Saturday, 6 December 2008

And then they came and turned our paradise into a desert

I love taking photos, it is a hobby of mine and my camera is my constant companion wherever I go. I love taking photos of the green meadows, the blue sea, the clear sky, etc…. but most of all I am fascinated by trees, especially the olive tree, standing strong and green as ever, its roots extending into the depths of the earth, clutching to it and refusing to leave. Recently a friend of mine asked why I take so many photos with trees and greenery. I automatically replied: it reminds me of Palestine. In that moment it occurred to me that the Palestine I know, the green Palestine of my childhood to an extent no longer exists. The last couple of times I was there I searched in vain for my favorite childhood spots; the green hilltops with their colorful carpet of red, yellow, and pink flowers, the olive fields and wheat and barley meadows that extended to the horizon, and where by sunrise and sunset the fields would change into a single sea of gold and green. I searched for the fig trees, which grew on sloppy hills, making it difficult but at the same time exciting for us to pick up their fruits. That was a dear spot to me. It was far away from any houses or street noise.

We used to sit under the fig trees and watch the shepherds with their sheep and goats on the opposite hills. After enjoying a few ripe figs, we used to race to the other hills, feeling so free as if we owned the whole world. We used to look for egg nests in trees and snake nests in caves. We used to collect snails, as father used to tell us how as little boy he used to collect snails and sell them to restaurants in Jerusalem and so earn a few pennies. In spring we used to collect flowers and dry them, and mostly we loved collecting the red Poppies, which we call Hannoun. As children we were told that this flower is red because it absorbs the red blood of the martyrs who fall for Palestine, and as long as there are martyrs dying to free Palestine, Hannoun or red poppies will always grow and decorate the hills and meadows of Palestine. We used to spend our free time running in the nearby meadows. Depending on the time of year, these meadows would be either a sea of green, yellow or a beautiful mixture of spring colors. The crops would grow so high, that we literally swam in these meadows. We used to play hide and seek there, and in summer, just before the harvest began, we would sit there among the long stems and pick and eat the edible crops. During the harvest, you could smell the burning of the crops almost everywhere. People would gather around a fire in the evening and enjoy the roosted crops.

In summer we used to sit under the huge olive and almond trees, their shadow protecting us from the sun, talking, telling stories, playing school and other games. In autumn we used to help with the harvest, whether picking the olives or harvesting the crops. And when the first rain came, we used to run outside and take in the smell of the freshly wet earth, and help with opening pipelines leading from the house roof to the well in the backyard. In winter we used to wait till it started raining and then we would run all across the fields, and then wait for the rainbow to appear.

But now, the olive, almond and fig trees and the Hannoun are dying in Palestine.
The land in Palestine has always been fertile and generous to its people; those who appreciate this land and work it with love. My parents, being garden lovers, would spend their free time planting all sorts of plants, whether vegetables, or fruits or cereals, even we have all sorts of flowers growing in our garden. This is not a special case, but something shared among all Palestinians; the love of the land and caring for it. Even in the overcrowded refugee camp, my grandmother tried to create a tiny part of her original town in the little space she had, and grew some apple and fig trees.

This paradise is being destroyed by those who till today claim they have made “the desert bloom with roses”. This outrageous lie was one of the first things I heard after my arrival to Europe. That the memories of my childhood and my youth are witnesses to the lie of that claim made no difference and received no listening ear. Although it is not a new thing, it nevertheless every time amazes me how Zionists just get away with their lies. And when Palestinians state facts and present evidence to the contrary of the Zionists lies, they are accused of spreading propaganda and of being themselves the liars. Although all it needs is a bit of common sense to realize who is lying here.

