Silent occupation, land grab and the myth of the ‘security’ fence

Jayyus, is a West Bank village six kilometres east of the Green Line, the 1948 internationally recognised Israeli border with Occupied Palestine.

Main Street Jayyus

In 2002, the illegal Israeli settlement of Zufin[1], occupying some of the village’s most fertile land was illegally set up inside the occupied West Bank, between Jayyus village and the “Green Line”,. The Israeli Government claimed that a separation fence[2] which followed was built ‘for security’ and its route was chosen to allow for ‘natural expansion’ of this settlement.  The fence was built right next to the village, dividing the villagers from 80% of their land and five of their six major wells.

Land between the Green Line and the fence is known as the ‘seam zone’. Access to this land is regulated by the Israeli army through agricultural gates requiring a permit which can be refused without explanation. Jayyus went from being ‘the breadbasket’ of the surrounding villages to a village severely impoverished and dependent on different forms of outside help. After much protest and agitation by the villagers, the fence was re-routed in 2013 to return some land and one of the original six wells to the village side of the fence. The story of their struggle to regain their land continues.

I spent three months in Jayyus as an Ecumenical Accompanier in 2012 and returning there with my German team-mate Juliane in October this year, the visible changes were striking. On the surface, Jayyus is becoming a thriving place again. In 2012, the main street was almost empty. Shops were locked shut. Only Ibrahim kept a shop at our end of the village. A year ago, he took over the next-door space doubled his trading area. He used to say ‘Ibrahim has everything’. Now, he almost has.  Up the street, too, there are more grocery stores and several more clothes shops, where before there was just one. There is even a beauty salon.

This increase in commercial activity follows the re-routing of the military fence to allow the village access to more of its agricultural land. We drove down to the “liberated” fields with Abu Azzam, our erstwhile landlord and village leader. The farms have been transformed. Land has been reclaimed, ploughed and planted after years of neglect by farmers who were denied permits to go through the gates. The terrain is hardly recognisable. Olive saplings now grow where parts of the fence used to be. There is a machine by the site of the former Falamia agricultural gate to dry za’atar (herbs) in commercial quantities.

One young man told us that the army had not been in the village for the previous month. Reflecting, our informant then corrected himself and said that actually there had been one night-time house search and ‘something got broken’. But there were no arrests. This was said as if that search had been a small matter. It was. Night searches often resulted in almost everything been broken.  Arrests, particularly of children, though not frequent were a real fear.

On the dark side, the struggle for Jayyus land and water continues. The occupation is now largely silent. The rerouting of the fence has returned some land but twice as much still remains on the other side of the fence.  The illegal settlement, Zufin, is expanding apace. A whole new row of houses have been built at the foot of the hill. More privately owned Palestinian land has been taken.[3]

Though many farmers have permits to access their land behind the fence, some have not.  One man told me he has 100 olive trees behind the fence. He cannot get a permit to harvest them because he was imprisoned during the protests of 2002 when the fence was being built. He has to pay people to harvest his crop in order to protect his land from being seized under the Ottoman Land Law.[3] For all Jayyus’ apparent prosperity, people still struggle with the daily reality of their land being fenced off, the lack of access to adequate amounts of water. There are still many very poor people in the village.

Abu Azzam is now in Lunch on the farmhis mid 70s and not in the best of health.  We spent a happy day with him on his land, picking clementines and being seriously over-fed by his wife, Siham. Abu Azzam, a spirited fighter and champion of the struggle of the villagers, recounts his own story. He is currently involved in three legal cases against the Israelis Administration.

Firstly, the battle for water. The released well now provides water to the village at a reasonable price because it runs on an electric pump. However, though villagers have access to the wells on the other side of the fence, they have been denied permission to lay electric cables to run pumps on these wells. One of the wells is now running with a diesel driven pump but this makes the water twice as expensive, bumping up the costs of produce. Abu Azzam recently met with the local army general to propose using Israeli electricity which he feels might get approval, as an Israeli company would benefit.

