On the 24th of February I traveled to Gaza to meet with Grassroots International’s partners, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC). The entrance into Gaza was not easy. After being rejected the previous week, I was instructed by the IDF officer to re-coordinate my entrance by resending my passport information, title and responsibilities.
On Thursday morning I called the liaison office and was informed that my name DOES exist on the list and that I am welcome to come to Gaza. At exactly 9 a.m. I was at the VIP office at Erez checkpoint – the main and only entrance to Gaza strip, which is controlled by the IDF – where I gave my passport to the security office and waited for nearly an hour before being admitted into Gaza.
While crossing Erez terminal I was surprised by the amount of work being done in the area. The Israelis have changed the geography of the place, building a huge installation that resembles an entrance to a ghetto. Photos were not allowed.
When I reached the PARC office Ahmed Sourani, the Direcrtor of Relations and Cooperation, was waiting for me. The meeting was extremely constructive; its main purpose was to get an update on the activities of PARC in the Gaza strip. In the light of the possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, PARC and its farmers’ network do have a great responsibility and a great contribution to make in the agricultural sector.
The Israelis are expected to withdraw from 40% of the Gaza Strip. The majority of this land is agricultural land. The most logical scenario would be that the land, which originally belonged to the farmers, would be given back to them for their livelihood. This could be done through leasing, or through allocation to the most vulnerable farmers which would surely contribute to improving the amount and quality of the crops and also boost the local economy.
Ahmed expressed his fear that the Palestinian Authority (PA) will deal with the issue of land reclamation in the wrong way, eventually selling the land to investors who will not be interested in supporting agriculture but constructing resorts and apartment buildings.
Particularly troubling is the plan suggested by Shimon Peres, who is famous for his visions of a new middle east, a middle east where Israel controls the pace of the region’s economy together with both international and Arab investments, all at the expense of the poor and marginalized Arab population. He said that Israel would not have a problem “selling” the settlers houses or lands to the Palestinians or any other investor rather than demolish them, and that he certainly sees the golden opportunity of building a Club Med on these lands.
This is by all means an alarming vision, which should be rejected by the Palestinians immediately. The Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are an illegal legacy of an illegal occupation; they should be removed without considering their inhabitants.
The settlers are aliens who have controlled the lives of more than a million Arab Palestinians and caused death and suffering to thousands of families in Gaza. Settlements should be extracted from Gaza and not bought; the Palestinians and their Arab brethren should consider that there are things more important than investments, such as the right of a people to live on their own land in dignity and honor.
To my dismay, I did not hear this clear message from the numerous business men who are considering Peres’s idea on the basis that eventually they will contribute to the local economy through creating job opportunities to the poor Gazans and through turning Gaza into the Switzerland of the Middle East.
Ahmad shared this fear and hoped that the lands will be leased to farmers or even to farmers associations for cultivating and using them. He mentioned that PARC has had some unofficial meetings with the Palestinian ministry of agriculture and that a plan is being drawn in order to meet such a situation when it happens.
The issue of the disengagement plan is very interesting one. Israel has made it clear that within five months it will withdraw from the Gaza strip. The disengagement law was ratified in the government and the parliament, yet until this moment the public debate has not commenced in the Palestinian territories for what to do on the day after the withdrawal.
With no national contingency plan in place, there is a fear of chaos in case evacuation takes place. PARC is preparing plans for the possibility and they are also in the phase of planning intervention together with their partners and stakeholders. For example, one of the ideas is designing programs that will include components like conflict resolution training about land and water ownership.
PARC is beginning to develop an advocacy initiative focused on the issue of land rights in light of Israeli disengagement. The first step is to collect data about the land that is slated to be evacuated. Then the data must be analyzed to show how the land could best be used to improve the well-being of Gaza’s most marginalized families.
This advocacy would be part of a comprehensive plan dedicated to offering solutions to the problems of farmers in the middle area of the Gaza Strip. The advocacy component is a way of demonstrating the complexity of the situation while offering a viable solution. To realize this goal, the Palestinian Authority and civil society must work hand in hand to facilitate the implementation of such a plan, where farmers would be encouraged to return to their lands and cultivate them.