The Palestinian territories lie within the Mediterranean climate zone, and are thus part of the Mediterranean region with its rich ecosystem, including a rich base of flora and fauna. Within the borders of the Palestinian Territories there exist around 2483 plant species, 27.5% of these being rare and 25.6% being very rare.[1]

Not only were the Palestinians residents of this land since thousands of years, but also they had developed communities with schools, markets, clinics, industries, etc. Throughout history Palestine was known for its fertile land and its agricultural products. Witness to the advancement of Palestinian agriculture is the advice the British Consul gave his government in 1893 about the value of importing "young trees procured from Jaffa" to improve production in Australia and South Africa. In 1856 the American consul in Jerusalem, Henry Gillman, "outlined reasons why orange growers in Florida would find it advantageous to adopt Palestinian techniques of grafting directly onto lemon trees." The British Consul in Jerusalem, James Finn, reported that "the fields would do credit to British farming." Earlier witness to the advancement of Palestinian agriculture is provided by the English traveler George Sandys who described Palestine in 1615 as "a land that flows with milk and honey; in the midst as it were of the habitable world, and under a temperate clime; adorned with beautiful mountains and luxurious valleys; the rocks producing excellent waters; and no part empty of delight or profit." While a British missionary described the southern coastal area of Palestine in 1859 as "a very ocean of wheat".[2]

Agricultural products of Palestine were of such high quality that they were exported to neighboring and far away countries. Between 1856 and 1882 and before Zionists started coming to Palestine, "Palestine produced a relatively large agricultural surplus which was marketed in neighboring countries, such as Egypt and Lebanon, and increasingly exported to Europe. These exports included wheat, barley, dura, corn, sesame, olive oil, soap, oranges, vegetables and cotton. Among the European importers of Palestinian produce were France, England, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Malta."[3] According to the French economic historian Paul Masson "wheat shipments from the Palestinian port of Acre had helped to save southern France from famine on numerous occasions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."[4]

Well-known were the olive oil and the citrus fruits industries, and the two principal crops were wheat and barley. In 1945 the Palestinians owned 99% of the olive fields in Palestine. "80 % of the olive oil pressed in the 1940/41, the 1942/43 and the 1943/44 seasons came from five Sub-districts, namely, Nablus, Acre, Ramallah, Jenin and Tulkann. Nablus stood first. Acre second, Ramallah third, Jenin fourth and Tulkarm fifth in the last two seasons." Palestinians were responsible for 73% of the fruits produced in Palestine (1943), for 90% of the grains and legumes produced in Palestine (1942), and they were responsible for 77% of the vegetables produced in Palestine (1944/45). In addition, Palestine had a prosperous fishing, milk and poultry industries.[5]

The unique Biodiversity of Palestine is threatened by various factors, mainly the Israeli policies regarding land and water use. Mainly fertile land would be confiscated or declared closed areas for settlement activity. In addition, land pollution caused by Israeli settlements disposing their wastewater and solid waste on Palestinian fields and close to Palestinian towns.

The Zionist way of “Making the desert bloom” is achieved mainly through stealing Palestinian land and natural resources, the settlement policy and the various Israeli restrictions imposed on Palestinians in their own land. In 1948 the Zionists not only wiped off hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages, destroyed others and kicked their real residents out, they confiscated their homes, their farms, their fields and their properties. Fruit orchards, vegetable fields, vineyards, grain and legume fields were usurped, destroyed or harvested, and livestock were stolen by the Zionists, later to claim they are theirs and that they have created a miracle by changing the desert into a paradise. This was not only repeated in 1967, but it also became a trademark of the Zionist state. Control over Palestinian land and confiscating it is done through several ways such as declaring it a green zone, military zone, “state land” or as “abandoned assets”, through using empty excuses such as “security” and the use of ancient laws such as the Ottoman Land Code of 1858 (article 103). Other laws such as the “absentee” law[6], is mainly used to rid Jerusalem of its original residents: the Palestinians. Today, and according to the various accords signed between the PNA and Israel, about 60% of the West Bank (Area C) is under full Israeli control. This land, mostly fertile land with olive and fruit fields and grain meadows, is being misused for illegal settlement activities for illegal settlers brought in from all over the world to live on land that never belonged to them.

