Uprooting the Olive Branch


GAZA STRIP—Ahmad Abu Fadi gestures out over the brown expanse of rubble baking in the relentless August sun. “It used to be so green here,” he says, “so peaceful.” But that was before the Israeli military destroyed 20 acres of his orange groves and parts of his cucumber, tomato, and sweet potato fields, and two greenhouses as well. Since the outbreak of the Al Aqsa intifada late last September, the Israeli military has ruined thousands of acres of farmland in Palestinian territories, among them the farm that Abu Fadi tended here, in Gaza’s fertile patch between the refugee camps of Khan Yunis and Rafa.

With the trees gone, it’s now easy to see tanks looming and an Israeli flag flapping atop a military post in the distance, and the red-roofed houses of Jewish settlements on the emerald slope below. Abu Fadi shakes his head and laughs bitterly when asked whether his trees provided cover for Palestinian snipers shooting at the settlers—the reason Israel gives for uprooting hundreds of thousands of olive, fruit, and citrus trees throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank over the last 11 months. There was never any fire from his groves, Abu Fadi says, and anyway, if the issue were security, the Israeli army (or IDF) would simply cut the trees, not uproot them so that they can never grow back. Indeed, one Gaza farmer, anticipating IDF bulldozers, chopped down his own orchards, hoping, with a desperate sort of optimism, to salvage their potential for the future. Soldiers came and dug out the roots. Even low-lying crops in which no one can hide—squash and lettuce, for instance—have been run over by tanks.

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, based in Gaza City, one-fifth of the area’s crops have been flattened by the IDF since the conflict flared. Agriculture represents 60 percent of the local economy. For Abu Fadi and others like him, the bulldozers were just the beginning of an irreversible spiral of devastation. Now, as the crops that are left begin to ripen, Abu Fadi and his three sons must watch them rot on the vine—or dodge Israeli bullets as they go out to harvest. The risk is hardly worth it, he says. The produce they do take in goes bad in its bushels, since merchants who used to buy the crops for international sale are now forbidden to export goods from Gaza. As for local dealers, their trucks are often held up for hours at checkpoints, their goods perishing in the hot sun. Besides, the markets are deserted. Given the shelling and even occasional invasions of tanks or army helicopters, customers are afraid to come out to the main road. And anyway, with unemployment topping 64 percent in Gaza (Abu Fadi had to dismiss 30 farmhands after his lands were destroyed), they have no money for shopping.

Unseen IDF soldiers manipulate a traffic light down below. It can stay red for an hour at a time, then flash green for half a minute, allowing half a dozen cars to continue on their way.

The Gaza Strip, jutting up from Egypt along Israel’s western coast, has long been destitute—refugees fleeing their homes in nascent Israel in 1948 turned the 238-square-mile area into one of the most densely populated places in the world. Today the population exceeds 1.2 million. But never have times been as hard as these last 11 months, says Raji Sourani, director of the human rights center. Gaza has been sealed off from the rest of the world, he says, and “we are under complete economic and social suffocation.”

The airport is closed, roads leading out of Gaza are blockaded by the IDF, and even streets within the strip are blocked, dividing the region into four disconnected areas. Tens of thousands of workers have been barred from their jobs in Israel for almost a year. And fishermen on the Mediterranean are shot at by Israeli gunboats if they float out more than two miles from the shore. According to surveys released by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in July, 80 percent of Gaza’s residents live below the poverty line—subsisting on less than $400 a month for a family of six. “The most Kafkaesque thing about it,” says Sourani, “is that the Western press takes Israel’s skewed perspective—that we are victimizing them. We are choking under this occupation, and people are more desperate every day.”

Israel’s own military coordinator for the West Bank and Gaza, General Amos Gilad, has summed up the consequences bluntly: The economic strangulation and political repression in the territories is precisely what is driving young men to enlist as suicide bombers. The conditions in the territories, he told the Israeli press in late August, produce “a fool’s cycle of violence in which Hamas grows stronger, we respond, and, as a result, the hardship in the territories grows and Hamas grows even stronger. If the situation continues, we are likely to be confronted with . . . five terror attacks a day.”

