Letter From Jayyous
The wall took less than a year to be constructed in an arc around much of Jayyous, a village in the occupied West Bank near Qalqilya. Seventy percent of the villagers' farmland--and all their irrigated land--has ended up on the western side of Israel's "security fence." There are gates for Jayyous's farmers to access their land, but Israel has made the ability to do so steadily more difficult--in a process most villagers believe will eventually lead to the confiscation of their ancestral lands.
Jayyous, a town of about 3,000, already lost 20 percent of its lands after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. These lands were redistributed to Israeli farmers. Jayyous was never compensated for its loss. One villager tells how he used to lead his donkey at night to what was once his family's apricot orchards, across the Green Line, and helped himself to the fruit. He called himself and his donkey "the Apricot Liberation Front."
Depending on how the question is considered, there are between five to eight clans, or extended families, in Jayyous. One was Christian until about 100 years ago. Somewhere in the village there used to be churches. The columns on the village's main mosque were salvaged from Roman ruins. There are also Ottoman ruins. Caves, used since time immemorial, dot the northern hillside, some ending up underneath houses in the village. Many of the houses have older stone foundations underneath--up to 1,500 years old. Villagers hid in these caves for twelve days when the Israelis sent trucks in during the Six-Day War in 1967 to cart the people of Jayyous to the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, in a possible prelude to expulsion. After twenty days in the camp, the rest of the villagers walked the ten miles home on foot.
Some of the villagers have eight names, and a few have nine, indicating that their families extend back about 600 years, according to Abdel Latif Khaled, a local hydrologist. It is clear the land has been cultivated for centuries; some of the thousands of olive trees belonging to the village are hundreds of years old. An Israeli arborist reported that the oldest tree he knew of in Israel/Palestine was 1,700 years old but said there may be even older ones (Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 2003 issue). Villagers refer to these extremely old trees as "Roman trees," indicating they have been there from the time when Jayyous was a Roman garrison town. Some Jayyous residents still possess tattered Ottoman deeds to their lands, which were eventually replaced by British and then Jordanian deeds; all of the land is registered in Jordan. They also have vouchers from the Palestinian Authority's Finance Department. Four hundred dunams (100 acres) are held in common by the Jayyous municipality; before that, they were held by the colonially appointed mukhtar (town elder).
Once, 300 Jayyous farmers went to their lands every day. Then the wall was built. At first the gates were open. Then the Israelis placed locks and chains on them. Then they started locking the gates, only opening them for about fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. On October 2 the Israeli West Bank military commander, Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, declared the area between the wall and the Green Line to be a closed military zone. The Israelis call this area the "seam zone." The rules of the seam zone require that no Palestinian can enter without a permit issued by Israel. However, Israeli citizens and those eligible to be citizens under the Law of Return are allowed to enter. A sign next to the gate reads in Hebrew, Arabic and English, "He who enters this area without permission endangers his life."
Shareef Omar, a member of the local Land Defense Committee, says he told PA minister Saeb Erekat that accepting the permits was a mistake, and would be another step in losing the rights to their lands. Erekat disagreed, and told Omar, "The farmers have already suffered too much."
On November 14 a stack of hundreds of permits was delivered to the municipality of Jayyous. Mostly the permits were for children, old men and women, and Jayyousians who currently live in places like Canada, Saudi Arabia or Jordan. Conspicuously absent were permits for any of the farmers who had participated in Jayyous's campaign of dozens of nonviolent protests against the wall in the preceding year. Or anyone who had a family member seized by Israel's security forces. Only 30 percent of the farmers who needed them could get permits, and they were issued for two months, until January 14. Of seven numbered items on the permit, the most salient is Number 6: "This permit does not prove your ownership of the land, or if you have a house there, this permit does not prove you are the owner of the house." Many farmers went to the occupation authorities in the Israeli settlement of Kedumim to try to obtain permits, and sometimes hired Israeli lawyers to help. The answers were always the same: "Come back in a couple of days," or "Come back next week." The end result was always the same: "Permit denied." No explanation ever given. In a bit of irony, one farmer, Mahmoud, 29, has a permit to work in Tel Aviv, but not in his own fields. Apparently he is a greater threat to Israel tending his sheep than working construction in Tel Aviv.
Khader Shamasny, 29, has 100 sheep but cannot graze them because he has no permit to get to his lands, and there is little to graze on inside the wall. This does not prevent shepherds from trying to graze their sheep wherever something green can be found inside the town. Some sheep have clearly visible ribs. Their offspring are not surviving as regularly, and they get sick more easily. Abdel Latif Khaled says the people in the village do not have enough protein in their diets as a result.
Shamasny cannot afford to buy feed for his sheep, the price having doubled over the past year. He is thinking of selling them before they starve to death. He talks about taking a job with the Palestinian police--which seems to amount to a sort of workfare in the occupied West Bank. Police wages will not allow Shamasny to feed his sheep, however.
