Hekmat’s land is on the outskirts of Kafr Qaduum near the gate by the illegal Israeli settlement of Qedumim . We had come to help with his olive harvest because the family is very poor. Hekmat and his wife, Tamam are both children of refugees who fled here from Haifa in 1948 during what Israelis call ‘The War of Independence’ – Palestinians call it ‘the Nakba’ (disaster). Hekmat’s family had farmed citrus fruits on the outskirts of Haifa. After the fighting was over, the family were never allowed back. An ongoing sense of dispossession passed to the next generation led Hekmat and Tamam to name their only daughter Haifa.
The family made good in Kafr Qaduum, worked hard and prospered until an unfortunate business venture left them almost destitute. They sold some of their land and now a major part of their income is from their olives. The olive harvest is problematic everywhere in the West Bank. Our group is only one of many who come to protect Palestinian farmers from being prevented from harvesting by Israeli settlers or soldiers. On 14 November, Rabbis for Human Rights issued a damning report on this year’s olive harvest in the Northern part of the West Bank.
Hekmat’s family owned their land before the Israeli occupation in 1967 and before Qedumim was built in 1977. Over the years, Qedumim has grown and settlers have erected a fence around it ‘for security’. Some of Hekmat’s land now straddles the fence. This brings a number of problems. He cannot visit his olive trees growing behind the fence without a permit. Permits are only issued during the olive harvest. This means he cannot look after his trees at any other time, water them, check for disease, prune, weed or manure the ground. The trees survive but yield less.
This year, permits to harvest inside the fence were delayed by the Jewish holidays of Sukkot and Yom Kippur. For an Israeli administrator, the delay was, perhaps, a small scheduling matter; for Palestinian farmers, however, it can mean the difference between a viable crop and one which is spoiled. If trees drop their olives before farmers can harvest them, the crop deteriorates.
Internationals are rarely allowed to accompany farmers inside the fence, and farmers are almost never given permits for enough days to finish the harvest. Our task therefore was to complete the harvest outside the fence to free Hekmat for when the permits came through.
Although land outside the fence supposedly needs no permit, there are still problems with access. Not long after we arrived in the morning an Israeli settler drove past. Then Israeli soldiers appeared and came up the bank towards us. We were next to Tamam, so we asked her what she would like us to do. She looked frightened and told us to leave but by then the soldiers were beside us asking us what we were doing. A discussion followed and finally the soldiers said: “We won’t stop you but we will stay here in case anything happens.” And so they did. At one point there were six soldiers watching us. There were only seven of us, most of us women of a certain age. Hekmat told us that they would have almost certainly been evicted from their grove if we had not been with them. I have seen it happen in previous years.
In what other context, would it be acceptable to drive a fence across privately owned land and deny access to that land’s rightful owners? In what other context, would farmers be questioned by armed soldiers before being ‘allowed’ to be on their own land? In almost 50 years, the rules of the occupation have become ‘normal’.
However, preventing access is not the only way in which the occupation contrives to prise Palestinians from their land. Israeli settlers often damage trees, either by burning them or cutting them down. Two days before I arrived in Kafr Qaduum to join my group, settlers burned about 25 trees in a nearby grove. Hekmat’s son, Asset, told us how he saw the smoke and ran to try to put out the fire. He saw settlers run from the burning grove towards the settlement. He also saw Israeli Border Police from the settlement watch, but do nothing. Border Police see their remit as protecting the illegal settlers. Settlers repeatedly damage Palestinian property with impunity. Standing Idly By, a report by the Israeli human rights organisation, Yesh Din, indicates the level of inaction by the Israeli Army and Border Police in cases brought by Palestinians against Israeli settlers.
There are wider issues in the area round Kafr Qaduum. The proposed route of the Israeli Separation Barrier (declared illegal by the International Court of Justice ) snakes deep into the West Bank round Qedumim creating a large settlement block known as ‘the Qedumim Finger’ which links illegal settlements to each other and to Israel. This barrier will exclude Kafr Qaduum and other Palestinian villages but take in large swathes of their land. It has not yet been built but shows clearly in the plans, below:
The Israeli official position is that their actions are entirely to protect settlers. From the perspective of Palestinians who live near settlements right across the West Bank, this response rings hollow. If the rules of the occupation make Palestinian use of their land very difficult and the profit low, farmers may have to give up and seek work elsewhere. Land left untended for three consecutive years can be confiscated by the state under the Ottoman Absentee Land Law (1865). It can then be absorbed into the settlement.
It’s a rigged game.
 All Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under 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.’
 The Right of Return for refugees after a war is a principle of the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights
 United Nations Unviversal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13) ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.’
 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.
 The Ottoman Absentee Land Law (1865) states that if land is left uncultivated for three consecutive years it is forfeit to the state. The Israeli administration has used it widely to acquire land across the West Bank.