“Remember where there used to be trees full of clementines, and peaches, and olives here? Remember?” five-year-old Zain asks. “The soldiers took them,” he explains. Like most local farmers, Zain’s father, Sami Qudaih, cannot afford to buy his family a new home and cultivate land in a safer part of the Gaza Strip; they have to build and rebuild their home, time after time, on land close to the border with Israel, where sniper towers surround children’s playgrounds. On this land, one of the most dangerous parts of war-torn Gaza, Palestinian famers like the Qudaihs struggle to make a living in agriculture.
These farmers cultivate olives, oranges, strawberries and more. They used to export their products abroad, until Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade around the Gaza Strip after Hamas came to power in 2006. Israel and Egypt established a “Buffer Zone” along their borders with Gaza to stop the stream of militants and weapons. An estimated eight hundred homes were destroyed and thousands of people were displaced during the initial creation of the no-man’s land; remaining residents were warned to leave or risk being bombed. Since then, the Buffer Zone has been enlarged several times.
As a result of these barriers, the farmers are only allowed to sell their goods in the local markets, for lower prices than they would make exporting them, and most cannot afford to relocate. Gaza is only about 28 miles long, and three to nine miles wide; with a population of 1.8 million, it is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. According to UN-OCHA, the buffer zone takes up about 44% of Gaza’s land, designating about 35% of the agricultural land essentially off-limits, and affecting the lives and livelihoods of at least 113,000 people. Even in times of truce, there is constant fear of sniper fire and tank shelling.
The tension came to a climax in 2014, when Israel launched military operations as part of a campaign to crack down on the Hamas government in Gaza. Over two thousand Gaza residents were killed, an estimated seven in ten of which were civilians, and thousands more were displaced. The farmland in the Buffer Zone was turned into a battlefield between the Israeli army and the Palestinian armed factions, and many of the farmers lost their homes.
Khalil Zannin, a farmer and a father of three, says that his farm was hit several times by F-16 missiles. His water well was ruined and it took him a month to repair it. In 2013, Zannin and his workers were busy harvesting their crops. The next year, there was nothing to harvest. “It’s a life with no guarantees whatsoever…whether you have plans or not, it doesn’t matter,” says Zannin.
“I’ve been through dozens of wars, I’ve witnessed everything,” says Mohammed Abu Daqqa, another farmer based in Khan Younis. “But when I hear stories from others, I’m just thankful my family is alive.”
“We’re just farmers,” laments Mrs. Abu Ghazal, from Beit Hanoun. “We know nothing about politics. We just farm.”