The hatred festers especially because Palestinians experience the siege as plain, gratuitous cruelty. There’s no better symbol of this than the bizarre checkpoint at the intersection of the main north-south road of Gaza and a Jewish-only road that leads to the Netzarim settlement. A tall, concrete cylindrical structure stands beside the crossroads like a medieval guard tower. Machine-gun barrels and a megaphone protrude from a slit near the top, manned by unseen IDF soldiers. They manipulate a traffic light down below. It can stay red for an hour at a time, then flash green for half a minute, allowing half a dozen cars to continue on their way. Occasionally a voice will emerge from the megaphone: “You, in the blue shirt, in the second taxi. Get out!” And the man in the blue shirt will oblige, only to hop into a taxi farther down the line to try again.

Palestinians can’t interpret the scene as anything other than an exercise in control and humiliation. After all, the crowded taxis, crop- and water-bearing trucks, private cars, and buses are not attempting to enter Israeli territory, only trying to move from one point to another in Gaza—an area that is supposed to be under autonomous Palestinian control. The soldiers up high in the guard post never search a car trunk or check an ID, so the claim that they are performing a “security function,” says one driver stuck in the mayhem for an hour in the noontime sun, is “utterly preposterous.” And he lets out a deep guffaw, explaining that finding humor in the absurdity is the only way he manages to survive. Boys walk from car to car, peddling lemonade and nuts.

Of course, Palestinians in the West Bank feel much the same way at checkpoints where soldiers actually do inspect cars and IDs. Drives that once took 20 minutes can take upward of five hours as roadblocks delay and redirect traffic all over the territories, even as settlers whiz along on the Jewish-only bypass roads. And while some Palestinians grant that looking in trunks for weapons may be legitimate, they still question the way soldiers flauntingly take breaks after each inspection, before calling the next car forward. Meanwhile, those on foot—old women with parcels on their heads, men with briefcases, kids with knapsacks—generally walk right through. Young men, though, are frequently stopped, and, according to recent reports in the Israeli press, forced to stand in the sun for several hours, or even beaten. Indeed, in mid August, six IDF soldiers were arrested on suspicion that they had brutally beaten a group of Palestinian taxi passengers, and forced them at gunpoint to thrash each other.

Recently, in the leading Israeli daily, Ha’aretz, columnist Gideon Levy offered his fellow citizens a colorful description of the checkpoints, concluding, “If more Israelis were exposed to this slice of reality, which is a regular part of Palestinian life, and saw with their own eyes the ordeals endured by ordinary, innocent Palestinians, they might gain a better understanding of the roots of the hatred the Palestinians feel for them. One roadblock is enough to understand it.”

Even so, the ubiquitous checkpoints are only the most visible manifestation of the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. One of its most punishing aspects is literally underground: water.

Water has long been a crisis in the region. Israel faced its own dire shortages this summer, and citizens were discouraged from watering their lawns. Even so, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, the average Israeli consumes six times as much water as the average West Bank resident. B’Tselem reports that some 200,000 Palestinians living in 218 West Bank villages are not connected to any water network and thus have no running water. Meanwhile, Gaza’s water is increasingly salinated and polluted by untreated sewage and fertilizers running off from Israel, and the settlements’ heavy water use has contributed to the “over-extraction” of the local aquifer, putting future supplies in doubt. The crisis has intensified since October because water tankers have not been able to move freely through the territories.

Naifa, 30, prays that the water tanker will make it up the road to her village near the southern West Bank city of Yatta on its regular run every 20 days. And if it does, she explains, she has a new worry: how to come up with the 200 shekels (about $50) she pays each time to supply her family of seven for the three weeks. Her husband had been working in nearby Ber Sheva until the intifada started. He’s been jobless ever since.

Though a city of 50,000 with a plumbing system, Yatta is not much better off these days than the villages without any infrastructure. Last Saturday, when the town was visited by a mobile clinic from Israel’s Physicians for Human Rights—who defied Israeli law forbidding them from entering the territories to help address the medical crises the closures have aggravated—Yatta had been without water for four days. According to Yatta’s mayor, Khalil Mo’sd Younis, men from the nearby settlement sabotage their system repeatedly, turning off the pipes at night. “Who are we going to complain to,” he asks with a rhetorical sweep of his hand, “the IDF?”

“Israelis think that the occupation ended with the Oslo accords,” notes Ruchama Marton, president of the physicians group. “So they think that zero hour for the current conflict is Camp David. What they don’t recognize is that the oppression has continued for the last 34 years. And so they also don’t recognize that the Palestinians are, quite simply, resisting it.”