Tag Archives: land access

Pushed to the limits – a story of land and determination

Bazem Dilleh is a sheep farmer and the Mayor of Tawayel, a hamlet to the south east of Nablus in the West Bank. I meet him in at his house at the end of a long dirt road. He lives in Area C of the West Bank and as such he cannot get building permission to tarmac the approach to his house. His house itself has been demolished on a number of occasions and an animal feed shed is also currently awaiting demolition.

He welcomes me with warm smiles and impeccable hospitality. Ushering me out of the strong sun and into the shade he sits me down and offers me sweat tea. He looks around at the small amount of land which he can still call his own before speaking to no one and says, “this is the last point, if I retreat any further I lose it all…my land, my sheep, my dignity”.

Bazem used to own land all the way to the Jordan valley that stretches 15 kilometres to the east. Most of this is now considered a closed military zone – a term that often only applies to Palestinians and not always to the growing number of Israeli settlers who are living in the Jordan Valley and its flanking hills.  Over the years Bazem has been pushed back further and further to the west by settlement expansion and a growing flexibility of what is understood as a ‘closed military zone’. As Bazem cynically commented during the meeting, “there seems to be a link between land which is called a ‘military zone’ and that which is soon ploughed for grapes by settlers”.

I ask Bazem if he has ever had any problems with the Israeli soldiers and he reels off a roll call of events: “In 1967 I had 30 sheep shot, in 1980 they came and arrested my father and I had to pay 700 dinar for his release, in 1982 they arrested 400 sheep and I had to pay 10 dinar for each of them to be released, between 2000 and 2009 I had 3 demolitions on my land and at the moment that hut has a [demolition] order on it” – he points to a small shack with animal feed in it.

Bazem describes his life as “simple, I don’t need too much”. Looking around this is clearly an understatement. His water supply for example is collected in a three cubic metre water tank which is towed behind his tractor. In the winter this will last him for “one month, maybe more” while in the summer, “I would be lucky if it lasts even a few days”. At £20 a tank-ful this is one of his few major expenses – not including paying the bail for his ‘arrested sheep’.

He insists however that he is “not short of money, just short of freedom”. In Area C, building permits for Palestinian buildings are routinely denied. This results in the majority of newly built structures being under constant threat of demolition. Once a demolition order has been issued a structure can be demolished any time 24 hours after this notice is given. A building however can go years or even decades with this threat of demolition hanging over it. Governmental and charity projects are not exempt. An International Red Cross water project was recently demolished in a nearby village.

I ask Bazem if he can access all of his now diminished land and he laughs out loud. “I sometimes think they only give me a permit to access my land to give the settlers a chance to attack me”. Settler violence here is an on-going problem. Just a few weeks ago some farmers from the village of Aqraba were attacked before then being detained themselves by the Israeli military. Farming near the settlements poses a continuous threat of attack or harassment. As EAPPI we try to mitigate this by accompanying farmers to their land but this tactic is far from a long-term sustainable solution. International support in the area remains central for everyday life to function though.

Three weeks ago Bazem finished a hunger strike which he said was “just so people would come and see [his situation]”. Bazem’s life has been a series of restrictions and limitations which has forced him to be both relaxed and accommodating but also to demand attention when it is needed. Slowly he has been pushed back further and further to the west off his land and I wondered how much more he could take before he finally breaks. He reiterates “[I can] go no further or ‘khallas’ – I am finished”.

I ask if he feels positive about the future and he again responds with the past, “we have been suffering since 1967, we have no future when it is like this”. I worry about what his future will hold for him.

He looks at the surrounding hills and starts to talk in metaphors, “at the moment the fire is in Yanoun [a neighbouring village] but I am preparing the water for here because fire spreads”. I wonder if he is referring to the rapid illegal settlement expansion (illegal under international humanitarian law and often under Israeli law). I play along with the fire metaphor and ask him what he thinks can put the fire out and he says “when there are no Palestinians or settlements left”. Suddenly his earlier comment about “having no future” seems even more pertinent.

I stand up and walk out into the warm afternoon sun and thank Bazem for his kind hospitality and for taking the time to see me on a Friday (the Muslim holy day). He smiles a warm smile and says “Ahlan wa-Sahlan” – you are welcome. Not for the first time I leave a Palestinian worrying about what the future holds for him. Equally however, I leave thinking about the incredible hospitality and kindness I have been met with in the face of such extreme human-made hardships. Maybe this determined pursuit of optimism and kindness will help to get him through the coming years.

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The last 24 hours – an extract from my diary.

This is a short extract from my diary (with the naughty bits removed) covering the last 24 hours.

18:25 – I get a text message from one of our local contacts asking if I want to play football in the village with some of the other guys. It sounds like a laugh so I pull on my Arsenal shirt (staying neutral in the Barcelona/Real Madrid turf war) and head out. The two guys I meet are wearing jeans, jackets and leather shoes and I wonder whether my tracksuit trousers and football shirt looks a bit eager. This feeling is confounded when we stop and eat freshly made falafel (it’s hard to say no to Palestinian food). We arrive at the pitch (floodlights and all) and I start to get the feeling that something is not quite right.

