Israel is intensifying its war on Gaza's farmers

Israel is intensifying its war on Gaza's farmers
Israeli crop sprayers are frequently targeting Palestinian farmland in Gaza, leading to medical problems for locals and devastating crops, reports Ali Adam.
5 min read
19 March, 2018
Gaza's farmers have been hit hard by Israel's siege [Getty]

Israeli planes sprayed Gaza farmlands with herbicides on 7 March, the second time Palestinian crops have been targeted this month, farmers have said. 

Gaza's ministry of agriculture has accused Israel of deliberately ruining Palestinian crops close to the border through this practice and called on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and human rights organisations to intervene.

"In 2016, farmers' losses amounted to 4,000 dunams of crops due to this practice, and the ministry is fearful that this would happen again this year," a statement from the ministry read.

According to Gisha, Israel's practice of spraying Palestinian crops have become a "routine security activity". 

The Israeli human rights group claims the defence ministry charters planes from private companies and then sprays herbicides over arable land in east Gaza.

Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights have also reported Israeli planes spraying crops with chemicals.

"Israeli military authorities have rejected calls to end this practice or to be fully transparent about the chemicals used, timing of planned operations, and effects, which could enable civilians to mitigate some of the damage to their property, and possibly to the environment as well," a report from the group said.

Routine operation

The Israeli operations usually take place during two periods of the year. Winter crops are seemingly targeted in December and January by Israeli agricultural aircraft, followed by summer crops in April, according to Al Mezan report.

Wael Thabet, general director of the plants protection and quarantine directorate at the ministry of agriculture, said in the statement that the Red Cross has asked Israel to give prior warning before these operations.

Winter crops are seemingly targeted in December and January by Israeli agricultural aircraft, followed by summer crops in April.

"The ICRC contacted the Israeli authorities, earlier, to determine the exact timing that the spraying will occur, in order to warn farmers to take procedures to mitigate their losses," he said. 

"But the Israeli authorities sprayed their chemicals 12 days later than the date they gave the ICRC."

This practice not only ruins thousands of dunams of crops each year, but experts warn it could alter the composition of Gazan soil, and in the long term, turn arable Palestinian land barren.

Farmers have also reported that tires are frequently burnt on the Israeli side of the Gaza border prior to spraying, to ensure the wind is directed towards Palestinian farmland and doesn't damage Israeli crops.

Gaza's ministry of agriculture has warned that the chemicals sprayed on Gazan crops could constitute a serious health risk to residents living nearby.

Nizar al-Wahidi, deputy director of planning and policy at the ministry of agriculture, told The New Arab that doctors are already seeing the consequences of recent Israeli operations on the local population.

"The last time the Israeli planes sprayed Palestinian farms (7 March) they did so while farmers were in their farms, which caused the nausea, vomiting and severe skin and respiratory irritations," he said.

The ministry of agriculture has been unable to determine the substances sprayed on crops due to their limited capabilities with the ongoing blockade on the Palestinian territory.

Scientists have managed to detect oxyfluorfen in tests, an herbicide that's applied for pre-emergence and post-emergence weed control. 

Oxyfluorfen is moderately toxic by ingestion and slightly toxic by dermal absorption. Its vapors may cause skin, eye, and throat irritation.

Every year, Israeli spraying operations cost Gaza's farmers thousands of dunams in land, Wahidi said.

Levelling land

Israel has also used bulldozers, tanks and other heavy equipment to raze Palestinian farmland close to the border. 

The last instance was 26 February when several Israeli bulldozers - backed by military drones flying overhead - entered a "buffer zone" near the town of Beit Lahiya and leveled farmland.

The last time the Israeli planes sprayed Palestinian farms they did so while farmers were in their farms, which caused the nausea, vomiting and severe skin and respiratory irritations.

Al Mezan has reported 141 similar incursions between 2015 and 2017.

On the 3 March, 59-year-old Palestinian farmer Mohammed Abu Jamea was shot while tending his land in eastern Khan Younis. The farmer was gravely wounded and died hours later.

The Israeli army has a policy of regularly opening fire on Gazan farmers living close to the border if they approach these so-called "buffer zones".

Israel designates this area as being land within 300 metres of the border. 

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, buffer zones take up 35 percent of Gaza's agricultural land.

Anywhere within 500 metres of the Israeli border is classed as a "no-go zone", while between 500 metres and 1km of the fence is classed as a "high-risk zone".

Around 95 percent of this land arable but inaccessible due to Israel's "open fire" policy.

These dangers have discouraged farmers from pursuing their livelihoods, not only because it's entirely unsafe to work on land close to the border, but also because resources and time are frequently wasted when Israeli bulldozers raze crops or kills them off with herbicides.

"These policies destroy - sometimes beyond repair - the farmers' livelihoods and in effect destroy their lives," Wahidi told The New Arab.  

"But there's also the collective harm that befalls Gaza's citizens and the already-crumbling agricultural sector."

Wahidi said that Gaza's agricultural sector has lost $600 million since the 2014 war - $500 million caused by the war itself and the rest due other Israeli policies targeting farmland in the east.

According to ministry of agriculture statistics, 11 percent of jobs in the Gaza Strip are provided by the agricultural sector, which amounts to 44,000 jobs. This number is dwindling due to the aforementioned practices of the Israeli army.

Observers are fearful that the collapse of the agricultural sector will only exacerbate the problem for Palestinians living in the besieged territory and add to the humanitarian crisis gripping Gaza.

Israel has always cited security factors to justify the 11 year blockade on the Gaza Strip, which has led to the collapse of many aspects of civilian life in the besieged territory. Now Israel is using "security concerns" to destroy Gazan agriculture.

Ali Adam is a journalist and researcher whose work focuses on issues linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can find him on Twitter @_Ali_Adam_