Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

Israel prevents 30 farmers from entering their lands

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Amid all the routine horrors and brutalities of military occupation, this small news item caught my attention because I know two of the farmers, Mahmoud Issa and Awad Milhim.  More on them below.  First, here’s the item:

Saed Bannoura of the International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC) reports:

“Last week Israeli military authorities prevented thirty Palestinian farmers from Anin village from entering their olive orchards, which now lie beyond the Annexation Wall that cuts through their land.  Anin is a small village west of Jenin in the northern West Bank.

Local sources reported that soldiers stationed at one of the gates rejected thirty permits granted to the farmers in order to be able to reach their lands.  The villagers were trying to harvest their olive orchards.

The route of the Israeli Annexation Wall is designed to isolate Palestinians from their lands, requiring them to apply for special permits from the so-called Civil Administration, which is run by the occupying army. Permits are rarely granted, and when they are, they limit the dates and time when the residents are allowed to enter their land and their orchards.

The villagers appealed to human rights groups and the Palestinian Authority to intervene, and to pressure Israel into allowing residents to reach their own orchards and harvest their trees.”

I visited Anin with Nasser Abufarha, founder of the Palestine Fair Trade Association, the source of Zatoun olive oil.  Zatoun (Arabic for olive) is a Canadian grassroots fair trade project in which I’m involved.

In the village, Nasser introduced me to two farmers, Mahmoud Issa and Awad Milhim, whose stories are featured in Our Way to Fight.  They would certainly be among the thirty farmers denied access to their land last week.

Our Way to Fight is entirely made of stories like Issa’s and Milhim’s.  Here’s why: “Stories are one way of sharing the belief that justice is imminent.  And for such a belief, children, women and men will fight at a given moment with astounding ferocity.  This is why tyrants fear storytelling: all stories somehow refer to the story of their fall.”  John Berger.

Meet Mahmoud Issa and Awad Milhim:

In the tiny village of Anin I talked with two farmers, cousins, both of them weathered and strongly built.  Mahmoud Issa took over his father’s land a few years ago, and introduced organic farming to the village; his cousin Awad Milhim followed soon after.  Mahmoud also represents the local cooperative’s fifty member-families on the PFTA board.

Before the Palestine Fair Trade Association, Mahmoud and Milhim sold their oil to local merchants or to Israeli brokers, and were thankful if they could break even on their costs.  Has this changed?  The cousins look at each other and laugh.  “There is no comparison,” says Mahmoud, emphatically.  “Now we can support our families, and our kids will be able to go to college.”

Nasser Abufarha explains, “PFTA farmers are getting an average of about 25 percent above the market price for their oil.  This is what we promised to pay even if the market price fell.”

This feat is all the more remarkable for having been accomplished under military occupation, which is never far away.  While we stood on the roof of the new processing plant yesterday, an Israeli military helicopter hovered above.  Like many others here, Nasser hardly notices the war-jets any more, even when they break the sound barrier, but on the roof he stopped talking and watched the helicopter.  Why the difference?  “Unfortunately a helicopter often means they’re going to assassinate someone in the area.”

In Anin I ask how the occupation affects farmers.  By way of response they take me out to see where their land is, downhill from the village, more than half of it now cut off by the wall – a broad white slash through the landscape, wavering in the heat.

To reach their olive groves on the other side, the farmers need to request permits from the military authorities.  If a farmer is lucky enough to get one, it may allow him only one hour on the other side.  Whether farmers can plough, prune, maintain and harvest the trees when these functions need to be done depends entirely on the whim of the soldiers.

Olive groves throughout Palestine are also subject to attack by both settlers and the army.  Since the occupation began in 1967, it’s estimated that at least a million trees have been destroyed, and the wall threatens to destroy or cut off twice as many.  Even in a land so richly endowed with olives, the loss is catastrophic.

On the road to Anin, Nasser pointed out several large sheds on a hill across the valley – an Israeli agricultural settlement.  Mahmoud’s cousin Awad hasn’t spoken much today, but now he talks about his almonds.  “I didn’t have much experience growing them, but with help from the PFTA I began to produce quite good almonds.  When the settlers noticed this, they started to release pigs into our orchards.  Pigs like to eat almonds, and to reach them they pull down the branches, breaking them.  We chased them out, but the settlers keep letting them back in.  It’s terrible to see an almond orchard that’s been torn apart.  I’m starting to think I’ll have to stop growing almonds.  That’s what the settlers want, but what can you do?  If you try to defend yourself, the army will be here in a moment.”

My parting question to the farmers:  What keeps you going?  Mahmoud replies, “To support my family I have to work my land.  This is what I know how to do.”

(Anin village – Image: Palestine Remembered)

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

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