The various Israeli measures have led to Palestinian land degradation. One reason being the illegal settlements and their infrastructure, including the bypass roads, which are often built on confiscated Palestinian fields. These areas often declared green zones or natural areas in an excuse for confiscating them, only later to be used for building purposes. “It is estimated that Israel is responsible for the destruction of 82% of the forested areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip”[7]. An example of such destruction is the Har Homa settlement built on Abu Ghnaim mountain. According to Arij it is estimated that from 1971 to 1999 23% of the official forest has been destroyed, with 82% of the destruction being due to Israeli construction of settlements and military camps. Another reason for land degradation is the Israeli restrictions on Palestinian use of their own land. An approximate 52% of the West Bank is designated by the Israeli military as closed military areas, settlements, military bases and nature reserves [8], to which Palestinians have limited access. This fertile land is misused for building new or expanding existing illegal settlements, and leaving Palestinian farmers to overuse the small areas left to them, thus causing erosion and desertification of these areas, as in the eastern slopes.

The ex-deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Benvenisti, stated "that the combination of land acquisition, closure of areas for military purposes and land use planning, roads, and infrastructure developments has already insured complete Israeli control over space in the West Bank."[9] Almost half of the East Jerusalem area is declared “Green area” where building by Palestinians is not allowed. These areas usually serve as reserves for further settlement expansion, as is the case of the Ramot settlement built on Shu’fat land. Over one-third of the Jerusalem territory is West Bank land that was illegally annexed to Jerusalem, and was used for building the 12 settlements there.[10]

To continue with its illegal expansion and settlement policy, Israel often justifies its activities as “natural growth”. Existing settlements have been expanded and new ones added as “new neighborhoods” in a shameless disregard of the international community. According to Israel, this “natural growth” includes the growth of existing population through birth and through migration. This growth cannot be considered “natural” when “outsiders” are offered incentives by the Israeli government to go and live in the Palestinian Territories. While only 25% of construction in Israel is state funded, 60% of Israeli illegal construction in the Palestinian Territories is state funded. And despite the fact that an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 illegal settlement housing units in the Palestinian Territories are empty and available, Israel continues to build settlements and calls it “natural growth”. The illegal settlements and settlers are a clear violation of international law. The fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 states that ““The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territories it occupies.” (Article 49, Paragraph 6)”. UN Security Council Resolution 452 of 1979 “calls upon the Government and people of Israel to cease, on an urgent basis, the establishment, construction and planning of settlements in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem.”[11]

The main Palestinian type of cultivation is fruit trees, followed by field crops and vegetables. Among fruit trees, olives cover the largest area (with 45% of the cultivated land in Palestine being planted with 10 million olive trees and contributing 15-19% of agricultural output), followed by grapes, almonds and citrus. Wheat takes up the largest area of field crops, followed by barley, clover and chickpeas. For vegetables the largest area is covered by squash, tomatoes and cucumbers.[12] The Palestinian economy is chiefly agricultural, and in 2007 15.1% of the employed persons in the Palestinian Territories were working in the agriculture, fishing and forestry. Agriculture accounts for 4% of the workforce in Israel. This sector generates around 25% of all Palestinians exports, with fruits, olives and olive oil, vegetables and cut flowers being main exports. [13] Agriculture makes up for only 3% of Israeli GDP with more than 50% of Israeli and Jewish settlement land irrigated, while it makes up 10-14% of Palestinian GDP with only 10% of the land in the West Bank irrigated[14]. Palestinian farmers are faced with Israeli laws, regulations and various restrictions and constraints such as the Israeli control over the movement of Palestinian goods, the Israeli control over Palestine’s natural resources, and the Israeli closure policy. These restrictions and constraints make access to international markets and competition with Israeli or Arab products difficult. These measures and restrictions have also weakened the Palestinian agricultural sector and hindered its development. “Since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, up till August 2001: more than 70,000 acres of land have been confiscated, over 674 houses demolished and 282,000 trees have been uprooted in the West Bank alone”.[15] Alone between June 2006 and May 2007 the IOF destroyed some 12,900 dunums of agricultural land and 322 green houses and uprooted 2,775 trees in the West Bank.[16]

