On September 11, 2001, in the wake of the appalling attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, Sky News carried an interview with an Israeli foreign ministry representative. He was indignant, and unequivocal in asserting that the blame for the tragedy lay squarely at the hands of terrorist forces.
What I found compelling about the broadcast, however, was the speed with which the denunciations were issued – within two to three hours of the calamity – and the fact that they were communicated live from the Sky studios in London. If indeed the individual just happened to be in the area, then he had displayed no lack of haste in finding his way to the studios.
That aside, the very fact that one of the first people to proffer the word ‘terrorist’ that day – irrespective of whether it was true or not – happened to be an Israeli government official, aroused my curiosity in no uncertain terms.
Armed with just a superficial knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at that stage, during the subsequent weeks I became emboldened to watch events unfold in the occupied territory of the West Bank. Almost a year after the outbreak of the second Intifada, Israel would discharge the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on Palestinian towns and villages with increasing regularity during this period. Incursions also became more brutal, culminating six months later in Palestinian civilians in Nablus and Jenin being buried alive by Israeli bulldozers.
To me, there was no escape from the sense that Israel was cashing in on the global political climate of the time, at pains to draw a parallel between the USA’s burgeoning war on terror, and its own battle to contain Palestinian suicide bombers. The suspicion that they were not, as Israel was so eager to impress, one and the same thing, only served to fuel my thirst for more information.
The motivation to undertake this project stems from the knowledge I have accumulated on the conflict since then, from a strong conviction that to focus on the land is to understand the essence of the dispute, and from a profound desire to visit the region itself.
From March 7 to March 15, 2008, I embarked upon a journey that took me from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, into Bethlehem’s hinterland, on to the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Jenin, to the remote villages of Anin and Faqua, and back to Jerusalem. The interviews I conducted in the process of this trip provide the basis for this thesis. I had initially conceived of a brief entailing the study of olive grove farmers in the West Bank, and expected, naively, that this could be prosecuted in an a-political fashion. But in the West Bank, politics infiltrates every pore of society; one cannot siphon it away, and certainly not where land matters are concerned.
As somebody a little wary of the degree to which ‘objectivity’ is achievable in newspaper journalism, I make no bones about my fundamental sympathy towards the Palestinian cause. Unlike many people, however, I believe that bias can act as a catalyst in establishing truth, not necessarily corrupt it.
The scope of this project is too limited to delve comprehensively into history, or the plethora of points of view on this topic. I am conscious that nothing is ever black and white, that there are a thousand variables. But the broad premise I take is that it was the tragedy of the Zionist project, as journalist Seumas Milne points out, “that Jewish self-determination could only be achieved at another people’s expense”. 1
Witnessing at first-hand the manner in which Palestinians are continually stripped of their dignity has only re-enforced my views. It is a source of intense frustration to observe television and newspaper reports, in striving for a safe and digestible ‘objectivity’ in its coverage of the conflict, to persist in glossing over so many of the critical finer details. The construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, for instance, is routinely communicated as a footnote in news reports, when in reality it constitutes the very essence of the problem. It also constitutes an outrageous act of violence against the Palestinian people.
Settlement activity is not just incompatible with the peace process, as Israeli historian Avi Schlaim has argued, it is “intended to wreck it”. 2
So it is not terrorism, in my opinion, but the absence of justice that is the very root cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel, with its sophisticated army of PR chiefs, will dress it up in a million ways, but what is being executed in Palestine is a blatant and indifferent imperialistic conquest of land.
I am only too aware of the myriad justifications – whether biblical or Holocaust-derived – Israel tenders for its behaviour, and I hold a huge amount of sympathy for Israelis who are wrongly tainted by the actions of the state and the settlers. But to steal a man’s land is to offend the human soul in one of the gravest ways imaginable. As the formidable Israeli journalist Amira Hass said of her country in reflecting on the first Intifada:
“Like every occupation before it, Israel – despite having controlled the territory since 1967 – had still not learned that resistance and terror are responses to occupation itself and to the form of terror embodied by the foreign ruler.” 3
The assumption that an essential difference between the way Jews and other nations are to be treated is not hinted at in the Bible… On the contrary, the Torah repeatedly stresses the demand for fair treatment and even love of non-Jewish citizens:
‘When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I, the Lord, am your God.’ (Leviticus 19:33-34) 4
Holy, Holy, Holy Land
In this, the holiest of all places on earth, there is nothing more sacred than the land. An abundant resource that determines and nourishes culture, dictates lifestyle and social structure, delivers economic well being and feeds life itself, possession of land is critical. And in Palestine, identities have been forged by Israel’s advances to seize more of it, and the Palestinian struggle to simultaneously retain what little of it they still hold and recover what they have lost.