18:45 – We spend over an hour warming up (I say we, the two guys who I arrive with are sat on the side – of course they are not playing, they’ve just eaten). This warm up is more exercise than I have done for a very long time. Apparently F.C Jayyus take their warm ups (and football in general) very seriously. I try to cover up my inherent lack of ability and my self-created lack of fitness by making jokes. The guys I came with laugh, everyone else looks on with growing concern at the amount of sweat dripping down this English boy’s face.

The coach barks instructions at players and I occasionally hear my name mentioned (that’s right, this village football team has a coach, and he barks). I try my best not to mess up but get the feeling that I am not the foreign super signing that F.C Jayyus had been looking out for.

21:00 – I survived it, just. One shoulder in the face, and only the occasional noticeable mistake and I think I survived my first (and possibly last) training session with F.C Jayyus. I walk off the pitch knowing full well that my legs will be stiff tomorrow but pretending that this sort of exercise is par for the course for me. It was great to meet some new faces in the village and to have a kick around with them – I wonder if that feeling is mutual? Either way, they are eager for me to come back to the coffee shop with them to watch Champions League football. I excuse myself, miming that I have to get up early tomorrow for checkpoint monitoring (I always thought the Jungle Book was hard but this take charades to a whole new level). I walk away from the group feeling proud that I have turned down the chance to watch football in favour of getting to bed on time – perhaps this whole experience is making me grow up.

23:30 – It’s pathetic and I know it. I have to be up in four and half hours but I could not resist watching Arsenal play (second leg trying to come back from a 4-0 first leg deficit against A.C Milan). Arsenal go 3-0 by half time and I am on cloud nine…and then…nothing. We (because when you support a club you are a part of the collective) crash out of the Champions League and any thought of silverware for the season goes out the window with it. To top it off, my home club, Cheltenham Town drop 3 crucial points in the race for League 2 promotion. I go to bed with my mind swarming with football. How can I love something that consistently causes me so much misery?

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1:20 – I am awoken (2 hours after I went to sleep – not that I am bitter) with a phone call to say the IDF are in the village making an arrest (possible arrests – plural). After a quick assessment we decide it is too dangerous to be wandering the streets so we decide to monitor the situation from our rooftop staying in mobile contact with others around the village. It is an eerie feeling to see these silhouettes of men on roof tops in the early hours, all whispering reports to each other. It does however work as an informal information network.

2:30 – An hour later we receive confirmation that a local has been arrested. We can see IDF jeeps buzz around the outskirts of the village but only occasionally see them in the village. These late night visits (often not to make arrests) are happening far too often. I go back to bed, my mind now buzzing not with triviality of football, but of the guy who has just been bundled out of his house in the middle of the night – where will he end up, what will happen to him, what (if anything) will he be charged with?

4:55 – Alarms, I hate alarms. It does its job though and I am up to monitor the agricultural gate to the North of the village which open 5:30 – 6:30 every morning. I arrive and the IDF are parked with their headlights on full beam facing straight at where I monitor the gate from. I stand there, centre stage, performing the worst solo performance they are likely to ever see (essentially a tired Englishman staring blankly at them). After a while a small trickle of farmers flow past and I mutter a few good mornings. The Israelis have made a concerted effort to encourage farmers not to use this gate (as the road on the other side runs straight through a bit of land marked for settlement expansion) but still the locals use it. I wander back to the house feeling cold and tired.

08:45 – A Palestinian with an Israeli ID is coming to pick us up and to drive us to the other side of the separation barrier. We pass through the checkpoint and our bags are x-rayed and a sniffer dog sniffs every nook and cranny of the car. The young girl behind the desk has a staring competition with my passport photo (my photo wins every time) and I am asked why I visited Egypt (A: “I was on holiday”…my mind runs through potential comedy answers and I stop myself from laughing by making a sort of snorting noise). She looks at me and waves me through.

09:30 – We meet a local farmer and he walks us around his land showing the problems that they face (settlement expansion, military activity, water rationing etc). Inside a hut on his land we drink sweet tea and point at maps laid out in front of us. He shows us how the access to his land is being controlled (you need to have a permit to access your own farmland), restricted (they have built a massive separation barrier through the middle of his land – twice) and made unreliable (he had been waiting for months to get a permit). Worst of all, it can be taken away at any minute. We are shown his neighbours land which has been literally blown away – it is now a stone quarry providing material for massive ‘settler only’ road upgrading schemes. Areas all around his land have been claimed by the Israeli government as state property (using British mandate laws I should add – sigh…I love the BBC, tea and cake at 4pm and The Beatles but I sometimes struggle to find anything else to be patriotic about and being in Israel/oPT is not helping this).

We are joined during the day by a Dutch delegation who have decided to spend their free time working as unforced free labour on the land. For some this might seem an odd choice for a holiday but I think I ‘get it’. It is beautiful land they are working on and it is rewarding work. At the very least I ‘get it’ more than those fighting for sun beds in Magaluf.

17:00 – After a long day in the sun in the fields this is exactly what I don’t want. I am sat on a concrete bench in the seam zone (the area in between the separation barrier and the Green Line) waiting for a taxi driver who is over 1 hour late staring at the backend of a checkpoint I am not allowed to enter (it is for workers only). When the taxi does show up (with no explanation for the delay) I need to be driven in a huge loop around and through a car terminal. No one checks any of my nooks and crannies on the way back through.

 

I am currently serving as an Ecumenical Accompanier in the West Bank – follow the hyperlink for more information.

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