‘The Court accordingly finds that the construction of the wall, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law.’ International Court of Justice, 9 July 2004.
‘You take my house when you do take the prop that doth sustain my house; you take my life when you do take the means whereby I live.’ Shylock, Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare
Abu Azzam, village leader, welcomed us back to Jayyous like members of his own family and his wife Sehan laid on a lavish meal. I had met Juliane, my team-mate from EAPPI last year, in Jerusalem and the two of us were invited by the current team to stay in our old placement house.
Now, as then, the most serious problem for people living in Jayyous is the ‘separation barrier’ or ‘separation fence’, which divides the village from 75% of its agricultural land. All other problems stem from that: increasing poverty, emigration, demonstrations and arrests.
The impact of the fence and accompanying restrictions on the village is profound and life-changing. Farmers have to pass through ‘agricultural gates’ to access their land and permits to do so are often not forthcoming. It is a precarious way to live. Not only are people cut off from their farming income, but because of demonstrations against building the fence many have also been denied permits to work in Israel. Breadwinners and young people emigrate; students are pulled out of university. Regular army incursions with exchanges of stone-throwing and tear gas result in arrests, many of them of children. The prevailing emotion is loss and grief. Jayyous used to be a prosperous place to live. Now it is estimated that up to half its inhabitants receive food aid.
When the fence in this area was completed in 2003, the case for Jayyous was taken to the Israeli high court to contest its route. In September 2009, the Israeli High Court handed down a judgement to reroute the barrier to return some land to the village. Yet the farmers were not represented subsequently when the new route was determined which would return only a third of the farmland to the village. The villagers did not accept this, pointing out that all of the land belonged to them. They organised demonstrations which resulted in many arrests and increased army presence in the village. As Abu Azzam put it ‘We are expected to welcome the return of 2,488 dunums (1 dunum = 1,000 m2) and one underground well to the village. However, more than 5,000 dunums and four underground wells remain behind the fence.’ When the new fence is complete, most of the farmers will still have to pass through agricultural gates and some will even have to take a longer route.
Water is a huge issue in Palestine. While I was in Jayyous, villagers were suffering from a chronic lack of water because the fence cut them off from their main water supply. We had a very small well in our garden with a back-up supply from the next door village of Azzun and were warned not to drink it. There had been an agreement to pipe water from some of Jayyous’s own wells back through the fence. This was to be implemented and financed by the International Red Cross. Like many agreements it was taking its time and nothing happened during our time there. After a shaky start when the settlers destroyed the initial pipes, a pipeline is now established from three wells behind the fence to the Jayyous reservoir. However, the villagers have not been given planning permission to lay electricity cables to run the pump. They have been told to use diesel which would increase the cost eightfold. Currently there is a stalemate.
Israel says that the separation barrier is necessary for security. They claim that it has prevented suicide bombings in Israel (the last suicide bomb in Israel was in 2006). However, we remained sceptical. We were told last year ‘everyone knows where the holes are’. All of our team had seen people going through a hole in the fence near one of the checkpoints. Sometimes soldiers went down to guard the hole and sometimes they did nothing. We were very surprised, returning a year later, to see that the same hole was still in operation and had not been blocked. We were even more surprised to be told by a local man that there are eight holes in this section of the fence.
Nevertheless Jewish Israelis are clearly afraid of their Palestinian neighbours and believe that the fence makes them safer. I saw several manifestations of this fear. Last year, when my daughter came to visit me, the border guards tried to stop her entering the West Bank for her own safety. ‘You will be kidnapped and robbed’ they said. On another occasion, an Israeli woman warned me against getting on an ‘Arab’ bus in Jerusalem. ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ she exclaimed in surprise when I asked why that would be a problem. The fear is undoubtedly genuine but it is cynically manipulated by politicians to justify theft of Palestinian land and in the process all Palestinians are demonised. The sad truth is that the separation barrier will not make Israel more secure and does not bring about the end to fear.
My British MP, a reasonable man, was unimpressed when I pointed out the deviation of the separation fence from the Green Line and told him how it represented the livelihood of an entire village. He described it as a small bump on the map. When people talk about a two-state solution they blithely talk of ‘land swaps’ allowing some settlements to remain and Palestinians to be given land elsewhere. This is what ‘land-swaps’ can look like on the ground. Where else can Jayyousi farmers farm if not on the land next to where they live which their families have farmed for generations?
The settlement outpost caravans, which we used to monitor, have been moved from the area designated for return to Jayyous and are now on land next to Abu Azzam’s largest farm. This land was confiscated in 1988 from the Khaled family when Abdul Latif Mohammed al Khaled went to work in Jordan and the land was classified as owned by an absentee. Planning permission has been granted for 40 new houses to be built there and as with all settlements, the houses will be for Jewish Israelis only. According to official Israeli data, Palestinians have been given only 0.7 percent of confiscated land in the West Bank; around 38 percent has been allocated to illegal Israeli settlements. Abu Azzam told us that someone from the settlement council comes down to look at his land every day. On one occasion, he told Abu Azzam’s workers: ‘Tell Sharif (Abu Azzam’s given name) this is our land and the shed is our shed.’
Abu Azzam is a naturally cheerful man but he was more worried than I had seen him before. The Israeli army had given him a map showing the re-routed fence. There were also strange yellow lines marked on it going across his land. He said, ‘I do not know what the lines on the map mean. Are they going to take my land? Have they already confiscated my land and I do not know about it?’ This is not without precedent. Sometimes land is declared forfeit but nothing happens on the ground until some years later.
Remembering also that two sizeable plots of Abu Azzam’s land are still behind the rerouted fence, I asked him if he was afraid that village access to land behind the fence would be more difficult now that some of the land had been handed back.
His answer was to tell me a story about a melon farm which had belonged to his extended family. It was situated between the nearby town of Qalqilya, on the Green Line, and the railway, in what is now Israel. The area was designated as a buffer zone when the 1949 armistice line was drawn up, to be neither Palestinian nor Israeli. At first they were assured that they would be allowed to continue farming; then the Israelis simply sealed it off.
I looked at Abu Azzam and wondered how he could bear it. It has been his life’s work to defend his village’s land. He just shrugged and replied quietly, ‘For the moment, they say they will allow us to go there’.
I no longer work as an ecumenical accompanier and the views contained in this blog entirely my own.