Indigenous cultures the world over share a ferocious and deep attachment to the land, the Palestinians no less so. Palestine is the home of the olive tree ¬– jars of olive oil have been discovered in Jericho that date back to 6,000 BC. 5 As much as feeding society and lifestyle, olive culture has shaped the physical land, with terraces cut strategically into the landscape in order to retain water. But the West Bank’s 10 million olive trees are not merely vehicles of sustenance; they are deeply emblematic and reliable witnesses to Zionism’s political conquest of Palestine.
The primacy of control over the land and its resources for Israel and its Zionist champions was not lost on Ariel Sharon, veteran of the 1948 War of Independence and prime minister of Israel from 2001-2006. “When Sadat [Egyptian president, 1970-1981] would tell me that for the Arabs land is sacred, that made me envious. People today don’t get excited by the idea of ‘another acre and another acre’. But I still get excited… The War of Independence has not ended. The sword is part of life.” 6
That War of Independence, which gave birth to the Jewish state of Israel, is remembered among Palestinians as the ‘nakba’ (catastrophe), because it cost between 700,000 and 800,000 of them their homes, land and livelihoods in what is today Israel. Israeli leaders would later lament the tragic ‘flight’ of Palestinian refugees as a regrettable consequence of war. But initially, figures such Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, called the evacuation “a miraculous clearing of the land”. Israel’s prime minister from 1969, Golda Meir, even remarked that: “It is not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” 7
But demonstrably, the Palestinians did exist, and there was nothing miraculous about their ‘clearing’, as revisionist historians have since proven conclusively. As Nur Masalha notes in Expulsion of the Palestinians: “It was less a miracle than it was the culmination of over a half century of effort, plans, and in the end, brute force.” 8
In devising blueprints for the transfer of Palestinians long before 1948, and taking steps after the war to ensure that the refugees could never return to their homes, the Zionist leadership acted with remarkable cohesion. They knew that without the uprooting of a significant portion of the native population, a Jewish state would be untenable. Even the Israel proposed under the 1947 UN Partition Plan – which assigned 55% of Palestine to Israel – would have had a 42% Arab minority. As Yosef Weitz, director of Land Department of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), author of the 1937 ‘transfer plan’ and head of the Transfer Committee during the 1948 war, remarked: “Amongst ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country.” 9
Victory over the Arab League forces left Israel in control of 78% of historic Palestine. Having implemented Weitz’s ‘Scheme for the Solution of the Arab Problem in the State of Israel’ by destroying Arab villages and preventing the return of refugees, the nascent entity – under its first leader, David Ben-Gurion – then rushed to settle Jewish immigrants on the plundered land, and enacted the Absentees’ Property Law of 1950 to establish legal backing for its actions.
The state confiscated the land of the ‘absentee’ refugees by giving intermediary control of it to a ‘custodian’, who in turn transferred ownership to the state Development Authority, which then put the land at the disposal of new Jewish arrivals. The JNF, which made its first land purchase in Palestine in 1910, and which explicitly prohibits the lease of land to Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, owns 2.5 million dunams (1 dunam is equal to 0.1 hectare) today and plays a key role in managing all other state lands (94.5% of Israel is state land). 10
The Absentees’ Property Law was followed by a series of emergency regulations in the early 1950s, which created ‘closed areas’ that Palestinian farmers were prevented from entering, and ‘security zones’ near the borders that were also off limits. Meanwhile, lands not being cultivated could be taken over by the minister for agriculture. The Land Acquisition Law, the Public Purpose Ordinance and the Land Law of 1969 also contributed to make it almost impossible for Palestinians to establish title to lands that were theirs, and provided the state with a licence to eat away at the holdings of around 150,000 Palestinians who did not leave during 1948.
