Punitive Gaza buffer zone only sows tension

Punitive Gaza buffer zone only sows tension
Feature: The buffer zone Israel has decreed around Gaza’s perimeter leaves some of Gaza’s most fertile land off-limits to farmers. Already at sustenance level, farmers can only risk their lives to secure their livelihoods.
4 min read
11 March, 2015
Farmers like Abu Ghoula have to risk their lives to work their land [Shadi Alqarra]

Mustafa Abu Ghoula bent down to pick peas.


Some 300 metres away, an Israeli army watchtower looms over the empty land that separates Abu Ghoula, 43, from the edge of the Gaza Strip to the east.


All that land is off-limits to him and other Palestinian farmers, who risk death should they traverse the buffer zone Israel has declared inside Gazan territory.

     The buffer zone will only continue to fuel tensions.

- Asaad Abu Sharkh


The buffer zone has dramatically impacted the lives of farmers like Abu Ghoula, who has lost what he estimates to be a third of the 75 acres of land he and his family have worked for decades. He is also restricted in how he can farm the rest.


 “We can only start farming, after 8 am, every day,” Abu Ghoula explained in a recent interview with al-Araby al-Jadeed. “Such timing is not suitable.”


Fatal danger


The buffer zone and the Israeli concrete barrier that snakes is way around Gaza’s boundaries with Israel like a prison wall, complete with watchtowers and barbed wire, are not new, both predating what Palestinians call the apartheid wall in the West Bank.


Israel claims it for security reasons, but its impact is constant and debilitating for a tiny area dependant on every inch of land for its sustenance. And the parameters have constantly changed. There is no official designation of 300 metres as a buffer zone. Before Hamas took sole control of the Strip in 2007, a minimum of security coordination with Israel, patchy at best, ensured that Palestinian Authority police could, with some measure of confidence, tell farmers where they could and could not go.


That did not stop soldiers empowered to shoot on sight from doing so and since 2007, and with no official security coordination, it has been anyone’s guess where the exact boundaries are.


Dozens of farmers and children, straying too close – in the eyes of individual soldiers at least – have been shot over the years. Abu Ghoula can recall several incidents when he and his children have been forced to “crawl home on our bellies” because of Israeli gunfire.


And farmers have lost their livelihoods. It is the land furthest from the sandy beaches of Gaza that is the most arable. It is this land that lies fallow as a result of the buffer zone.


Economic pressure

Abu Ghoula poses on his land with an Israeli army post in the background (Shadi Alqarra)

According to the Palestinian agriculture ministry in Gaza, the inability of Gazan farmers to reach their own land has cost the local economy roughly US$60 million. The lands that have been abandoned by farmers, due to Israeli actions and buffer zones, are estimated at 6,000 acres, some 20 percent of fertile farmland in the occupied Gaza Strip.


There are efforts to push back, but they are dangerous. Over the past few months, the National Palestinian Committee for Breaking the Israeli Siege of Gaza has organized weekly peaceful protests of hundreds of youth at eastern border areas. Israeli troops have responded by opening fire on several occasions, wounding dozens.


Long-time Gaza-based activist and professor of English literature at al-Azhar University of Gaza, Asaad Abu Sharkh, told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the buffer zone is a part of Israel's “apartheid policies” and that the zone itself,  was no different from the wall that surrounds Palestinian towns in the occupied West Bank.


"The buffer zone will only continue to fuel tensions in the area and I believe that Israel needs to reconsider such policies, for the sake of a genuine peaceful solution."


Sharkh was talking last week on the sidelines of a symposium on the one-democratic-state solution as part of this year's Israeli Apartheid Week.


But peace is a distant dream to farmers like Abu Ghoula whose primary concern is their dwindling livelihoods.


Last summer’s Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip – which left over 2,200 dead, the vast majority Palestinian civilians – saw the farmer lose a chicken pen of 5,000 to the intense bombardment as he, his family and 80 neighbours were forced to flee away from the border area.


Appealing to the international community, Abu Ghoula was downcast but defiant about his prospects as he prepared coffee in the traditional style over a wood fire for his visitors.


The International Red Cross, he noted, had offered some aid, including distributing barley seeds to affected farmers. But, he noted, that is a drop in the ocean. In the meantime, he said, "we have no choice, but to continue our lives on our ancestors' lands. Whatever the Israelis do, they will not force us out."