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West Bank: a breach in the barrier

22-10-2010 Feature

An ICRC project brings water back to agricultural lands isolated by the West Bank barrier where it juts into occupied Palestinian territory.

Malek Hattab looked on as water gushed out of the pipe and spilled onto the arid land for the first time in seven years. "It's hard to believe this is happening," he said incredulously. "My land is coming back to life."

Like thousands of other farmers, Mr Hattab lost direct access to his fields in 2003 when Israel started building a barrier to deter further attacks on its population. In some areas, the barrier winds its way deep inside Palestinian territory, deviating from the Green Line – in violation of international humanitarian law – and cutting off large swaths of agricultural land from the Palestinian families who own it and depend on it for precious income.

Fields, trees and houses were destroyed as the barrier went up. In Farun, Mr Hattab's village in the northern district of Tulkarem, the barrier cut off irrigation lines, drying up 20 hectares of fruit trees and vegetables belonging to over 30 extended families. An intricate, bureaucracy-ridden system of gates and permits has further restricted access to these lands.

"The gate was closed for three years during and following the construction of the barrier. It was later opened once a year, for the olive harvest. In the past two years it has been open three times a week – for those who manage to obtain permits," explained Mr Hattab. Obtaining a permit to cross the barrier is not a simple matter. Between January and July 2010, nearly 600 applications were submitted by the Farun village council on behalf of the farmers, but only around half were approved.

In April 2008, a group of farmers asked the ICRC whether it could help them repair the irrigation system. In response, the ICRC set up a cash-for-work scheme under which Farun's neediest workers, farmers and technicians were employed for two months reconnecting water pipes.

Anne-Céline Moiraud, who heads the ICRC office in Tulkarem, explained that it took one and a half years to get the go-ahead from the Israeli authorities, but once the project was approved it took relatively little time to weld the two sections of the main pipe back together. "Workers cut through the barrier, dug under the security road and connected the 2.5-kilometre length of pipe on both sides," she said.

Ms Moiraud said that she considers the repair of the irrigation system a first step towards improved access to the fields. "Now that the land is coming back to life, farmers want to plant a variety of crops. But for that to happen, the gate must be open every day, since most vegetable crops require intensive management. With the gate open three times a week, the farmers still have limited options in terms of which crops they can cultivate."

In the scorched lands of Farun, farmers tell tales of loss and hope. Mohammed Tawfiq said his income dropped by 75 per cent when the barrier was erected. In addition to losing access to his own fields, he lost a salary, since he was employed by other landowners to work on their lands. "It was a heavy blow for us – I have six children to support," he said. "This water brings with it a new beginning. Now I will easily find employment opportunities."

Before the barrier was built, Abdallah Arafat used to walk to his greenhouse in Farun. After 2003, he rented a piece of land some 20 kilometres from his home, but that turned out to be costly – not only financially, but also emotionally. "Cultivating land that is not your own is simply not the same," he said. "You plough, you sow, but your heart is not there."

He will now attempt to obtain a permit to gain access to his land, where he hopes to plant corn. "The soldiers will see us walking through the gates, our arms laden with the fruits of our labour. They will see us differently," he added.

The ICRC and the West Bank barrier

The West Bank barrier, in as far as its route deviates from the "Green Line" into occupied territory, is contrary to international humanitarian law and severely affects Palestinian residents' daily lives.

Through its assistance projects, the ICRC attempts to mitigate the consequences of the construction of the barrier on the Palestinian population. The projects aim to support affected landowners and workers by enhancing and maintaining access to land that has been isolated behind the barrier.

These cash-for-work projects focus on the rehabilitation of previously existing infrastructure such as water cisterns, irrigation networks and roads that have been damaged by the construction of the barrier or neglected due to inaccessibility. Experience demonstrates that land requires continued weeding and ploughing if it is to remain productive and not become a fire hazard in summer months.

The ICRC supports farmers in ploughing the land and distributes seeds for crops as well as tree seedlings. In 2010, some 20 projects have been planned, completed or are being implemented, benefiting nearly 8,000 people.


Photos

Workers employed by the ICRC cut through the West Bank barrier and dig under the security road to reconnect the two parts of the Farun irrigation network, which will allow the scorched land to come back to life. 

Workers employed by the ICRC cut through the West Bank barrier and dig under the security road to reconnect the two parts of the Farun irrigation network, which will allow the scorched land to come back to life.
© ICRC

Malek Hattab tests the newly repaired irrigation line. For the first time in seven years, water starts to gush out of the pipe and onto the land behind the West Bank barrier.  

Malek Hattab tests the newly repaired irrigation line. For the first time in seven years, water starts to gush out of the pipe and onto the land behind the West Bank barrier.
© ICRC

Water erupts from the newly repaired pipe, restoring life to parched fields behind the the West Bank barrier.  

Water erupts from the newly repaired pipe, restoring life to parched fields behind the the West Bank barrier.
© ICRC