But it is by vesting so much power in the hands of the JNF and Jewish Agency (JA) that Israel has institutionalised – so far as land policy and land development policy is concerned – systematic discrimination against its one million Palestinian citizens. As Hussein Abu Hussein and Fiona McKay have argued: “So long as the state of Israel remains committed to giving the JA and JNF what are central roles in government functions, while allowing them to continue as nominally private bodies acting in the private interests of one category of citizens, Israel’s claim to be a democratic state committed to principles such as equality must be seriously questioned.” 11
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza during the Six-Day War of 1967 precipitated the exodus of another 200,000 refugees across the Jordan river. At the outset, Israel – unprepared for suddenly being master over 100% of historic Palestine – procrastinated over what to do next. But as Avi Shlaim notes, “appetite comes with eating”. 12 As always in Israeli politics, the military heavyweights, ideologically motivated politicians and radical settler groups held sway in formulation of policy, Israel stayed put, and the programme of colonisation has continued ever since. Two and a half million West Bank Palestinians and one million Gazans remain under military occupation today.
Moshe Dayan’s ‘four fists plan’ – to establish military bases on hill tops in the West Bank – and Sharon’s ‘seven stars plan’ – to build Jewish settlements along the ‘green line’ in between Palestinian communities – were the basis of Israel’s vision for the West Bank. The population of Jewish settlers in the West Bank today has swelled to over 450,000, including East Jerusalem (which Israel has officially annexed since capturing it in 1967).
There can be few more menacing sights than that of a West Bank settlement – part pristine residential unit, part military fortress, planted high up on hills looking down over Palestinian villages. American Jewish children stream down from their villas along private Jewish-only roads, through high-security entrance gates, to play near IDF checkpoints, oblivious to the humiliation being administered to their Palestinian neighbours only feet away. Daily life in the West Bank, patrolled from beginning to end by way of checkpoints, road blocks and pass systems, is a perpetual struggle, unless you are Jewish.
It is a particularly galling notion that Jews from anywhere on the planet have reserved for them the right to put roots down in any of these settlements. Israel even awards non-refundable loans to entice them onto the land. Yet Palestinians, whose land has been stolen to make way for these settlements, enjoy no right to return to it, or any other taken since 1948. Meanwhile, in most of the territory – and particularly in East Jerusalem – Palestinians must pay exorbitant sums to build legally on their own land. It is the resultant ‘illegal’ building that Israel uses as justification to routinely demolish Palestinian homes.
Settlements often begin with one lone settler pitching a tent on a West Bank hill top, which land owners are powerless to prevent, because invariably the IDF will protect the settler. Grand highways that only Jews can use connect the settlements. Israel also adopts urbanisation policies which inside the state proper, have converted Palestinians from a rural to an urban people over the course of time. The idea is to cram communities into as small a space as possible, while the expanses of land outside are exploited for road building, taking control of crucial water resources and expanding the settlements.
Short of throwing Palestinians directly off their land, it is this policy that it resorts to as its most effective tool. Ben-Gurion gave a succinct outline of it in a 1963 interview with Ha’aretz newspaper, when asked about the semi-nomadic Bedouin Palestinians of the Naqab desert (in southern Israel), who have suffered terribly at the hands of the government’s urban townships policy. 13
Ben-Gurion stated: “We should turn the Bedouin into urban workers… 88% of Israelis are not farmers, let the Bedouin be among them. It will be a difficult transformation. It means the Bedouin will not live on his land and will have to do without his sheep. Instead he will be an urban dweller who will put his slippers on in the afternoon. His children will become used to seeing their father dressed in trousers, and not carrying a long knife and scratching his head for lice in public. They will go to school with their hair combed. It will be a revolution, but it could be brought about within two generations, not by being imposed but through government direction. If this occurs, the Bedouin way of life will disappear.” 14
Having already forfeited the majority of their land to the Zionist enterprise, deliberate attempts by the Israeli state to break the Palestinian connection to their remaining lands, to strangle the Palestinian economy and fragment society from top to bottom, only adds to the deep sense of grievance. Continued expansion of settlements – there was construction in 101 of them between August 2007 and February 2008 15 – and the building of the separation barrier along a route east of the green line, in West Bank territory, go to the very heart of the conflict and render any cultivation of normal diplomatic relations between Israel and the Palestinians, much less a Palestinian state, impossible.
The infuriating thing, as Professor Henry Siegman points out, is that the international community “knows what the problem is but does not have the courage to speak the truth”. 16
So long as Israel perpetuates a situation in which Palestinians are dispossessed of their land in the present, and shows no willingness to effect justice for Palestinians seeking correction for crimes in the past, the sides will remain worlds apart.
