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Harvest challenges

Eva Bartlett | In Gaza

1 June 2009

Just after 7 am on May 30th, Palestinian farmers in Khoza’a, east of Khan Younis, returned to the land they’d been menaced off of 5 days earlier. “The same day the Israelis dropped papers saying they would shoot at us for being on our land they did shoot at us,” Ahmed, a 22 year old farmer explained. It was around 10:30, he said. “They were shooting so much that the dirt rose in clouds of dust.”

When we arrive on May 30th, the bales of wheat are ready, all neatly and compactly hand-bundled, covering 30 dunums (1 dunum=1000 square metres) of land belonging to Radi Abu Rayder. He has another 140 dunums which he can no longer access because it lies too close to the border, within the Israel-imposed “buffer zone”.

The farmers will take 2 days to clear the bundles from the field.

The farmers today are two 18 year olds, two 22 year olds, and two men in their late 30s/early 40s.

They work steadily, carrying bales of wheat to the waiting tractor trailer. It is piled as high and full as manageable, then trundles off to a storage field hundreds of metres away, further from the Green Line and the potential danger from Israeli soldiers.

While most of the 30 dunums has been harvested, a small section remains. As some of the farmers off-load the trailer, the others resume hand-picking the wheat, ripping in bunches and laying for bundling.

As they work, they tell us of how the land used to be. “This area used to be so filled with trees you couldn’t see the fence,” Ahmed recalled, gesturing at the naked fields around us. He spoke of how they adapted to the razing of trees and grew, instead, many types of vegetables. “We grew tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and beans, among other things. We used to fill 17-20 trucks (4 tons each) of produce each day,” he said.

Amazingly, as he recounts their losses, he speaks without audibe bitterness or anger. This is something I’ve come across countless times, whether speaking of razed farmland or a bombed house. The tone, when emotion is evident, is fatigue and confusion: why do they attack us? how are we supposed to live? how can I feed my children?

But Ahmed recounts with a soft smile, just telling how it used to be.

Some time later, we notice thick smoke rising from the direction of the tractor. Moving to see what’s happened, we arrive to find blackened, burnt wheat spread along the dirt track, laid there as the panicked farmers put out the fire. Upon inspection, they see that the tractor crossed under a low-hanging electrical wire which immediately set the dry wheat alight. It’s not hard to imagine how the wheat and barley in Johr ad Dik blazed just weeks ago, after Israeli soldiers shot incendiary bombs into farmers’ fields.

After two days, the group has successfully brought all of the bales to safety. We are pleased their harvest hasn’t been lost, but not disillusioned to think that this is a victory. Their situation remains the same: each time they go onto their land near the Green Line border fence they face the danger of being targeted by Israeli soldiers from jeeps or from their watchtowers.

A heavy price to pay for working on your land.

Six days earlier, on May 24th, we joined 7 farmers, including women and 1 youth, in a different area of Khoza’a, on land of Nasser abu Rjla a few hundred metres from the border fence. They, too, were harvesting the wheat they had already bundled, though they were forced to bring it in without the luxury of a tractor.

At around 7:45 am the shooting began, coming from one of the mechanical watchtowers this time. These towers are a recent addition to the military landscape: remotely-operated by soldiers, the towers guns can shoot as dangerously close as the guns of Israeli soldiers at the jeeps.