It seems to be part of a deliberate policy not to allow shepherds to graze their flocks. At the south gate, farmers who had permits were not allowed to take their sheep through from November through early January and much of their land is not accessible through the other gate. On January 10, this reporter was asked to accompany farmers to their fields. Also accompanying us was an Israeli-born US national and activist with Jews Against the Occupation, who speaks Hebrew. I explained to the soldier at the gate, a Druze who would not let me through, that under the rules of the seam zone I do not require permission to enter as someone eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. He went to his jeep to call his commander, then came back and told me no dice. So I watched the work crew--many of them Jayyousians with permits hired by farmers without permits to tend to their land and harvest their crops. The soldiers checked them all semi-methodically, and let them through, about thirty people and seven vehicles.
However, the soldiers stopped the last two villagers who tried to enter, boys from Jayyous, aged approximately 12 or 13, with about twenty-five sheep. Without asking for or checking their permits, one soldier said to the boys in Hebrew, in a very aggressive tone, as if he recognized one of them: "No sheep. No sheep. You're not coming to the fence. Go home. You throw stones, you come near the fence. If I see you by the fence today--forget about it. Go home."
Then the soldiers closed the gate and left. The boys told us they did not throw stones, that they had permits and that they had been allowed through before.
At 8 AM we placed a call to Hamoked Lehafganat Haprat, an Israeli human rights group in Jerusalem, which acts a liaison to the occupation authorities. One of the boys, Muhammed, spoke to the organization. Hamoked said they would call the Israelis, and told us to wait.
At 8:15 another jeep arrived. Two soldiers got out, opened the gate and approached us. They were very aggressive and angry. "What time is it? You're late. You're not getting through. Get out of here. Go home." When the shepherds and I insisted they were there on time, the soldiers turned around and went back through the gate. "Are you going to open the gate for them?" I shouted. "Yes," came the reply--but then they shut the gate, and both soldiers aimed their rifles at us and shouted at us to go away. One got down in sniper position. We backed away about twenty yards, and the soldiers left.
At 8:18 we again called Hamoked. They said they would call a higher occupation authority than the last time. But at 8:35 the shepherds gave up and went to try to find some grass on the eastern side of the wall for their sheep. We notified Hamoked, and they said they would protest with Israel's civil administration.
The fence in Jayyous is flanked by a road and dirt track. Israeli army jeeps driving along the length of the road punctuate the night with gunfire in the air.
The children of Jayyous are effectively caged into the village, away from their families' lands, watching their future being taken away. Sometimes they cut the razor wire on the fence, a cat-and-mouse game with the soldiers. They feel they have little to lose. This concerns the mayor, Faiz Selim. "Parents have no money to give their children to go to university, and can't go to their land to work. How can they care for their children?" Mayor Selim keeps the blinds on his window drawn shut, because he can't stand looking at the fruit rotting on his trees on his fields, which are beyond the wall. As he is being interviewed, a farmer comes in and an animated conversation ensues. The mayor later explains that the man is among those who cannot get to his land. The Palestinian Authority has promised to help blunt their losses, but so far no money has come.
When the village's permits expired in January, even fewer farmers were given new ones. Recently Israel delivered a set of new rules for permits. Farmers must now provide pictures for the permits, which will have magnetic strips. They must declare in Kedumim that they will not rent their lands, and that they own the land directly and work it themselves. (It is a common practice for the farmers to rent land and hire additional workers.) If their names do not match those on the title deeds, they have to prove in Israeli court in Kedumim that it is their land. They need the mayor's office to certify they own the land and work on it, and how much land they have. Then, the kicker: After all these conditions are fulfilled, all back taxes on the land must be paid. The Jayyousians stopped paying their taxes in 1995, when the village came under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, which it did not compel the farmers to pay. Now they are required to come up with nine years of back taxes, and send it to a bank account registered in the name of the Palestinian Authority.
This made the people of Jayyous suspicious. Was the PA collaborating with the Israeli authorities? The PA has never shown much concern for the farmers, and is now bankrupt. The Land Defense Committee went to PA ministers and asked them directly if they knew about this condition; they insisted they were never informed. The farmers left hoping that the PA Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), will be able to negotiate with the Israelis a slightly better deal--maybe to pay only every other year. At 22 shekels a year per irrigated dunam, and 8.5 per unirrigated, very few farmers can afford to pay the back taxes.
Many farmers can't even get the money to buy new plastic to cover their greenhouses. Three years of closures, added transportation costs because 90 percent of the old access roads have been cut off by the wall, difficulties in bringing in their harvests because of restrictive rules, harassment by Israeli security forces--all this has left the farmers with little money. Shareef Omar, the largest landowner in town, will have to come up with $8,000 to pay back taxes on his 175 dunams, a sum he doesn't have. He says many farmers will be forced to sell some of their lands in order to pay the taxes. As of February 4, only three farmers had managed to fill all the requirements and get permits to go to their land.
The wall has created a critical economic crisis in a very short time. About 140,000 olive and fruit trees have been demolished for the path of the wall in the West Bank already, says Abdel Latif Khaled, and about the same number have died behind the wall for lack of care. In one or two generations, says Khaled, it will change the culture of the people in a dramatic way. There is a very intense relationship between Jayyousians and their land. They refer to the very old olive trees as "grandfather trees," and consider them like members of their families; but soon, they may be able to see them only from the roofs of their homes, as most of them now lie on the other side of the fence.