QAFFIN, West Bank (AP) – Three days a week, Palestinian peasants from the occupied West Bank town of Qaffin line up at a yellow gate and show soldiers military permits to tend their crops on the other side of the Israeli separation wall. .
The peasants say that due to increasingly heavy Israeli restrictions, they can no longer live off their land, which suffers without proper care. The olive groves on the other side of the gate are scorched by a recent fire, as firefighters also need clearance to cross.
Almost two decades after Israel sparked an international controversy with the construction of the wall during a Palestinian uprising, it has become a seemingly fixed feature of the landscape, although Israel encourages its citizens to settle on both sides.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians pass through their access points each morning, lining up at crowded terminals to enter Israel and work in construction and agriculture. Peasants in Qaffin and dozens of other towns need permits to access their private property.
Israel says the barrier helped stop a wave of suicide attacks and other attacks by Palestinians entering the country during the uprising between 2000 and 2005, and is still necessary to prevent deadly violence.
85% of the still unfinished wall is on occupied land in the West Bank, separating almost 10% of its surface. The Palestinians see it as an illegal occupation of land, and the International Criminal Court said in 2004 that the barrier was “contrary to international law.”
In Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the wall is a massive concrete wall that stands several meters (yards), complete with barbed wire and cameras. In rural areas it consists mainly of barbed wire fences and closed military roads.
Along the main Israeli highway that connects the north and the south, landscaping and strategic earthworks conceal it so that drivers only see a glimpse of the reality of the military regime.
The Qaffin Palestinians say the wall has cut off some 4,500 dunams (1,100 acres) of their farmland, all in the West Bank.
Ibrahim Ammar said that he used to plant various crops, such as watermelons and corn, but is now limited to olives and almonds because they require less attention. Even during the annual olive harvest, which started last month, he can only enter his land three days a week and has to apply for permits to bring family members to help him.
“My father, my grandfather, they lived entirely off the land,” he said. “Now I don’t earn enough for myself and my children.”
To complete his income he drives a taxi. Other neighbors have low-skilled jobs within Israel and its West Bank settlements. At least one neighbor, frustrated by the restrictions, grows vegetables on the roof of his house.
“Three days is not enough to take care of the land,” said Taysir Harashe, who was mayor of the village when the wall was built. “The land is getting worse and worse.”
The United Nations estimates that some 150 Palestinian communities live in a similar situation, and that 11,000 Palestinians live in the underhanded area, inside the West Bank but west of the wall, so they need Israeli permits to stay in their homes.
HaMoked, an Israeli rights group that helps Palestinians get permits, said the situation for peasants is getting worse. Data obtained from the Army following a formal request for public information showed that 73% of permit applications were rejected last year, compared to 29% in 2014. Less than 3% were denied for security reasons, the group said.
Israel stopped granting permits to family members in 2014 unless they were registered as agricultural workers on large farms. In 2017, the Army began dividing large farms among family members and determined that any land smaller than 330 square meters (3,500 square feet) was unsustainable for agriculture. The owners of these small gardens are not granted permits.
“There is no security justification,” said Jessica Montell, director of HaMoked, which has brought the regulation before the Israeli Supreme Court. “They have decided that people own a piece of land that seems too small to be worth cultivating.”
Montell noted that other standards are based on “elaborate calculations” of how many hands it takes to tend different crops. “It’s a crazy board. They say that if you plant cucumbers you can have X number of attendees per dunam ”.
When asked about the restrictions, the Army said its forces aim to “ensure a calm vital rhythm for all sides.” The Army “sees great importance in coordinating the olive harvest and operates according to recommendations and the assessment of the situation,” according to a statement.
Israel has always said that the barrier was not intended to draw a permanent border and some defenders said at the time that it would help the peace process because it would reduce violence.
“The fence was built solely according to security needs,” said Netzah Mashiah, a retired Israeli colonel who oversaw the construction of the wall until 2008. “During construction we understood that it could be a border in the distant future … but this was not the objective of this fence ”.
Of course, the appearance of the wall is that of a fortified border.
There are Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the border, and Israel is actively building settlements and settlement infrastructure east of the barrier. There have been no meaningful peace talks in over a decade and current Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and other Israeli-occupied territories in the 1967 war.
In Bethlehem, the massive concrete wall is covered in political graffiti and other satirical works of art. One alludes to an episode of the Larry David comedy on HBO “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which Jewish men go to a Palestinian restaurant to hide their infidelities from their wives. Another pays tribute to George Floyd, killed last year by a Minneapolis cop.
It became an eclectic tourist attraction after world-famous street artist Banksy painted on the wall in the 2000s. In 2017 he opened an installation in the form of a hotel, bringing together grim works about the resistance.
Abu Yamil, a nearby souvenir shop owner who declined to give his full name, sells postcards and paper copies of Banksy’s works, among other items.
The 70-year-old man expressed his nostalgia for the situation decades ago, when Palestinians could travel freely.
“It was occupation, but we lived together,” he said. “I went in my car to Tel Aviv.”
Like many Palestinians, he doubts that the yet-to-be-completed wall serves a security purpose, as workers without permits have always managed to get through.
“This wall will be here forever, because they don’t want peace,” he said. “Israel wants all the land.”