There was an implicit acknowledgement of this by Dayan – the life-long military hardliner who late in his life became persuaded by the need to separate the West Bank and Gaza from Israel – in his famous oration at the funeral of Ro’i Rotberg, a kibbutz farmer murdered in 1956. The speech also revealed an ominous portent for the future:
“Let us not today accusations at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred for us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived. We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house. Let us not be afraid to see the hatred that consumes the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who sit all around us and await the moment when their hand will be able to reach our blood. Let us not avert our gaze, for it will weaken our hand. This is the fate of our generation.” 17
Mohammed knows one man from Faqua who began his prison life 30 years ago, while his wife was pregnant with their first son. From then on, his only wish was that one day he might meet his son. Twenty-seven years later his dream came to pass – when his son joined him in the same prison cell.
Soil of Anin
Here, lofted 450 metres above sea level amid the rocky soils of Anin, in the extreme north-western corner of the West Bank, the stones and dirt are a dazzling hue of beige and brown. The day is irresistibly beautiful, each landscape colour pitched as lucidly as one could hope to imagine; and beyond the barbed wire that distorts our view of the blue horizon, local farmers Mahmoud ‘Esa, Fathi Mansour and Mohommad Yousef point in the direction of their stranded lands.
For several kilometres behind us, Israel’s controversial, and illegal, barrier – which in rural areas is a 50-70 metre wide mish-mash comprising electric fences, sand pits and a patrol road; and in urban areas is an eight-metre high wall – has more or less obeyed the route of the ‘green line’, the internationally accepted border with the West Bank, marking the extent of Israel’s gains following the 1948 War of Independence.
But 2km due south of where we are standing, the Jewish settlements of Hinnanit, Shaqed and Tal Menashe have perched themselves fortress-like on hill tops on the West Bank side of the green line, which is why immediately in front of us, the barrier snakes its way abruptly inland, cutting through these farmers’ plots, and in effect rendering the settlements and the Palestinian land around them part of Israel proper.
Standing tall in front of us is Anin’s own IDF gateway, through which Mahmoud, Fathi and Mohammad can now pass, on Mondays and Thursdays, between the hours of 5am and 7pm, to tend their land – in Mahmoud’s case that is 16 dunams, in Fathi’s 110, and Mohammad 80, almost his entire lot. Israel only began to issue these limited permits last year, ultimately bowing to five years of pressure from international human rights lobbyists and local councils. But even now nothing is straightforward, and there are hidden caveats.
“They didn’t compensate me for even 1% of a shekel,” explains Fathi, who was assisted in the courts by the Israeli human rights group, Peace Now, in winning limited access to his land, where he grows olives, almonds and figs. “This is the first year in six that I have been able to get to my land behind the barrier. But they won’t open the gate if it rains, and in reality they only come to open up between 8am and 3pm. Sometimes when we get through we are told to stay 50 metres away from the barrier, for security. That is a lot of land.”
“The process of managing crops can be more time-consuming than harvesting,” says Mahmoud, who at least owns 300 more dunams further inland. “There are specific times for ploughing, for example, so the two-day permit is not enough. The crops end up dry and battered, the yield is lower. Bedouin cows come to eat the trees, but we can do nothing.”
In their minds, that Israel will one day confiscate the land for good is a fait accompli – they have been here before, after all, in 1948 and 1967. But if there are any doubts over the future status of the land, their permits offer a clue as to its fate – Israel refers to it as a ‘closed military zone’, and the permit cannot, it says, ‘be considered proof of ownership’.
But today we are here for a briefing on happier thoughts, and lest we provoke the ire of the humvee that is roaring at us from a distance, we make haste to the retreat of Mahmoud’s living room in the village.
When Israel began construction of the barrier following the Al-Asqa intifada outbreak in 2001, economic meltdown in the land-locked West Bank ensued. Today, the unemployment rate in the Jenin region is over 50%. All of which has made the achievements of the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, created in 2004, all the more remarkable.
An affiliation of 691 farmers mostly in the Jenin region, the PFTA has done more than merely act as a couner-weight to the stifling economic conditions that drove down prices and dried up markets for farmers. By way of a structure based on village co-operatives, farming techniques that enhance productivity, education programmes and workshops that inform about fair trade principles of equity, transparency and democratic participation, and an exporting branch – Canaan Fair Trade – that has forged a plethora of new markets abroad, the PFTA has infused farmers here with a sense of social responsibility and empowerment, and above all, restored a little dignity in testing times.
