‘appropriation of property…not justified by military necessity, and carried out unlawfully, and wantonly… is a war crime.’ (Article 147, Geneva Convention IV)
‘I like to sleep on my land,’ said Abu Azzam, ‘it makes me feel alive.’ When I first met Abu Azzam he told us happily that for the first time in many years he had a permit to sleep on the other side of the separation barrier on land that has been owned by his family for generations. He is a big man in all senses, chairman of the Land Defence Committee and a village leader in the long struggle for Jayyousi farmland. He is also our landlord. He is a familiar figure in the mornings on his distinctive white tractor going through the Jayyous North Agricultural Gate. He is passionate about his land, all of which lies on the other side of the separation barrier.
Abu Azzam invited us to visit his land and to have lunch at his ‘shed’ there. He is an excellent host and his wife, Sehan, a wonderful cook. As internationals, we are not allowed through North Gate but had to ask a driver with Israeli number plates to take us out through Jaljoulia Gate, into Israel and back round across the internationally recognised border into the occupied Palestinian territories again to Abu Azzam’s land. Abu Azzam’s land comprises 175 dunums, (1 dunum = 1,000 m²), in six separate plots. During our time here in Jayyous he has been harvesting guavas, olives, different kinds of citrus, avocados and walnuts. We have never left his house without huge bags of fruit.
The separation barrier is variously a wall or a fence. In Jayyous it is a fence built to protect, not Israel but the settlement of Zufin and to allow for its expansion. Zufin is built within the occupied Palestinian territories and is thus illegal under international law. Israel’s position is that this is ‘disputed’ not ‘occupied’ territory and that therefore they have a right to build and the fence provides security for the Israeli citizens who live there. However the fence surrounds far more than just the settlement and currently cuts off Jayyous from 75% of its farmland and most of its water. This is just the latest episode in the confiscation of Jayyous land which began many years before.
Zufin was set up in 1989. According to the Israeli organisation Peace Now, one third is built on privately owned Palestinian land. The rest is on ‘state land’. When land is declared state land, landowners are given a set amount of time to object. There was at least one case where the owners were away and they missed this deadline. In another case, the newspaper announcement (in Hebrew) gave the wrong number for the piece of land and by the time the owner discovered his land had been registered as state land, the file had been closed and there was nothing he could do. Judgements on the confiscation are done in a military court and in the case of Jayyous land decisions were made on the basis of three pieces of British Mandate law and one of law dating back to the Ottoman empire.
The three Mandate laws are, firstly, if stones and rocks comprise more than 50% of the land, this land is considered unsuitable for agriculture. Abu Azzam challenged this, head on. It took him eight years but he won. He managed to prove that his land was productive. He proudly showed us a tree growing out of a rock. ‘Palestinian rock is kind and gentle.’ He said. He had had to sell his sheep and even his wife’s dowry gold so that he could afford to get many of the rocks removed and to hire a good lawyer. Secondly and thirdly, the government has the right to confiscate land if it is needed to construct new roads or to install pipelines for water or sewage for a new community. The Israeli government has used both these laws to take land for the illegal settlement of Zufin.
The notorious Ottoman land law of 1885 stated that land that was not cultivated continuously for three years could be taken by the state. Abu Azzam told us where this had been applied to land which was owned by seven brothers. The shares of three of the brothers escaped confiscation because one was planted with almond trees and two with olive trees. The other brothers used their land for grazing. They planted the land with barley to feed it to their animals as green feed. As unripe barley is difficult to distinguish from wild grass in an aerial photograph, their lawyer could not prove that all of their land had been continuously cultivated. As a result, their land was confiscated.
Land behind the separation fence has not officially been confiscated because there is a permit system to provide access. However, there are many instances of people being denied permits or not having them renewed, without explanation. Those who were arrested for resisting the building of the fence are often denied permits for security reasons. Those villagers without permits are anxious that the Ottoman law will be applied to their land since they are unable to go to cultivate it. One farmer told me that he pays people to pick his olives though he makes very little profit from it, simply to keep his ownership of the land safe. Many do likewise.
The fence also contrives to undermine Jayyousi people’s ownership of their land in a whole raft of insidious ways. As well as an arbitrary procedure to get permits, there are restrictions on the use of many kinds of fertilisers, which affect crop yields. There are licenses imposing limits on the use of their own water. At North Gate, open three times a day, but for only one hour in the morning, I have seen people turned away as a soldier closed the gate early or for having a permit for the wrong gate, necessitating a detour to another gate, half an hour’s walk away and back again inside the fence to get to their land. People who have land some distance from the gates are not allowed to sleep there overnight. Farmers used to sell their produce directly from the land; now the retailer trucks cannot get permits. When they have their own trucks, they are often asked to unload them entirely on coming back out from behind the fence, a process which can take two hours. Everything stacks up to make farming their land more difficult.
The struggle for Jayyous land continues. In September 2009, the Israeli High court handed down a judgement returning approximately 2,500 dunums to the Palestinian side of the separation barrier. It is one thing to get a court judgement but quite another to get it implemented. To date (November 2012) nothing has happened on the ground. A worrying development during 2012 has been the establishment of a new settlement outpost on the site for the re-routed fence. There are now four caravans on this site and during my time here the settlers living there have become more established with play areas for their children. We monitor this outpost weekly from the roof of the municipality building in Jayyous. Our view of it is slightly blocked by a hill but from Abu Azzam’s land we could see it clearly. It is an obvious move to block the re-routing. Settlement outposts are illegal even under Israeli law, but again nothing is done.
More recently, there have also been efforts to persuade the farmers that it is not in their interests to re-route the fence as re-routing will destroy more land. Various, probably exaggerated, widths for the new fence have been quoted. The farmers who own olive trees on the proposed new route are therefore in two minds.
None of this is a surprise to Abu Azzam. He told us of plans for more caravans for the outpost and showed me a newspaper cutting from 2008 about plans to build 1,500 new housing units in ‘North Zufin’. He drove us on his tractor to a site where there are blue marking on the rocks at intervals. He suspects that these are markings to show the sites for the new houses. He is watching the situation and if there is any development he will take the matter straight back to the court.
Abu Azzam has been in the forefront of the struggle to defend village land, from the days when he was arrested and refused to sign a document saying that he would not go to his land until the present day. With a wry smile he showed me the permit which he has now been given to sleep overnight on his land. On the back it is spelled out in Hebrew and Arabic, that this permit does not in any way confirm his ownership of his land, it simply gives him the right to sleep there for six months.
When we asked him what made him committed to a nonviolent method of resistance he responded “How many options do we have? The world is not in need of more refugees”. He had seen the success of nonviolent resistance in South Africa and said to his co-campaigners, ‘if we adopt the nonviolent method we will find Israelis who will work with us.’ On another occasion he told us, ‘It is very important that young Israelis come forward to take over from the older ones. That is why I invite them to come here. In Palestine we are further forward. We need to be patient and our comrades in Israel need to double their efforts’. I thought of his long struggle for justice for his people and asked ‘How can you go on being patient and hopeful?’ He gave the same answer: ‘How many options do we have?’
I work for Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) as an ecumenical accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this email are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer (QPSW) or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting it on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the QPSW Programme Manager for I-oPt firstname.lastname@example.org for permission. Thank you.