“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.

Sari Zaanin loads the tricycle at his father’s farm in Beit Hanoun, a city in the Gaza Strip. Zaanin helps at his father’s farm after school, loading the products to be wheeled to the local market.
Sari Zaanin loads the tricycle at his father’s farm in Beit Hanoun, a city in the Gaza Strip. Zaanin helps at his father’s farm after school, loading the products to be wheeled to the local market.

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.

An unused tractor sits in front of the Zaanin family farm.
An unused tractor sits in front of the Zaanin family farm.

“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.”

A tree is seen in a farm in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Palestine, on Nov. 6th 2013.
A farm in Rafah, on the Gaza Strip.
A farmer works in a greenhouse in Khuza'a, a town in the Khan Younis section of southern Gaza.
A farmer works in a greenhouse in Khuza’a, a town in the Khan Younis section of southern Gaza.
A TV set sits in a recreation area on a farm in Khan Younis
A TV set sits in a recreation area on a farm in Khan Younis.
Left: Mohammed Abu Daqqa’s daughter on a swing at their home in Khan Younis, inside the buffer zone. Right: The bullet holes from an Israeli air strike are seen in the children’s bedroom at Qudaih's family house in in Khan Younis.
Left: Mohammed Abu Daqqa’s daughter on a swing at their home in Khan Younis, inside the buffer zone. Right: The bullet holes from an Israeli air strike are seen in the children’s bedroom at Qudaih’s family house in in Khan Younis.
Mohammed Abu Daqqa in his family’s home, which was severely damaged during the conflict in 2014. The family was forced to move into a United Nations refugee shelter.
Mohammed Abu Daqqa in his family’s home, which was severely damaged during the conflict in 2014. The family was forced to move into a United Nations refugee shelter.
Mohammed Abu Daqqa’s daughter playing on the rooftop of their house.
Mohammed Abu Daqqa’s daughter playing on the rooftop of their house.
Al Khumaini Msallam Qudiah leaving the ruins of his home in Khan Younis. His farm was bulldozed by the Israeli army, and he has begun building a new farm with the remains from the rubble.
Al Khumaini Msallam Qudiah leaving the ruins of his home in Khan Younis. His farm was bulldozed by the Israeli army, and he has begun building a new farm with the remains from the rubble.
Azmi Qudiah stands in front of his home in Khuza'a, the rural area outside the town of Khan Younis. Their house has been damaged seven times. During the last conflict, they evacuated to Khan Younis and upon return found that their rabbits, chicken and sheep had been killed. They're left with only ten pigeons. Because most of the rooms are completely damaged, the family has rented a house so they can live together.
Azmi Qudiah stands in front of his home in Khuza’a, the rural area outside the town of Khan Younis. Their house has been damaged seven times. During the last conflict, they evacuated to Khan Younis and upon return found that their rabbits, chicken and sheep had been killed. They’re left with only ten pigeons. Because most of the rooms are completely damaged, the family has rented a house so they can live together.
Samir Al Daberi, pictured here on crutches, had to forego harvesting in 2014, instead hiring workers to help him salvage what was left of his olive plantation in the southern town of Rafah. Both the plantation and his family’s home had been leveled to the ground.
Samir Al Daberi, pictured here on crutches, had to forego harvesting in 2014, instead hiring workers to help him salvage what was left of his olive plantation in the southern town of Rafah. Both the plantation and his family’s home had been leveled to the ground.
A destroyed farm and demolished mosque are seen in Khuza'a.
A destroyed farm and demolished mosque are seen in Khuza’a.
Kemal Abu Rauk and his wife burning the overgrown bush on their farmland in Khan Younis.
Kemal Abu Rauk and his wife burning the overgrown bush on their farmland in Khan Younis.
A donkey eats from a bucket in the city of Rafah.
A donkey eats from a bucket in the city of Rafah.
The last traces of a farm in Khan Younis.
The last traces of a farm in Khan Younis.

Jošt Franko

Jošt Franko is a documentary photographer from Slovenia whose work focuses on the relationship between man and land in the modern world. His work has been published in the likes of TIME, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Washington Post, and Al Jazeera America, and he has been honored by the TED Fellowship and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.