For Mahmoud, membership of the PFTA can now mean a return of 22,000 shekels (almost €4,000) per tonne of olive oil, against the 8,000 shekels he was getting previously. “My land behind the fence produces about one-third of the yield today compared with before, but at least the better prices with PFTA compensates for these losses,” he says.
Exclusively female co-operatives produce za’tar (a delicacy similar to thyme) in May, olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes in July, and sun-dried couscous between August and October. PFTA and its distributors abroad pump a portion of their revenues into the ‘Trees for Life’ project, which purchases seedlings for farmers who have had olive trees bulldozed – and there have been thousands – to make way for the barrier.
One dollar in each bottle of olive oil purchased is also used to sponsor the Canaan Scholarship Fund, which helps marginalised Palestinian youth – and in particular those from rural and refugee communities – to enrol in higher education and university programmes. PFTA also encourages organic methods as much as possible, though on this land, the traditional techniques that farmers adhere to are mostly organic anyway.
“Eighty-eight per cent of our clients buy our products because of the quality,” explains Ahmed Abufarha, Canaan’s administrative manager, “I would say only 12% for political reasons.” Over half of those clients are US-based, and 20% of Canaan’s produce – mostly olives, couscous, soaps, almonds, za’tar, sun-dried tomatoes as well as olive oil – finds its way to the UK firm Zaytoun, which is eager to impress upon prospective customers the importance of ‘resisting the occupation by insisting on life’, though the farmers, perhaps admirably, pedal this line less vociferously, trusting that quality will sway customers over political sentiment.
It is a trust well-placed, with Heather Gardner, co-founder of Zaytoun (which imported 50,000 litres of olive oil from the West Bank into the UK last year) confirming that “initially people bought for solidarity, but increasingly they are buying because of the quality of the products”.
Charitable winds have blown their way before – from various international support groups who pledge funding that never seems to filter through, and from human rights demonstrators who disappear once they’ve ranted themselves bare – but it is not charity they need. “The best way to support Palestine is by buying Palestinian produce in the West,” says Mahmoud, as he sips the final drops of Anin’s delicious local brew. That flow of produce is likely to increase considerably if, as it anticipates, Canaan becomes the world’s first olive oil to receive Fair Trade Labelling certification this summer.
For Fathi, however, not even the resolute work of PTFA, and the hope it has replanted in the hearts of farmers here, can compensate for what he has lost. He saved $70,000 over 15 years working as a building site foreman in Saudi Arabia, and after returning invested it in the land that is now lost in no-man’s land behind barbed wire.
“In one week it was gone,” he recalls, as he points across the barrier from Anin to the Israeli Arabic city of Um Al Fahem, only one mile away and from where his sister now strays once or twice a year – on a Monday or a Thursday, if it’s dry – to meet her brother for a chat, among the wilting olive trees.
1 Seumas Milne, “Expulsion and Dispossession Can’t be a Cause for Celebration,” The Guardian, May 15 2008.
2 Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Penguin, London, 2000, p486.
3 Amira Hass, “Under Siege,” in John Pilger, Tell me no Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Trimphs, Vintage, London, 2005, p348.
4 Noam Zohar, Life, Liberty and Equality in the Jewish Tradition, Rabbis for Human Rights, Jerusalem, 2006, p102.
5 Alternative Tourism Group, Palestine and Palestinians, Ramallah, 2005, p19.
6 Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2002, p189.
7 Shlaim, The Iron Wall, p311.
8 Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians, Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington DC, 1992, p175.
9 Ibid, p131.
10 Hussein Abu Hussein and Fiona McKay, Access Denied: Palestinian Land Rights in Israel, Zed Books, London, 2003, pp67-68.
11 Ibid, p194.
12 Shlaim, The Iron Wall, p250.
13 According to Hussein and McKay, Israel’s urban townships policy aims to relocate 120,000 Bedouin Palestinians to 10 areas, comprising 100,000 dunams, in the Naqab. This constitutes 5% of the area they possessed pre-1948. Many of them continue to resist the policy, and 70,000 Bedouin today live in 45 ‘unrecognised communities’ which Israel deems illegal and to whom it denies basic civic services such as electricity and water.
14 Hussein and McKay, Access Denied, p271.
16 Henry Siegman, “No Middle East Peace Without Tough Love,” Informationclearinghouse.info, April 25 2008.
17 Shlaim, The Iron Wall, p101.
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