It’s Increasingly Unsafe to Farm or Fish in Gaza

Gazan residents say that farming and fishing in the area are dangerous endeavors, alleging that Israeli forces routinely open fire on them when they attempt to work their land or fish their waters.

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Mar 4 2015, 6:00pm

For millennia, agriculture has been a way of life in Gaza, the coastal Palestinian territory that Israel officially disengaged from in 2005 but with which it re-engaged last summer during a 51-day bombing attack that transformed the landscape. The region's saline soils have long produced excellent olives, citrus, and stone fruits, among other crops, and have provided the farmers that tend them both with a livelihood and with food to feed their families. But in spite of an Egypt-brokered ceasefire that took effect last August, both Gazan residents and human rights organizations say that farming and fishing in the area remain dangerous endeavors, alleging that Israeli forces routinely open fire on Gazans attempting to work their land or fish their waters. Such organizations report that food security in the area is thus highly threatened, and most residents have to rely on international aid in order to get enough food to eat.

The issue is the "security buffer zone" that Israel established in 2012, a strip along Gaza's northern and eastern borders with Israel that remains inaccessible to Gazans. Not only does the buffer zone contain 29 percent of Gaza's arable land, according to American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA)—effectively cutting off Gazans from farming that land—exact rules for approaching the three-kilometer zone have never been clearly defined. As such, both Gazan farmers and fishermen report that they've found it unsafe to approach areas as far as 1,500 kilometers away from the buffer zone's borders.

Ahmed Abu Daqqa, a resident of the farming community of al-Faraheen that abuts the buffer zone, told The Electronic Intifada that it's hard to tell how far away residents can safely approach the buffer zone to work the land that, by all rights, is theirs. If they get too close, residents say, Israeli forces shoot at them.

"Sometimes it is 500 meters, sometimes it is 300 meters," Daqqa said. "We never know how close we can get." The article reports that one in five Gazan farmers have ended their agricultural activities in the face of such threats.

In the nearby town of Beit Lahiya, melon farmer Mahmoud Abu Afash expressed similar concerns. "Here, I think they usually start shooting when we get closer than 300 meters," Abu Afash said in the same article. "That includes a large portion of my land. I take a risk every time I farm on it."

As a result of the loss of their traditional means of securing food, a huge proportion of the Gazan population has come to rely on nutritional assistance programs.

The restrictions—and associated confusions—apply not just to the land, but to the sea, news sources report. According to an article in Al-Akhbar English, Israeli naval forces have repeatedly fired at Palestinian fishermen on the Mediterranean, claiming that the fishermen had ventured beyond the six-nautical-mile limit imposed by Israeli authorities.

READ: Fishing for Survival in Gaza City

"The restrictions on Gaza's fishermen crippled the coastal enclave's fishing industry and impoverished local fishermen," the article states. International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) statistics back up such claims: its 2011 annual report revealed that 90 percent of Gaza's fishermen are poor, an increase of 40 percent from 2008. Losses to Gaza's agricultural sector, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports, have been similarly devastating, with farmers enduring "loss of the source of income and livelihoods due to severe damage to agricultural lands; death/loss of animals, inability to access agricultural lands, particularly in the Israeli-imposed three-kilometer buffer zone, and loss of employment."

As a result of the loss of their traditional means of securing food, a huge proportion of the Gazan population has come to rely on nutritional assistance programs provided by international aid organizations such as Oxfam. According to a joint report compiled by the World Bank, the EU, the UN, and the Palestinian government, "the majority of the population in Gaza has been pushed into poverty and food insecurity, with no other choice but to rely heavily on assistance to cover their essential needs." The report also states that 89 percent of Gazan households have resorted to "negative coping mechanisms to meet their food needs," including purchasing lower quality food and reducing their daily food consumption.

'This is our only source of income, even though it keeps getting worse,' Abu Daqqa of al-Faraheen said. 'Farming is a dangerous job here.'

"My children were suffering from liver problems, anaemia and weak bones," Safa Subha, a resident of Beit Lahiya, told the Inter Press Service (IPS) recently. "It was only after I received regular food vouchers from Oxfam and was able to purchase eggs and yoghurt that my children are now healthier."

According to Alaa Tartir of Al-Shabaka, an independent Palestinian research group, Israel's seizure of agricultural lands via the buffer zone as well as its armed forces' attacks on farmers and fishermen are not simple matters of border-making or random acts of violence. Rather, he told The Electronic Intifada, such measures are part of a campaign of economic warfare.

"Israel's strategy is to keep the Palestinian economy paralyzed, dependent, de-developed and always on the edge of collapse," Tartir said. As a result, he said, international aid organizations are left to pick up the slack. "Israel is imposing the siege and donors are paying for it."

Although reports on how Gaza's land is used—as well as how its livestock populations and water supplies have been affected throughout years of conflict with Israel—are well documented, reports of Israel's armed forces opening fire on Gazans are mainly anecdotal. In response to these reports, Israel Defense Forces (IDF)'s North American Media Desk emailed MUNCHIES the following statement:

"The area in the immediate vicinity of the security fence of the Gaza Strip has served as a staging ground for attacks against [Israeli] civilians and defense forces. As such, and due to existing concerns that Hamas and other terrorist groups will provoke life-threatening attacks against Israel, the access to 100 meters is prohibited. The IDF takes the necessary steps in order to safeguard its borders from unprovoked violence."

In spite of the risks, Gazan farmers often have no choice but to continue to attempt to earn their livelihoods from their land, as has been their custom.

"This is our only source of income, even though it keeps getting worse," Abu Daqqa of al-Faraheen told The Electronic Intifada. "Farming is a dangerous job here."

Editor's note: This post was updated to include a response from the IDF.