West Bank farmers struggle to access own land

10 June 2011

10 June 2011
Biddu, West Bank

Biddu farmerThe small West Bank village of Biddu, northwest of Jerusalem, is one of several in the area through which the Israeli Barrier runs. The routing of the Barrier is designed to encompass four Israeli settlements near to Jerusalem. In the process, it separates the villagers of Biddu from much of their land.

Although nearly all Biddu’s 6,800 residents are registered refugees, the village was traditionally a prosperous area. Many residents travelled daily into nearby Israel to work. But in recent years, a complex system of control imposed by the Israeli authorities has restricted residents’ ability to travel and to access their own land, and ravaged the village’s economy. As a result, many in this community of refugees now face dispossession once again.

The situation in Biddu is typical of many more West Bank villages near the Barrier. There are 45,000 residents living in this ‘enclave’, trapped on three sides by the Barrier’s winding route.

Complex procedures

An agricultural gate in BidduSince 2000 and the start of the second intifada, access restrictions have prevented local people from working in Israel and East Jerusalem. The construction of the Barrier here in 2007 added to the problem. Unemployment in the village today stands at around 50 per cent. Residents say that dependence on UNRWA’s support is at an all-time high.

Agriculture has become an increasingly important source of income since the introduction of the restrictions. But around half Biddu’s agricultural land, and 70 per cent of its grazing land, is enclosed behind the Barrier, says Ismail, a farmer and representative of the local community.

An intricate system of gates and permits govern farmers’ access to their fields. Out of five gates hemming in the residents, four are open just 20 per cent of the time, Ismail says.

“We sometimes spend all day behind the barriers,” he adds. “You can waste hours waiting to cross both ways.”

Gate system restricts work – and livelihoods

In 2009, the Israeli military pronounced the area behind the fifth gate a ‘seam zone’, or closed military area. After that, the gate was open only to allow workers to cross to work in the nearby settlements – only workers with permits, that is. From then on, the olive and fruit trees belonging to Ismail and the rest of Biddu’s farmers lay behind the gate, inaccessible except at certain limited times.

Finding the permits regime an impossible way to work their land, the farmers refused – but were later dismayed to find that without submitting to the system, they were likely to lose their property altogether.

This is because of the continued use by the Israeli authorities in the West Bank of Ottoman laws from the beginning of the 20th century. The laws state that if land sits uncultivated for three years, it can be confiscated.

By 2010, fearing the loss of his land, Ismail applied for a permit. So far, his request has met no response. It has been two years since the farmers have able to harvest their produce.

Products, harvests, profits, and opportunities for development are all squandered in that lost time, says Ismail – causing further economic problems for a community that has already suffered many losses.

And as time passes, the threat of land confiscation – and the collapse of an important part of the village’s livelihood – draws ever nearer.

What is UNRWA doing to help?

UNRWA works to help refugees like Ismail to protect their land and livelihood in the face of the ongoing threat of displacement. Supporting the farming community in Biddu in their request for access, UNRWA monitors the situation and intervenes with the Israeli authorities, as well as asking ‘duty bearers’ in the international community to remind Israel of its obligation to respect the farmers’ rights to their land.

UNRWA also coordinates with local farmers and the Israeli authorities to help them access their land; helping pick olives during the long olive season, when farmers are often vulnerable to settler attacks, as well as problems with crossing checkpoints to access their land.  

UNRWA and the farmers will continue to exhaust every avenue in order to ensure Biddu residents’ access to the land that belongs to them.

Job creation – an economic lifeline

UNRWA also provides temporary job opportunities to Biddu residents through its job creation programme, which was created as a result of the worsening economic situation in the West Bank. The programme creates over 80,000 temporary jobs per month for men and women living in vulnerable Palestinian communities, such as those in the Barrier enclave.

In 2006, UNRWA opened a clinic in the nearby village of Beit Surik, as a result of restrictions on local people trying to access health facilities in Jerusalem.

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