Another form of making the “desert bloom with roses” is the policy of demolishing Palestinian homes in order to build Israeli houses in their place, and to erect the so-called security zones or corridors and bypass roads for settlers. Not only is the land being destroyed for the sake of illegal settlements, but the livelihood of Palestinians is being destroyed. Bypass roads entail a 50-75 m buffer zone on each side in which no construction is allowed, thus isolating Palestinian towns and hindering their development. These roads are under Israeli control and are primarily for Israeli use. The policy of home demolition, aiming in the first place to empty the land of its original people, has left tens of thousands homeless. While in illegal Jewish settlements hundreds of houses stand empty, over 18,000 Palestinian houses have been destroyed since 1967 [17]. The official reasons given for this policy are collective punishment or for administrative reasons. The administrative reason, being the lack of a building permit, is another widespread method used by the Israelis. Palestinians living in area C and in Jerusalem rarely get a building permit from the Israeli authorities so that families are often forced to build illegally. Such permits are withheld as a method of pressuring the Palestinian residents and forcing them to leave, thus creating Palestinian-empty areas so as to prevent the Palestinians from demanding this land back during negotiations. “Israeli army Legal Advisor Colonel Shlomo Politus told the Israeli Parliament in July 2003 that: "…there are no more construction permits for Palestinians"[18]

This Israeli policy of house demolition is a violation of Article 53 of the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 which states that “Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons…is prohibited." Article 33 of the Convention prohibits collective punishment “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.” Despite international criticism, this policy goes on till today. Between 1987 and 2008 over 4361 Palestinian houses were completely demolished and 64 partially demolished, in addition to 362 houses demolished in 2006 and 44 in 2007[19]. Further homes are being destroyed by Israeli shelling of Palestinian areas. Since the beginning of the second intifada Israeli shelling of Palestinian areas has left 5575 houses partially demolished and 480 completely demolished. According to the PCBS, between September 2000 and April 2007 8103 buildings were completely damaged in the Palestinian territories and 69,330 were partially damaged.

Before the Nakba of 1948 87.5% of the total area of Palestine was owned by Palestinians, only 6.6% by the Jews, and the remaining 5.9% being classified “state land” by the British mandate. Since 1967 Israel expropriated 79% of the Palestinian Territory, 44% of which for “military purposes”, 20% for “security reasons” 12% for “public use” and 12% because owners were “absent”. Today, the illegal settlers occupying the West Bank comprise less than 9% of the total Israeli Jewish population and comprise around 10% of the total West Bank population (according to PCBS in 2006 illegal Jewish settlers made up 16.1% of the total West Bank population). While Palestinian villages and towns are prevented from expansion due to the land confiscation, this same land being taken away from Palestinians is being used to expand illegal settlements. According to OCHA in 2007 there were 161 Jewish settlements and 98 outposts. Peace now reports that the illegal settlements in the West Bank use only 12% of the huge amounts of land allocated to them, and that despite the huge unused land reserves, 90% of settlements exceed their boundaries. About one-third of the territory they use is adjacent to Palestinian lands outside their jurisdiction.[20]

