Bitter harvest: Israeli bombs sowed grief for Gaza farmers

by January 8, 2015 5:00AM ET

The Israeli summer offensive devastated the 2014 growing season, threatening Gaza's food supply

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A gate is the only structure that remains on this farm in Khan Younis, Gaza, Nov. 2, 2014.
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Khalil Zaanin drives to his farmland in Beit Hanoun.
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“Ours is a life of no guarantees,” said Khalil Zaanin. His farm, near the only Gaza Strip border crossing with Israel, was destroyed this summer when Israeli tanks and military bulldozers rolled into the community of Beit Hanoun during the invasion of Gaza.

That prompted cameraman-turned-farmer Khalil to leave with his wife, son and two teenage daughters for Gaza City, where they took shelter with friends. 

There they listened to the news all night, amid the sound of bombing and shooting, hoping to hear news of a cease-fire. “When they finally announced it, for a few hours, we came back to the house to take some clothes and documents,” he said.

But the fighting resumed. When he returned to his land during a second cease-fire, he was greeted by a grim sight. “I didn’t find anything,” he said, pointing at the remains of a stone well. “The land, the fruit trees, the water well — everything was gone, even under the ground.”

“At least my home is damaged but still standing,” he said. “Beit Hanoun looks as if a dinosaur passed stumbling by.”

The structures on the farm of Medhat Hamad, above, were reduced to rubble in the summer attacks. His land was bulldozed by the Israeli army.
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According to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, the sector sustained $550 million in direct and indirect damage during the 52-day war, including the destruction of infrastructure such as irrigation wells and greenhouses and the extensive loss of livestock. That is likely to have a long-term impact on the economic security of an already hard-pressed population.

Farms and towns nearest Israel suffered some of the worst damage.

Al-Khumaini Msallam Qudiah’s farm borders the buffer zone in Khuza’a in southern Gaza. His two-story farmhouse used to stand 500 meters from an Israeli military watchtower, from which soldiers maintain 24-hour surveillance of a dry no man’s land. All that remains of his home is a pile of rubble, but Qudiah is determined to rebuild — for the third time. He plans to return in the spring with his wife and six children to live in the only room still standing.

“I can rebuild as many times as I have to, an even more beautiful house,” he said. “The problem is, I have no money left. I have to start from zero.”

Al Khumaini Msallam Qudiah leaves his rubbled home in Khan Younis, Nov. 1, 2014.
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Khuza’a came under heavy bombardment in July during heavy fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups. Human rights organizations have accused Israel of committing war crimes during the 10-day siege of the town, including indiscriminate shelling that killed civilians.

“When I came back, I found all my land, 8 dunums (8,000 square meters), bulldozed to one side,” said Qudiah. “I lost my goats, my peach and orange trees, my vegetable garden.”

With broken tiles from his home, clay and other basic materials, he has built a small shelter near his destroyed home. It contains a bed, a coffee pot and his tools, from which he started rebuilding his farm and rehabilitating some of his farmland. Because of damage to the irrigation network, he planted crops such as wheat that don’t need much water.

Farmers in October 2013 lay hoses for an irrigation system in Beit Lahia, left. The farmland of Sami Qudiah, right was bulldozed by the Israeli army and used as a base for military operations during the summer attacks.
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Most of the aid money that has trickled through to Gaza since the summer (which totals only 2 percent of the $5.4 billion pledged at a Cairo conference two months ago) has gone toward covering basic needs, such as food and clothing for the displaced.

“After the war, we encouraged people to go back to their lands,” said Mohammed al-Bakri of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, one of the oldest NGOs in the Gaza Strip. “We need them to produce the food baskets.”

The group has been able to rehabilitate about 10 percent of the damaged land, he said, working mostly in the north of Gaza. But problems include potential contamination of land by war materiel, unexploded ordnance and restrictions on the import of iron.

The remains of Samir al-Daberi’s 50 olive trees are piled up by the ruins of his home, from which he managed to salvage the two rooms where he now lives with his extended family.

The $40,000 in damage he suffered has left Daberi, who lost a leg during the 2012 war, no longer able to hire the three or four workers on whom he relied.

“But it’s not just the war. Farming is bad here in Gaza,” he said. “We barely break even, even when we plant. Before the blockade, things were better. We could sell at better prices, and importing fertilizers is very expensive.”

Samir al-Daberi walks on his bulldozed land near the buffer zone in Rafah, Nov. 6, 2014. He lost a leg during the 2012 war, so he had to hire workers to remove ruined olive trees.
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Farmers repair a greenhouse in Rafah, Nov. 5, 2014.
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One of the conditions of the Egyptian-brokered truce in effect since Aug. 26 is that Israel should ease its seven-year blockade of Gaza, which included severe restrictions on agricultural exports. Despite the easing of some export restrictions in October, only 12 truckloads of goods were allowed out of Gaza last week, compared with a weekly average of 240 before the blockade was imposed in 2007. The blockade affects food insecurity in Gaza, which before the war was as high as 57 percent and since the war has skyrocketed to 80 percent.

“The agricultural sector has historically been a shock absorber in times of crisis,” said Azzam Saleh Ayasa, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s head of program in Gaza and the West Bank. “Food insecurity in Gaza is related to economic access to food. Currently, the industry is no longer capable to cater for people’s needs, with the result that more people will lose job opportunities,” he said. Some 28,600 households in Gaza rely on farming, livestock raising and fishing for their livelihoods.

When he returned to his land after the truce, Daberi tried to save what was left of his harvest. But even then, he had to deal with sniper fire.

“When the war started, we were planting watermelon. We went to collect what was left of it. We wanted to collect the seeds, which are good to sell if dried. But soldiers fired at us, and we couldn’t do it,” he said. “The buffer zone here is up to 700 meters from the border now.”

Hunting equipment for birds stands inside the buffer zone in Khan Younis, Nov. 3, 2014.
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A television set plays in the resting room of a farm in Khan Younis, Nov. 2, 2014.
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Although the cease-fire deal included the reduction of the security buffer zone to 100 meters and improved access for farmers, so far its boundaries remain unclear, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs reports that Israeli forces have been opening fire on access-restricted areas, including land and sea, daily since then.

Nuseibah Qudiah, 30, had to move in with her parents after her farm and house in Khuza’a were damaged. She has four young children and cannot afford reconnecting water and electricity to make her house habitable again. Her husband, Azmi, 37, now makes a little extra money selling snacks to children in a nearby school.

“We didn’t need any help from anyone [before]. We were a normal family. We weren’t suffering,” said Qudiah. “Now we come to our house every Friday, and it is the only time when the whole family gets together. I don’t know when we will be able to come back.”