Monday, March 26, 2007
From the people of Gillingham to the people of Bethlehem.....
posted by: Frubious Bandersnatch at 7:31 PM
Thanks to Peacewurzel for this report:

On Wednesday March 21st I visited the land of Bethlehem farmer Ibrahim Sbeih to plant 55 olive trees sponsored by the community of Gillingham, Dorset. The trees were principally sponsored by the congregation of St Mary’s Church, and Orchard Park Garden Centre, as well as a few individual sponsors.

Ibrahim Sbeih lives in Al Khader, a small farming community very near to the city of Bethlehem. He has been a farmer all his life and has a large family, including ten children of his own as well as several elderly dependents. He and his two brothers own land between Efrat settlement and Al Khader village. Currently their livelihood is threatened both by construction of the Segregation wall along the border of Al Khader village; and by illegal expansion of Efrat Settlement.

Ibrahim Sbeih, Al Khader farmer

When the Wall is finished, Israeli authorities say that farmers from Al Khader will be allowed to access their land through a tunnel that is being constructed that will pass underneath the Wall, and a gate that will be manned by Israeli security personnel. Farmers will be allowed to pass the gate on foot, when it is open, subject to security checks. In other parts of the West Bank such as Jayyous village in the north of the West Bank, similar promises have been made and broken. When I visited Jayyous in February 2005, farmers there told me of how they waited every morning for the gate allowing access to their land to be opened. Often they waited for hours before being allowed through. When they started to send one person to keep watch and call everyone when the gate was open, they were told that it would not be opened unless everyone was present. The farmers of Jayyous have lost thousands of dollars worth of productivity every year since the Wall was built.

Ibrahim’s land, besides being in the seam zone – between the Segregation Wall and the Green Line, is also bordered by Efrat Settlement, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank. Construction of Efrat began in the 1990s, with just a few houses and caravans. Now it is a large town with over 7000 residents, and it is still growing.

Efrat Settlement on the hilltop, seen across Ibrahim’s land

Ibrahim and his brothers have been asked repeatedly to sell their land to the settlers, but have refused. Now the settlers are taking it from them by force. They have already taken 18 dunums (1.8 hectares) of prime farming land; bulldozing the olive trees and fruit orchards to build more houses. A further 16 dunums (1.6 hectares) are threatened with destruction today.

On Wednesday we walked to Ibrahim’s land from Al Khader. Farm vehicles are no longer allowed access, so farmers must use public transport to get near to their land and then carry all their tools with them; or alternatively use donkeys and mules. This adds hours to their travel time every day and obviously hampers productivity. When the harvest time comes, the business of transporting produce from the fields to the village is back-breaking labour. The olive trees that were planted on Wednesday were transported on donkeys for 7 km across rugged terrain.

We followed with Ibrahim’s brother several hours later, and were stopped by armed security guards as we neared the land. They belong to a private security firm hired by the Settlers. They took our passports and the ID cards of our Palestinian escort, and we waited for over half an hour while they ascertained our identities, before being allowed to continue. Apparently this is a routine occurrence, and sometimes the land owners are not allowed to access their land at all.

On reaching the land we joined in the last of the olive tree planting (most of the work having been done by the time we got there), before touring Ibrahim’s land, right up to where it borders Efrat Settlement, and bulldozers are even now levelling the orchards on the upper terraces to build more houses, an activity that expressly contravenes previous peace deals made by Israel including the Road Map and the Oslo Agreement. Here things became somewhat surreal as Ibrahim greeted the bulldozer drivers in a friendly manner, before telling us that they are Palestinians from Hebron. This is the only work they can get at this time of economic strife in Palestine.

Ibrahim surveys the destruction of his land (left and talks to the construction workers (below).

“They have families too”, Ibrahim explains to us. “Everybody has to eat”. Apparently this too is common place. The only work many Palestinians can get is construction or destruction work on the Settlements that are expanding all over the West Bank, frequently on privately owned Palestinian land, such as Ibrahim’s. The stark choice facing them is between betrayal of their neighbours or betrayal of their families. With the settlements comes an infrastructure of settlement roads that Palestinians are not allowed to use, and sometimes not allowed to cross due to security fences that are erected. Every road has a buffer zone of 7-10 m. The quantity of land that is being lost is astronomical, and the roads isolate small rural communities one from the other; besides creating a nightmare in logistics for many farmers.

We return to the olive trees that were planted today – so fragile a shield to halt the destruction that threatens to beggar Ibrahim and his family. Next week we will return with the marble plaque that states that these are internationally sponsored olive trees; a gift from the people of Gillingham to the people of Bethlehem; to say that we are here, we are looking and we are listening. We are sharing, just a little, in the struggle and the pain of the Palestinian people, and we believe in a better future.

This was the last planting action of this year’s Olive Tree Campaign. More than 7000 trees have been planted throughout the Palestinian Territories this year; some in threatened land, others to replace some of the more than 500 000 uprooted trees that have been casualties of the Separation Wall. Any further money collected this year will be used to plant more trees next year. Details of the Olive Tree Campaign can be found online at .

A big thank you to the people of Gillingham for supporting Bethlehem’s farming community, and helping to keep hope alive.
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