If the plot of land belonging to Dr. Salam Fayad, the Palestinian prime minister, were located 50 meters west of its present location, in the level part of the village of Deir al-Ghusun, it would now be growing thorns and thistles. If it were located 50, or at most 100 meters, to the west, Fayad's plot would have found itself on the other side of the separation fence, on the other side of Gate 609, which soldiers open and close three times a day to allow entrance to those who have managed, after investing considerable efforts, to get permits in order to get to their land.

Deir al-Ghusun, eight kilometers north of Tul Karm, incorporates about 15,000 dunams (including the built-up area and the master plan). Of these, 2,200 dunams are pinned between the separation fence and the Green Line. About 300 families own plots of land in this area. Throughout the year - not including the height of the agricultural season - about 150 people need regular permits to reach their private land.

A few hundred more request permits during the olive-picking and harvesting seasons. Of the village's 10,000 residents, about 4,000 make a living from the plots located behind the fence. Or to be more accurate: they could, theoretically, make a living from them.

'N.C. No crossings'

Hired agricultural workers tend to the cauliflower and corn in Fayad's plot. If his land were located on the other side of the fence, most likely the laborers would not be able to cultivate it. Based on the experience of the residents, the Civil Administration grants entry permits only to the land's owners and their first-degree relatives, not to hired laborers.

Khaled Abdul Latif Khader, one of Fayad's relatives, is 61 years old. He has no children to help him cultivate the 12 dunams belonging to him and his wife. Until the fence was built, he employed five workers. Last Friday he went to his plot, took a look around and quickly left: It was too painful for him to see the olives that he and his wife cannot pick by themselves, the dry land that they didn't water, the weeds.

If Fayad's land were there, on the other side of the fence, and if he had decided that he or his immediate family would cultivate it, this is what he would have to do: Submit a copy of his ID, his tabu (property registration) permits, the Palestinian Authority land registration form, as approved by the Civil Administration's land registry office, and the request for "an entry permit to the seam-line area."

When the landowner dies, his sons have to submit a death certificate and an inheritance order, since the land is not registered in their name. This entire bundle of papers is submitted to a special official in the village council, who passes them on to an official in the PA Civil Liaison Office, who travels to the office of the Israeli Civil Administration in the settlement of Kedumim and submits an average of 35 requests a week. And then Fayad would have to wait for a reply and a permit. Sometimes it takes two weeks, sometimes a week, sometimes a month and a half.

The negative reply is scribbled in Hebrew, hand-written, on the request for a permit: "N.C. - No crossings," it says on the request form of Amar Ghanem, 27, and on the margins it reads: "Received a permit for olive picking for one week." In other words, someone in the Civil Administration decided that one week is enough. He doesn't need more.

Amar's father, Yasser Ghanem, owns 17 dunams of land on the other side of the fence, which he shares with his brothers. On September 21 his previous two-year permit expired. He submitted a request for a new permit well before its expiration date.

He waited and waited and the long-awaited permit for him and his wife finally arrived on October 17. It is valid from October 16 to October 22. Seven days, of which the first day has already passed. One of his female relatives died on October 18. Yasser spent three days in the wake house. He had one day left.

His brother Taisir and his sister-in-law received a permit on the same day, October 17. Their permit also begins on the 16th of the month, but is valid until October 18. And Taisir recently planted new saplings, which have to be watered every four days. Bakr Ibrahim had a three-month permit that expired on October 6. He submitted a request for a new one, and has been waiting since. The olives on the trees are also waiting.

Based on incidental conversations with officers, the residents of Deir al-Ghusun explain the change - from issuing two-year permits to granting permits for only a few days - as a result of the power switch in the Defense Ministry: Amir Peretz's office conveyed to the Civil Administration officers that it was important to pick every last olive. But the last olive is not important to Ehud Barak.

This Sunday, 18 permits arrived at the offices of the village council: five are valid for a year, one for three months, six for between 12 days and four weeks, and the remaining six are valid for two days.

Husni Abdullah is one of the farmers who, on the afternoon of October 28, received a permit that he had been waiting for since the beginning of the month. The permit is valid from October 28 to October 29. The size of his land: 34 dunams.

One-day harvest

On October 24, he sent a letter, via the activists of Machsom Watch, to Colonel Sharon Afek, the Israel Defense Forces' legal adviser for the West Bank. In the letter he explained about himself and his cousin, Hafez. They are both childless. They both cultivate the same plot. They both had two-year permits. Neither of them had their permits renewed in time, although they submitted their requests in September.

It's true, they noted in the letter, that there are another three family members with permits: one is disabled and cannot work, certainly not by himself; a second is studying in Jordan and the third is Husni's wife. How can she pick olives on an area of 34 dunams by herself? After receiving a permit of two days (which turned out to be just a day) in the end, he once again wrote to the legal adviser, using the services of Machsom Watch. The permit is a mockery, he wrote.

Only about 10 of the village's residents did not receive permits, on the grounds of "security reasons." One of them is Jafar Abdul Munim. He had a two-year permit, valid until November 4 of this year. He forgot the permit in the pocket of his pants, which were sent to be laundered. When he asked for a new permit, the Civil Administration suddenly informed him that he was "prevented [from being issued a permit] for security reasons."

Munim also sent a letter to the IDF legal adviser via Machsom Watch. In the letter he claimed that there was no basis for turning him into a security risk, and asked that the Shin Bet security services invite him to its special committees (code name: "the agricultural committees") to prove that he does not suddenly represent a security risk.

Only his brother is left with a permit to work the 22-dunam plot. "My brother cannot accomplish the task by himself," Jafar wrote to Colonel Afek. "A large percentage of the crop for which we worked so hard all year to support our family will go down the drain." It is a statement that could become the mantra of many residents in the village of the Palestinian prime minister.

The Civil Administration claims there has been no change in the policy for issuing permits, and that the procedures are determined by "a professional body, including a staff officer in charge of agriculture, with the main consideration being to make things easier for the resident and to minimize the damage to the farmers."

In its reply, the Israeli authority claims that the length of the permit "is determined in accordance with the size of the plot. In the past, in light of the lenient approach, a large number of permits (for farmers and laborers) were given to residents who were not entitled to them, because the size of their plots was small, to the point where we suspected an attempt to receive a permit fraudulently, and working the land certainly does not require many work days or hiring a number of workers. Each request is handled differently, which explains the differences in the duration of replies." In other words, from the response of the Civil Administration we can conclude that permits are in fact given to hired workers.

The Deir al-Ghusun council says the decision on the duration of the permit is arbitrary and does not take into account the family ownership, the customary cooperative work and the fact that some of the heirs do not even come to the plot and leave it in the hands of the other siblings.

The farmers are also saying that the olive-picking season is followed by the almond season, and that cultivating the land requires prolonged work, which extends beyond the olive harvest.