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UN: Israeli buffer zone eats up 30 percent of Gaza's arable land

Looking to increase security, Israel dropped leaflets last week warning residents to stay at least 1,000 feet from the border or risk being shot.

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Dwindling supplies of fresh food

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Both Israel's January offensive and the newly expanded buffer zone have devastated Gaza's agricultural sector, the FAO says.

Officially aimed at weakening the power of the Islamist movement Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, the three-week military assault destroyed much of the strip's already dilapidated infrastructure, including wide swaths of agricultural land that are now part of the buffer zone.

The World Food Program (WFP) says the inability of Gaza's farmers to cultivate their land in the wake of the assault is depriving the territory's 1.5 million residents of an important source of otherwise scarce fresh food.

Already sparse after a 2-year economic siege, Gaza's local food markets face dwindling supplies of the parsley, spinach, chickpeas, dates, carrots, and pomegranates once grown on plots of land near the border.

Despite the buffer zone's disastrous effects on the local population, Amnesty International's head researcher for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories says Israel's expansion of it is not without merit.

"The movement westward of the danger zone, or Israel's buffer zone if you'd like, didn't just come out of the blue," Donatella Rovera says.

"Israeli actions are linked somewhat to the fact that on the Palestinian side, there are people who go to these areas simply to farm their land and there are people who go and do other things," she says. "And the latter are legitimate targets, because they are combatants."

But Ms. Rovera says Israel's further encroachment on Gaza's land is disproportionate to the threat involved, suggesting unmanned drones as a possible alternative method of surveillance.

'There has to be a way'

Since the operation ended on Jan. 18, 12 Palestinian civilians have been shot – three of them fatally – in areas within 3,000 feet of the border, according to human rights activists and medical officials here.

Nabeel al-Najjar, a farmer from the rural village of Khuzaa, 15 miles southeast of Gaza City, was shot in the hand on Jan. 23 when he returned to the rubble of his home less than a mile from the border.

"I came back to see if I could get a few things from my house, and they shot me," Mr. Najjar said. "How can I continue to live here knowing I am close enough for them to kill me whenever they want?"

In Jaher Al-Deek, a Bedouin farming village south of Gaza City, Omar Suliman has abandoned his decades-old olive grove, located a quarter mile from the Israeli border, for fear of being shot.

"When I was a kid, we used to be able to go to the border," Mr. Suliman says over the crackle of gunfire from a nearby Israeli observation post.

"We would joke with the Israeli soldiers and give them grapes from our field. They would give us chocolate," he says. "Now, they just shoot at us every day."

Without guarantees for their safety, Gaza's farmers are unlikely to return to the buffer zone in high numbers anytime soon, says the FAO's Mr. Shattali.

"The situation is very sensitive, for both sides," he acknowledges. "But there has to be a way people can cultivate their land without being killed."