, will force farmers to take a longer route - a five- or six-hour round trip by donkey cart. With no overnight stays allowed, there will be no way to cultivate the fields.
In 2003, farmers in Jayyous lost an entire harvest of guava, vegetable seedlings perished in greenhouses, and orange trees died - all because the gate remained closed for four weeks in September and October. So far, 15,000 citrus trees around Jayyous have died because farmers denied access are unable to irrigate and tend their groves.
With thousands of trees uprooted for the construction of the wall and countless trees abandoned for lack of access, we find ourselves in the midst of an environmental disaster.
That disaster is exacerbated by restricted access to water. Jayyous has traditionally relied on six groundwater wells, all of which are now behind the wall, forcing us to purchase water from another village. The loss of our water and farmland has meant the deterioration of the village's ecosystem and our ability to live on our resources. Once the wall is completed, more than 90 percent of the available water in the West Bank will be on the other side or under Israeli control.
There are economic costs to the wall, too. Merchants from surrounding towns used to purchase directly from the farms, but now farmers must sell their produce in small markets where prices are lower. Between March and July, 15-kilogram boxes of tomatoes that should not sell for less than $3.50 had to be sold for 30 cents. This year's olive harvest has been similarly dismal. Olive oil that should sell for $5 per kilogram is down to $2 - the break-even price is $3 per kilogram. At these prices, reinvestment in the land isn't feasible.
Still, we maintain our belief that nonviolent protest is the most powerful and humanitarian tool in the struggle for freedom and democracy. In September, when it was announced that the gate would be closed for nine days, the community protested, and, with Israeli human rights organizations, succeeded in Israeli courts in keeping the gate open. More villagers now can access their farms.
The only way toward peace is through communication - working and talking together. This wall is separating Israelis from Palestinians and threatening to close our minds.
Instead, we must respect each other, recognize each other's rights, and reach agreements through dialogue. Our actions in Jayyous tell the world that we will never submit; we will not give up our land or our children's rights to a peaceful future.
• Abdul-Latif Khaled is a senior groundwater hydrologist with the Palestine Hydrology Group.