For 2 months, Walid Abu Arjela and his family haven’t dared to return to their land in Am Almad of Khoza’a village, east of Khan Younis, in the lethal Israeli-imposed “buffer zone”. The land in question, 550 m from the Green Line border, used to be productive agricultural land, as with most of the land now confiscated by the Israeli military occupation of Gaza and the imposition of a “no-go zone” on the Palestinian side of the Green Line. And as with the fertile land of the “buffer zone” from south to north, the land was heavily worked and produced vegetables, grains and fruits for much of the Gaza Strip’s residents and even, before the siege, for export.
On Tuesday, 24 February, Abu Arjela and family hoped to harvest peas and pick the scrubby weeds that donkeys can eat, regular animal feed being on the list of items no longer available in Gaza as a result of the comprehensive, debilitating Israeli, Egyptian and international siege on Gaza.
In other areas of the region east of Khan Younis, farmers tend to employ local youths to work the land, but whereas the Am Almad farmers are a couple hundred metres closer to the border fence from which Israeli soldier shooting comes, they are no longer confident that they can safely practice daily productive farming. The farmers that do dare to return to their land tend to be elderly, small groups of family members.
Such was the case with the Abu Arjelas.
“We haven’t been back to this land for about 2 months,” Mohammed Suleiman Abu Arjela, Walid’s father, explained. Indeed, at the end of November, 2008, he’d stood by his cowshed hoping to work the land that day, explaining that his farm had been twice devastated [First, in September 2006, when Israeli forces entered with bulldozers, destroying 5 dunums (1 dunum= 1000 square metres) of 15 year old olive trees, 2 dunums of orange and lemon trees, the kitchen and the bathroom of his home, the cow shed, with 7 cows inside, and 200 turkeys and 100 bred pigeons in the process. And then in summer 2008, Israeli soldiers returned, killing 15 sheep, destroying 10 tons of animal feed, and filling in the cistern with rubble, destroying the water source.].
The bulldozers which entered near his land that November day prevented he and the handful of other farmers from plowing the land, instead leaving as quickly as their donkeys and tractor would allow.
Small numbers of farmers also dared to go on their land Tuesday, hoping that this might be a day they could safely farm and gather animal fodder. And like the Abu Arjelas, they were mostly elderly men and women and their sons, spread out over a large area.
Roughly five minutes after the Abu Arjelas had reached their land, Israeli forces amassed at the border fence began firing. Four army jeeps and a Hummer stood at the fence. The shots could in no have been considered ‘warning’ shots: they rang clearly past our ears, hit the dirt less than a metre away. They were sniper-style shots.
Immediately, the international accompaniment began to speak through a megaphone, reiterating the peaceful, non-armed nature of all gathered in the fields.
The firing was the most intense in recent weeks, closer than it’s been in New Abassan, which even then was already within metres of heads and feet. We could almost taste Tuesday’s firing, and the distinct ping-whizz sound they make was somehow impossibly loud, so close the shots were.
One of the older women was having trouble walking away, stumbling in her fear. As the shots dug in around her she fell to the ground in terror.
Positioning ourselves between the elderly farmers and the Israeli snipers, we thus accompanied them off the field, many suddenly crouching instinctively when the shots came near.
A few hundred metres away, the Israeli snipers continued to shoot. Another elderly woman had dived in terror behind a rock and adamantly wouldn’t get up. “They’ll kill me, they’ll kill me. Mother…,” she cried in fear.
Gradually, surrounding her we were able to lead her away, she all the while fearfully muttering incoherently.
Down the dirt lane, donkey carts only partially-filled with greens for animal food, the terrorized farmers converged in bewilderment. Most had had enough and were giving up, as the Israeli military plan hopes they will. The plan is transparent enough, and what I’ve seen in my nearly 4 months here is the policy of terrorizing the farmers and residents living near the Green Line into abandoning their homes, their land.
There are a number who defy this institutionalized terrorizing, who will work the land until they die, naturally or at the hands of the well-equipped Israeli army.
And many are giving up, saying enough, choosing safety over livelihoods although the choice is impossible to make. For many of the people living and working in the “buffer zone” the produce they squeeze from the land, and the revenue from the chicken farms that are becoming less numerous with each invasion and attack, is their means of existence.
But in Khoza’a, Mohammed Abu Arjela isn’t ready to give in, despite the odds stacked against his life. “I have two children. I must go back to my fields to work there today. This is our life, what can we do?”
As we stood gazing back to the abandoned farmland, a crop-duster gracefully swooped again to treat crops on the other side of the Green Line. It rose and swooped, the small airplane unhurriedly gliding over nurtured crops which months later will be unhurriedly harvested. Life is not so impossible outside of Gaza.