The donkey kicked angrily with his back leg and refused to budge. More accurately, he refused to turn around and climb back up the sand dunes down which he had reluctantly agreed to go only half an hour earlier, hitched to a cart bearing a heavy motor for a water pump.
His owner, Mahmoud Abu Halima, has not watered his fields in recent weeks, after the motor at his well broke down. Twenty day earlier, he had managed to get the motor off his land for repair, but bringing it back turned out to be more complicated. Last Thursday, the soldiers at the position said that they did not know of a permit having been issued to transfer the motor.
Abu Halima lives in Seafeh in the northwestern Gaza Strip, locked in between the Jewish settlements of Dugit and Alei Sinai. After several Palestinian attacks on settlements and soldiers in the area and infiltration attempts by armed Palestinians, an electronic fence was stretched across the northern Gaza Strip, south of those two settlements and to the settlement of Nissanit. In addition, during the past three years the Israel Defense Forces have issued very strict regulations about the movement of Palestinians there, even if they had been living there for decades before the settlements were established and even if they were the first to have made the desert bloom, planting orchards, fig trees and vines, growing vegetables and going out to fish.
About 100 Palestinian families lived in Seafeh until not too long ago. Now only 45 families remain, about 180 souls. The combination of restrictions on movement and the destruction of the greater part of the cultivated land has caused many to flee to Beit Lahia or Gaza, having no alternative.
Seafeh spreads over about 3,900 dunam, of which 3,500 were cultivated: citrus groves, vegetable fields, hothouses. According to one of the inhabitants, Moussa al Ghul, during the past three years the IDF has raked up, uprooted, exposed and flatten nearly all this area. The inhabitants of Seafeh have only 400 green dunams that have been spared the teeth of the bulldozers. Of the 41 wells for agriculture and domestic use that served the inhabitants, in the past three years IDF bulldozers have knocked down 32, including motors, pumps and irrigation systems.
A shiny, new asphalt road stretches alongside the electronic fence. A gate has been set into the fence. It is locked during most of the day, and is officially opened only to residents of Seafeh, and only from 7 till 9 in the morning and 2 to 5 in the afternoon. Every morning and afternoon an armored personnel carrier arrives there: After a search the soldiers open the gate and the armored personnel carrier supervises the pedestrian traffic from afar. Officially, that is. But often the soldiers are late, and the gate opens way after the designated hour. Yesterday, for example, it opened at 7:40 in the morning. During the school year, the schoolchildren are regularly late for class. As are the inhabitants who work outside their village - officials at Palestinian Authority offices, teachers, high school students. Therefore many of them have decided to move to Gaza or Beit Lahia.
On the slope of the sand dunes, on the southwestern side, spread the colorful homes of the settlement of Dugit, surrounded by a fence. At its northeastern gate is the "workers' entrance" for Palestinians, a yellow iron gate, a row of cement blocks and a round, armored position, manned by soldiers. At the hours when the gate in the electronic fence is open, the soldiers also check the inhabitants who are heading north to Seafeh, or south to Gaza.
Entry to anyone who is not an inhabitant of Seafeh is prohibited. The humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders works there regularly, because Palestinian medical teams always encounter difficulties trying to enter. Doctors Without Borders must arrange their entry two days in advance, and even then, as happened last Thursday, for example, it often turns out that the soldiers in the armored personnel carrier supervising the gate don't know anything about it, causing additional coordination and the wasting of time.
If someone hoped that after the hudna something would change in Seafeh, his hope has been disappointed. The easing of movement in the Gaza Strip after the hudna has skipped Seafeh: In fact, regulations have become more severe.
In recent years, Moussa al Ghul has become the acting coordinator between the inhabitants and the Israeli military authorities (through the people of the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Commission. Before the hudna, he relates, there was an agreement that every day 14 carts hitched to donkeys would be permitted to go out laden with agricultural produce, and to return. The entrance of goods was permitted only on Mondays and Thursdays. Flour feed for the animals. Fertilizer, diesel fuel to operate the electricity and water pumps (the place is not connected to the electricity and water systems). Also, three tractors were allowed to exit and enter: to pull loads that were too heavy. Like a motor. On Thursdays, the soldiers bring a trained dog: It is his job to sniff whether or not explosives have been in the various implements that are brought in.
All of a sudden, after the hudna, carts were prohibited from exiting every day, and the exit of tractors was prohibited entirely. About two weeks ago, the inhabitants were told that henceforth they would also be permitted to take out agricultural produce only on Monday and Thursday. Why? They were given no explanation. There is no electricity in Seafeh, and therefore there is no possibility of storing a harvest under refrigeration, and it is likely to spoil quickly. Yesterday morning, for example, the passage of one cart carrying melons was permitted. Two carts loaded with onions waited for a long time by the soldiers' position, in vain.
