x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Barrier separates Palestinian farmers from their land

As bulldozers move in, one man braces for the loss of his family's legacy.

JERUSALEM // Even after he dies, 63-year-old Ahmed Barghout worries that Israel's separation barrier will be a burden on him.

Construction recently started on the section of the sprawling network of barbed-wire fence and concrete wall that when completed will encircle his village of Walajeh, in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.

So far, the barrier is little more than a dirt road that cuts off Mr Barghout's house from dozens of acres of his terraced olive orchards. However, when finished he fears that it will permanently barricade him not only from his farmland but also the Barghout family cemetery.

"I should be placed here with my family when I die," said Mr Barghout, pointing to the tree-shaded nook where his parents and grandmother were buried. "Now, with the wall coming up, I don't know if that will ever happen."

He and Walajeh's residents are the latest community struggling to come to terms with a structure that has carved its way through the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians living along its path.

"The primary aim of the wall is to confiscate land for the settlements," said Ahmed Ajmal, the mayor of Beit Souriq, a West Bank hamlet located close to the fence. "The story about the Israeli wall is not a story about security for Israel but about land grabs and expanding its settlements."

Mr Ajmal and Beit Souriq's peach and vegetable farmers pride themselves as the first Palestinian community to successfully petition the Israeli High Court to have the barrier re-routed.

The court ruled in 2004 that the proposed path would have inflicted disproportional hardship on the village when compared with the security gains Israel would received in return.

Beit Souriq's courtroom success helped inspire dozens of similar petitions as well as a wave of popular protests against the barrier, such as the weekly demonstrations at the nearby village of Bi'lin.

But six years later, the sense of victory has faded. The re-routed path of the barrier still separates roughly a third of Beit Souriq's agricultural land from farmers. In December 2008, Israeli authorities introduced a Draconian permit regime in the village that effectively denied them access to their fields on the "Israeli side" of the fence.

Their pride wounded, many villagers have also started to refuse to apply for the Israeli permits to access land that they say is already rightfully theirs.

The result, said Mr Ajmal, had been economic devastation. "Seventy per cent of the farmers here are out of [a] job now," he said.

Ehud Uziel, an expert on the barrier at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), an Israeli non-governmental organisation, said Israel recently had begun tightening restrictions on Palestinian movement through the barrier. Scores of farmers have been prevented from cultivating large swathes of farmland wedged between Israel's recognised borders and the separation barrier - an area commonly referred to as "the seam" - by what Mr Uziel called Israel's "absurd" permit restrictions.

"In some cases, the name they [Israel] use to verify ownership of the land and to grant a permit to the land is the name of the grandfather who originally bought the land," he said. "If the grandfather's dead, then they won't give out the permit to his family members."

The restrictions have dampened the benefits of recent economic growth experienced in the West Bank for many Palestinians who live near the wall, he said.

"This isn't just a human rights issue," said Mr Uziel. "What we're also discussing here is respecting basic human dignity."

Back in the Walajeh, residents also fear this basic human dignity is under serious threat.

They have taken legal action against the barrier's path through their village, which is renowned for sustaining an ancient form of agriculture that was practised thousands of years ago.

While the Israeli High Court has yet to make a ruling on its planned route, scores of bulldozers are busy clearing away olive and peach trees in what Mr Barghout fears will no longer be his backyard.

"Israel is a powerful lion," he said as he walked the hillside behind his house. "This is occupation, and the lions who are occupying our land are stronger than us."