The settlement activity is also destroying the Palestinian agriculture. Palestinian farmers get attacked by Jewish settlers who don’t hesitate in using live ammunition against unarmed farmers and their families. Also livestock has been butchered by settlers of IDF soldiers and fields destroyed, trees uprooted or burned to make place for settlements. These fields represent the livelihood for many families, thus with their loss they are forced to cheap labor in Israel. According to the PCBS from September 200 until March 2005 over 2 million trees have been destroyed, 403 wells destroyed and 77,000 [21] dunums confiscated. In 2005 the IOF destroyed 22,300 dunums of land and some 100,000 trees, in addition to 165,000 dunums being confiscated in the West Bank for various illegal Israeli building activities such as settlements and bypass roads. Also, during the period from September 2000 until November 2007 over 13% of the agricultural land of the Gaza Strip had been leveled. [22] There are cases where fruit-bearing olive trees have been uprooted from their original Palestinian fields and replanted in Israeli settlements. This is not strange for a people who stole the land of others and pretend it is theirs, who stole the properties of others and pretend they are theirs and who stole the culture of others and pretend it is theirs, so why not steal the trees as well. The hard work and care of tens of years of a Palestinian farmer would thus be destroyed in a minute.

The apartheid wall built on Palestinian land is yet another form of destroying Palestinian land. An additional 15% of the most fertile of the West Bank agricultural land was confiscated to build the Israeli apartheid wall. The area lying between the wall and the green line (the so-called seam zone which accounts for 8.5% of the West Bank territory) was declared a closed area. People living in this area have to apply for “permanent resident ID” from the Israeli military so as to seek permission to remain in their homes. To the east of the apartheid wall, another 3.4% of Palestinian land is partially or completely surrounded by the wall, thus creating enclaves whose residents need permits to live there, and a “buffer zone” of 150-200 m was created there by the Israeli military adjacent to wall where no Palestinian construction is allowed. 497,820 Palestinians are directly affected by the wall, and upon its completion, the 2007 updated route of the wall will annex 12% of the West Bank land. “The Barrier (12% of the West Bank), the settlements “east” of it (8%) and the de facto annexation of the Jordan Valley (26%) will together reinforce Israeli control over 46% of the occupied West Bank.”[23]

This wall not only separates Palestinian villages from each other, it separates villages from their fields and their water resources. Since the path of the wall lies on the same line of the western aquifer, it thus strengthens Israel’s control over the water resources and makes it inaccessible to the Palestinians. Over 50 wells located near this aquifer were destroyed, in addition to the wells now located behind the wall thus making them inaccessible for Palestinians. “Palestinians are expected to lose 18% of their share in this basin.”[24]

The Zionists also control the natural resources of Palestine, including water. 89% of the total water resources are controlled and utilized by Israel. Water resources in the Palestinians territories include two main sources: the surface water (the Jordan river) and underground water (is the main source of fresh water supply in the Palestinians Territories and consists of a system of three aquifers: the eastern, western and northeastern aquifers the aquifer system). Since 1967 all water resources in Palestinian Territories were confiscated by Israel and declared state property and since then the Palestinians have no access to the Jordan and its water. “Approximately 40% of the groundwater upon which the state of Israel is dependent and more than one-quarter of its sustainable annual water yield originates in the West Bank.” [25] The only water source in the Gaza Strip is the Gaza aquifer, which is already over-abstracted, and according to UN estimates, the Gaza Strip will have no drinking water in the next 15 years. [26] The Palestinians are entitled to these two sources according to international law and should have “full sovereignty over all the eastern aquifer resources that lie beneath the West Bank, and at least equitable water rights regarding the western and northeastern aquifers, as these are recharged almost entirely from the West Bank. Under the law of international watercourses …, the state of Palestine is entitled to an equitable and reasonable allocation of shared freshwater resources, including those in the four main aquifers and the Jordan river. Under international law, Israel must pay compensations for the past and ongoing illegal use of Palestinian water resources.”[27]

In the West Bank, Palestinian water use is limited to 17% of the total water of the eastern aquifers which lies mostly in area C [28]. The remaining 83% are used by Israel, in addition to all its other surface and groundwater sources. The total amount of groundwater available for the Israelis and Palestinians is 1209 mcm/year. Israel uses 1,046 of this amount, leaving the Palestinians only 259. The Israelis (including the illegal settlers) are allocated 280 to 300 Lt/capita/day for domestic water usage, while the Palestinians are allocated 35 to 80 Lt/capita/day, keeping in mind that the minimum amount of water recommended by the WHO is 100 Lt/capita/day. [29]