Factor of the soldiers' mood
The feeling is that often the regulations depend on the soldiers' mood. A few days ago, they related in Seafeh, one of the inhabitants was carrying, on a cart hitched to a donkey, a large jerrican holding 20 liters of fuel. The soldier did not allow him to proceed by cart and advised him to bring a smaller, empty jerrican, fill it, walk to the village (several hundred meters from the gate), come back, fill the jerrican again, and so on. Yesterday morning al Ghul was still negotiating, unsuccessfully, for a transit permit for a tractor to pull out three tons of dry wood. After so many trees were uprooted and dried out, the inhabitants are trying to sell them at least for firewood. But carrying them is not work for carts hitched to donkeys.
On Thursday it was proved that a motor is also too heavy for a donkey. Even though the dog had sniffed the motor, and the soldiers had examined Abu Halima's papers, its passage was not permitted. Al Ghul says that he had coordinated the transit of the motor, for the second time, with an Israeli coordinator from the liaison commission. The soldiers said they had no knowledge of that. They said the motor had to be taken back outside the fence. When it turned out this was not possible, they decided to enlist their unit's military Jeep for the task. It came and the soldiers, together with Abu Halima and another member of his family, labored over unhitching the donkey and attaching the Jeep to the cart instead. The soldier-driver started the Jeep, stepped on the gas - and nothing moved. The Jeep, too, it turns out, could not pull the motor uphill. There was nothing left but to call down the armored personnel carrier, with its five soldiers. The armored personnel carrier slithered down the dune, turned around, the Jeep was divested of its traces and they were attached to the armored personnel carrier. Abu Halima walked behind the cart, holding on to the donkey. The armored personnel carrier went ahead of them and a soldier on the road directed the whole convoy.
Despite this surreal scene, Abu Halima did not smile at all. His summer harvest, on the few dunams that were not plowed under, was almost ruined. "Another two months," he said as he regarded the soldiers hitching the armored personnel carrier to the cart, "and we'll all be getting out of here."
Israeli workers are widening the road that links Alei Sinai to Dugit. Along the sandy tracks nearby, no Palestinian vehicles are moving - their movement was prohibited shortly after the outbreak of the intifada. The inhabitants of Seafeh are forbidden to go down to the seashore. People sit in their houses, 300 meters from the beach, and sigh, "How I miss the sea."
The origins of the al Ghul family are in the Palestinian village of Harbiya, whose inhabitants were expelled and fled in 1948. On its lands are the kibbutzim Zikkim and Carmiya. In 1960, the al Ghul family left the Shati Refugee Camp and settled in the Seafeh area - a step toward the return home, to Harbiya, said the father of the family, who missed the cultivating of the land. In 1964, the Egyptian administration declared the "Nasser Project" in the area, the sale in installments of land for agricultural cultivation. Since 1967, says Moussa al Ghul, the Israeli authorities have done everything in their power to try to move them off the land: They were cut off from the Beit Lahiya municipality and became the responsibility of the Israeli Interior Ministry, they were made to pay far higher sums to cover the installments that had been agreed upon with the Egyptian authorities, they were not connected to the electricity grid, they were not connected to the water system, they were forbidden to expand their houses or to build additional homes. Some of them were offered payment to leave.
In 1983, Alei Sinai was established. In 1990, Dugit. "They come to take the three children from Dugit to school in a bus while our children, because of the fence, never manage to get to school on time," says Yasser Zandah, in whose home 23 people live. Dugit, with its houses and its lights, is located 10 meters from his humble home: a heap of cement blocks, without electricity (the house used to be connected to houses in Beit Lahiya, but in the IDF raking operations, the electricity line was torn and he has not been allowed to reconnect it). The soldier on the bulldozer also intended to knock down the well next to the house, but Tamam Zandah, Yasser's wife, stood in front of the soldier and begged for the water and life of her family. Nearly all their green area was chewed up by the bulldozer. They cannot take their flocks out to graze; the fence shuts them in.
Tamam Zandah was born to a refugee family from Jaffa. The lesson of 1948, she says, has led her to cling to her land despite the huge difficulties. Zandah, like al Ghul and other inhabitants of Seafeh, are convinced that behind the ruining of their land and the restrictions on their movements that are making them prisoners outside their homes or prisoners inside their homes lies the old intention to expel them from their land. Quiet, polite transfer. Security is just an excuse, says al Ghul.
The IDF Spokeswoman said: "As a result of a technical hitch that has arisen recently, the inhabitants have not been allowed to bring in equipment that cannot undergo a security check, as required. On Thursday the necessary arrangements were not made for bringing in the motor. When the application is sent, according to procedure, to the coordination and liaison systems, it will be examined by the appropriate element in the sector. All these conditions are aimed at the prevention of smuggling of materiel into the area."
According to the spokeswoman, "The matter of improving the transit and living conditions of the residents of the neighborhood is under regular examination. Recently it was decided to build a new transit point in the area, which will provide and answer to the entrance and exit of merchandise in a regular way."
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