Blue marker on Abu Azzam's landSecondly, he has been informed that part of his land is now Israeli state land. Blue markers appeared on stones on his land to indicate the claim. He says this is a case of mistaken identification of a plot on the ground. The plot number quoted is 2km away from his land.  Verbal exchanges with the local general were to no avail so he went to the Israeli court to prove it. The judge refused to re-open the file. His lawyer advised him to make a fresh application to re-register all this part of his land – then they would have to open file. He has a Jordanian map (from 1948), a British Mandate map (from 1918) and a previous Israeli court decision for a licence to lay water-pipes all proving the land is his. The process is long and expensive. Nevertheless, like farmers everywhere Abu Azzam is determined not to lose his land.

The third case is about the part of his land still isolated behind the fence. He learned by accident last year that a substantial piece of his land next to the Israeli military camp had been registered as Israeli state land. ‘Apparently, grandchildren of the, now deceased, Palestinian owner of some adjacent land, now living in Kuwait, sold their land to the Israelis but sold an incorrect amount.’   Abu Azzam’s face darkened as he told me the story. Collaboration with the enemy is always painful, particularly the sale of precious land. Each sale of land to the Israelis endangers the land next to it which can be seized ‘for security’.  In this case, the land “sold” included pieces belonging not just to Abu Azzam, but to three other Palestinians as well.  Once again, he has to go to court to prove his ownership. His feelings are not only directed to the Israelis, he expressed anger as well that the Palestinian authority did nothing to stop the sale.The fence dividing Jayyus from the remainder of its land

The village council has always argued that the fence should be moved to the Green Line. All the ‘seam zone’ land near Jayyus belongs to Jayyusi farmers who have farmed it for generations. Indeed, some farmers used to own land beyond the Green Line, but lost it when the state of Israel was established in 1948.

The Israeli Government claims that the fence is for security. This assertion seems doubtful.  You don’t have to be in Jayyus for long for people to tell you gleefully that there is yet another hole in the fence where people regularly go through to work in Israel.  I have witnessed this myself (see my blog, ‘Jayyus one year on’) and watched Israeli soldiers see it too.  The Bank of Israel Annual Report for 2014 lists 33,000 Palestinians working in Israel without permits. If they can by-pass the fence, surely others with sinister intent could do so also.

Uninformed Israelis may take comfort in the notion that the fence protects their security, but this appears to be at best a pretense. The Fence is a mechanism for land-grab. More insidiously, it helps feed the perception that all Palestinians are dangerous and need to be fenced off.

Jayyus provides a microcosm of how the occupation tightens its grip. Palestinian ownership of land they have held for centuries is being systematically undermined right across the West Bank. Field by field, well by well, carried out “legally”, mostly silently, and frequently without the knowledge of the rightful owners until it is too late. Anyone less tenacious than Abu Azzam might have given up.  You need a big heart and iron resolve to continue to battle against daily stealthy oppression.  Abu Azzam has both in good measure: during the time I have known him, his determination in the struggle for Jayyus land has in no way diminished. 

A day's harvest

Our day’s harvest

[1] The International Court of Justice (2004) – ‘The Court accordingly finds that the construction of the wall, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law.

[2] Fourth Geneva Convention (Article 147): ‘appropriation of property…not justified by military necessity, and carried out unlawfully, and wantonly… is a war crime.’

[3] The Ottoman Land Law 1865 states that if land is left uncultivated for three consecutive years it is forfeit to the state. It does not mention a situation in which the owner is denied access to his land.

[i] The Fourth Geneva Convention, (Article 49) ‘The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.’

I am no longer an Ecumenical Accompanier and the views expressed in this blog are entirely mine.

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4 Responses to Silent occupation, land grab and the myth of the ‘security’ fence

  1. johninhastings says:

    Kate – I’m so relieved to get your message. I’d been told (I think, by an EA) that Abu Azzam had been killed in a road accident. Do give him my greetings. Peace and love –

    • Hi John. Abu Azzam is alive and well, though due for a knee replacement in December. He sat and directed operations rather than joining in the harvesting. He is steadfast as ever. However, his grandson, son of Azzam, I think about six, was killed last year in an accident – a wall fell on him. He asked after you and I told him I had seen you. He sent greetings. peace and love Kate

  2. Anthony says:

    Well done Kate for communicating the truth that prevails in Palestine.

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