In summer, the Israeli water authority Mekoroth frequently cuts off the water supply for Palestinian towns for weeks, forcing Palestinians to buy their needed drinking water, while Israelis fill their swimming pools and water their lawns. “According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, “the water consumption of the population of the Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley - a population of less than 5,000 - is equivalent to seventy-five percent of the water consumption of the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank (approximately two million people) for domestic and urban uses.” [30] Another example is the situation in Hebron, where the 250,000 Palestinian residents of the city get 30% of the water and the remaining 70% goes to the 8500 illegal settlers occupying the city. The overuse of the scare water resources by the Israelis has on one hand caused a drop of nearly 90% in the flow of the Jordan waters over the last 50%. Hydrologists predict that the Jordan would cease to exist in 50 years [31]. On the other hand, the overuse of the Gaza aquifer has lead the water table to sink below sea level, thus causing its contamination and making it unfit for human consumption.

Israel’s control over water resources is destroying the Palestinian agriculture. Palestinian farmers are faced with the Israeli restrictions on the use of water. They have to apply for the military authority in order to dig a well, and in most cases such permits are not given. Thus they are forced to buy their own water from Israeli companies or settlers for very high prices. 25.2% of the total land area in the Palestinian territories is agricultural land, of which 10.7% is irrigated.[32] Palestinian aquifers and wells are being polluted by the untreated sewage of Israeli settlements whose sewage networks open into surrounding Palestinian lands. In addition to that, Israeli soldiers have often destroyed water tanks or infrastructure. This constitutes a violation of articles 27, 53 and 55 of the fourth Geneva Convention.

Other natural resources of Palestine include the minerals of the Dead Sea. This area is of economic importance due to its industrial and touristic potentials. The northeastern section of the Dead Sea lies inside the West Bank, but Israel prohibits Palestinians from traveling there. The natural resources found there are also under Israeli control, prohibiting Palestinians of utilizing yet another of their natural rights, whereby Israeli companies sell minerals of the Dead Sea all over the world as Israeli products. In addition to that, in February 2006 Israel de facto annexed the Jordan Valley.

And the destruction of Palestinian land and “making the desert bloom” goes on. On 19.06.2008 Israeli settlers from the Yizhar settlement burnt dozens of dunums of agricultural lands owned by the Palestinian villages of Bureen and Huwwara near Nablus, thus destroying thousand of trees. On 28.06.2008 a group of Israeli settlers from the Halamish settlement set fire to a large number of olive trees belonging to the villagers of Deir Nitham near Ramallah.

Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem:

[1] ARIJ: Flora and Fauna database.
[2] Issa Nakhleh: Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem.
[3] German geographer Alexander Scholch in: Issa Nakhleh: Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem.
[4] Issa Nakhleh: Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem.
[5] ebd.
[6] The Absentee Law states that land not in use for three continuous years is subject to Israeli confiscation.
[7] Arij.
[8] ebd.
[9] Issa Nakhleh: Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem.
[10] Miftah: Israeli settlements.
[11] ebd.
[12] Passia: Economy.
[13] ebd.
[14] Passia: Land and settlements.
[15] Miftah: Israeli Settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

[16] Passia: Economy.
[17] Miftah: House demolition.
[18] ebd.
[19] Passia: Israeli occupation policies.
[20] Passia: Land and settlements.
[21] For the period from September 2000 until February 2006.
[22] Passia: Israeli occupation policies.
[23] Passia: Land and settlements.
[24] Miftah: Water - A Dehydrating Predicament.
[25] Miftah: Water Resources in Palestine.
[26] Passia: Land and settlements.
[27] Passia: Water and environment.
[28] Passia: Land and settlements.
[29] Several sources.
[30] Miftah: Israeli Settlements.
[31] Miftah: Water - A Dehydrating Predicament.
[32] Passia: Economy.


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