Palestinian Farmers Fight for Work and for Their Lives
A version of this piece originally appeared in Brasil de Fato.
June 2004, Qalqilya, Palestine
“That’s life in Palestine: you either die, or you fight.” If he hadn’t fought, Palestinian rural worker Shareef Khalid would have lost everything that he had. The owner of a small piece of property in Jayyouz, near Qalqilya in the West Bank, he was expelled from his land by Israeli soldiers in the late 90s. Even earlier, in 1988, 45% of his farm was confiscated for the construction of a military base. In the same period, 130 farmers in the area lost their land.
According to the Israeli government, the land was expropriated because it was no good for agriculture. With more than 50% of the land covered with rocks, the Israelis claimed, it could be used to hide weapons. Khalid says that, on his farm, the Israeli soldiers unloaded tons of rubble to justify the confiscation.
For a few months, the displaced farmers survived with the help of frinds and family, but they decided to get their land back. “We realized that we should organize ourselves and fight to get back what was rightfully ours, and to have the right to work,” Khalid explains.
The displaced farmers set up camps on their confiscated land and revitalized their crops, many of which had been destroyed by the soldiers. Each worker was given responsibility for a particular task, such as maintaining the security of the land or negotiating with Israeli soldiers. The banding together of the workers led to the formation of a union, the Committee for the Defense of the Land. More than 500 people now participate in the Committee. In 2001, with help from international organizations, the workers were able to regain possession of their property.
“We won, and we acheived a fundamental right: the right to work,” says Khalid, who produces olives, peppers, peaches and tomatoes on his land.
The Fight Against the Wall
In August of 2003, the Prime Minister of Israel, Arial Sharon, ordered the contruction of a system of walls and electric fences that compeltely encircle Qalqilya, a city of 40 thousand people. In order to leave the region, or even to travel within it, Palestinians are required to request a visa-which is almost always refused-from the Israeli government.
Rural worker Rafiq Mara´abi, from the village of Rastira, feels that the whole region has become one giant prison. Because he doesn’t have a travel visa, he hasn’t seen his two sisters-who live in the neighboring town of Wadi rasha-for nearly two years.
Mara´abi is the president of a local organization that is fighting against the wall. Because there in no hospital or school in Rastira, the group has had to fill those needs itself. “Classes are given by the residents themselves, generally the most elderly people in the village, and patients in the hospital are attended by students, who learn to treat diseases from books that foreigners donate when they visit us here,” Mara´abi. The organization also collects documents and evdence of violence committed by Israeli soldiers to send to the International Court of Justice.
In Jayyouz, dozens of farmers are no longer able to get to their land to work. “Often people don’t live where they farm, and they aren’t able to get travel visas to enter their land. In some cases, the property was confiscated to make way for the wall, tearing up crops and destroying the soil,” says Khalid. Because he didn’t have a visa, he was prohibited from entering his lands from June to October, 2003. When he did get the travel documents, he discoverd that part of his fields had been burned.
“What the soldiers do is infuriating, but the way to beat them is to continue living, working and organizing,” he says.
Since the construction of the wall, 19 farmers from Jayyouz, whose lands were confiscated, have set up protest camps and remain on their properties, in spite of frequent threats.
Farm Worker Solidarity
Because of the wall and the military occupation, the farmers of Qalqilya are unable to sell most of their products. “We used to go to markets in neighboring communities, even in the cities of Israel, and now we can’t leave this place,” says Khalid. Every week he distributes some of his production to local markets, free of charge. In spite of actions like Khalid’s, Qalqilya is one of the most impoversished areas in Palestine: at least 50% of the land in the region was confiscated by the Israelis soldiers, five thousand Palestinian families in the region have been living in refugee camps since 2003 and unemployment has reached 63%.
“To change this, we must do two things: continue to work and resist the occupation of our country,” Khalid concludes.