Writing by Patrick Keddie
In the ceasefire that ended the latest violence between Israel and Gaza the new parameters of peace are fragile and uncertain – not least along the border, in some of the few areas in Gaza in which the Israeli military and Palestinians directly encounter each other.
For 12 years Israel had imposed a ‘buffer zone’ on Gazan land bordering Israel, much of which is farmland, varying from 300 metres to over a kilometre wide. Israel enforced the ‘no-go’ nature of the buffer zone with live fire and anyone entering these areas was at significant risk of being killed.
As part of recent the ceasefire agreement, signed between Israel and Hamas, many of the buffer zone restrictions have officially been lifted and the rules of engagement for the Israeli military made stricter. In practice however, the situation between the two sides remain fraught and in the past week there has been violence against Palestinian farmers accessing their newly opened land.
Ahmed Hassan Badwi owns 50 dunams of land in Jahar Al-Deek (literally ‘chicken coop’), a small village a few km’s south-east of Gaza City. He owns olive trees and grows cabbage, barley, wheat, aubergines, lettuce and fiery red chili peppers. He has not been able to cultivate 40% of his land due to the buffer zone restrictions. Tending the land that he has been able to reach, which lies in the buffer zone but is further away from the Israeli military stationed at the border, has been highly dangerous. He told us that two of his children were shot in the legs whilst in the fields over a year ago. They survived.
He owns a farmhouse and a chicken coop that he says was damaged by a shell during Pillar of Defence, the name given to the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza. He lives in Zaytoon as it is unsafe to stay on his farmhouse at night. “This is my home but I can seldom come to it” he told us.
“He is the most courageous farmer in Jahar Al-Deek” said Hana Salah, Palestinian journalist and representative of Gaza’s Ministry of Agriculture. The lifting of restrictions mean that he should feel safe to tend his land. “I used to pick quiet days to go down and farm but I was afraid” said Ahmed, “Yesterday I was so happy to go down to my farmland – unfortunately, they shot at us.”
Ahmed’s village of Jahar Al-Deek sits on an elevated plain looking down over the skyline of nearby Gaza City and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, whilst an Israeli watchtower on the border with Israel is visible to the east, around a kilometre away.
The narrowness of the Gaza Strip is made explicit here. Open land is precious in this tiny, overcrowded enclave where urban areas run into each other with little to distinguish individual towns, so it is shocking to see swathes of Ahmed’s land lie barren. “As you see, this is a dead zone” said Hana Salah, sweeping her arm towards uncultivated land – “no animals, no crops, no life.”
We were accompanied towards the borderland by Ahmed’s uncle Rushdi Badwi, 64, his head wrapped in a red keffiyeh. Israeli observation balloons hung motionless in the sky far above, probably watching our approach. As we neared the barbed wire that the Israelis had constructed on the Badwis’ land, Israeli military vehicles whizzed up and down on a track running parallel to the fence. One vehicle stopped and we heard the vicious snap of live ammunition, fired as warning shots far above our heads. Two streaming tear gas canisters landed in Rushdi’s muddy field as we made a hasty retreat.
In a safer part of his land, Rushdi told us that he feared they would not fire warning shots if internationals had been there, but would have shot Palestinians directly. He said that the Israeli military detects movement in the fields at night and shoot automatically. If there is a strange person, unknown to the military, on the land – even far from the border – the Israelis are liable to shoot at them. When olive trees on his land have grown tall, Rushdi claims that the Israeli military have come and uprooted them.
Rushdi showed us the caterpillar tracks made by Israeli tanks entering his land during the recent Pillar of Defence offensive. Ahead of us, closer to the border, men made their way through the fields trying to catch birds with nets, taking a considerable risk.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights recorded 27 deaths in the buffer zone in 2011, with 193 people wounded. Israeli figures have claimed that the buffer zone prevents attacks on their territory – in particular preventing the launching of rockets and tunnelling into Israeli territory.
Muhammad Ismail, a labourer on the Badwi’s farmland, was dressed in a trendy black jacket and sported a neatly defined beard. He looked more suited to a Gaza City coffee shop than the muddy borderland fields. Muhammad was highly sceptical that he would be able to tend much of the newly freed up land in the former buffer zone.
He had ventured to the land nearer to the border in the past week but said “I was very scared. They [the Israeli military] don’t talk with words, they talk with bullets and if I was injured no one could help me.”