An enchanted garden blooms on the roof of the Hirsheh family’s home in the West Bank village of Qaffin. In large tires and buckets filled with fertile soil, Fahima grows giant cabbages, mint, beans, parsley and crisp lettuce. She has also planted begonias, geraniums and climbing plants to delight the heart with their colors. The stairwell and entryway are filled with plants as well.
“Ever since they barred us from reaching our land, she has invested all her energy in the roof garden,” her husband Jihad says affectionately. He's referring to 2002, when Israel started building the separation barrier – which, as its name implies, separates Palestinians from their land.
“What didn’t we grow on our plot?” Fahima says, the longing clear on her face. “Sesame, corn and parsley between the olive trees, watermelons, melons, cucumbers.”
But that’s all in the past because such crops require daily care, and the gates in the fence around Qaffin open only three days a week. So all they have left is olive trees, and the oil they make from them.
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The land was registered in the name of Jihad’s grandfather. After his grandfather died, the family agreed that Jihad’s father and uncle would inherit it. After his father passed away in 1987, the land went to Jihad and his cousins. Since the barrier and its permit system were created in the mid 2000's, the Hirshehs received permits to enter their land from the Civil Administration's liaison office, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Defense's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, known as COGAT.
But for some reason, the last permit Jihad received was for one year rather than two, and it expired in October 2017. Also surprisingly, the permit was the type given to relatives of the plot owner who work with him or to agricultural paid laborers ("agricultural employment") rather than the "agricultural permit" that is meant to be given to the plot’s owner. And when that expired, his pleas for renewal ran into a wall: Either they were rejected with no explanation, or they weren’t even answered. Jihad couldn’t understand it. In late 2017, when they received a different type of entry permit - “for personal needs” - they saw what had happened to their plot with nobody to care for it. “The weeds in the plot, between the trees, grew like a forest,” Fahima said.
The following June, the liaison office rejected their latest request for a permit with the explanation that the plot isn’t in the “seam zone” – the area between the separation barrier and Israel. What happened? Did the map suddenly change? Did the land move?
The Hirshehs aren’t alone. Last year, according to the Civil Administration, 72 percent of requests for agricultural permits were rejected, while half of the requests for agricultural employment permits were rejected as well.
The couple decided they couldn’t deal with the bureaucracy alone, so they sought help from the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, which began writing and phoning the liaison office.
Hamoked is well-versed in the regulations governing the seam zone and knew what the Hirshehs didn’t: They had the right to object and appeal the denial of a permit, if it was not for security reasons.
Hamoked's requests for reviewing the refusal went through the civil administration's exhausting bureaucratic process, but either went unanswered or were answered very belatedly. Then, in October, an officer in the Tul Karm liaison office told Hamoked that Hirsheh “is not entitled to a permit because he doesn’t meet the criteria, his is a negligible plot, 157 square meters, (1,690 square feet)".
“How did the land suddenly shrink?” Fahima asked, laughing in astonishment. Her back and arms remember that the plot they worked wasn’t tiny at all.
The land shrank because the Civil Administration, which implements the government’s policy in the territories, so decreed. It denies all the Palestinian traditions of collective ownership and collective work, divides the land on its own discretion and grants a permit according to the applicant's individual proportional share of the land.
That’s one half of the story. The other is that the Civil Administration’s agricultural experts decided that plots smaller than 330 square meters aren’t entitled to be cultivated.
According to COGAT'S regulations, the plot’s size is determined by “multiplying the plot’s entire area by the applicant’s percentage share of the ownership.” Moreover, “there is no viable agricultural need when the size of the plot for which the permit is sought is negligible, not exceeding 330 square meters.”
The head of the liaison office may grant permits to work smaller plots “in exceptional circumstances,” the regulations say. But that means the recipient won’t be entitled to “agricultural employment” permits for his wife or children.
To obtain permission to resume working his land, the Hirshehs petitioned the district court, represented by Hamoked. Until the hearing in February, Jihad and his wife will fearfully imagine the weeds growing wild on their plot, just 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from their house.
10 months without permits
My meeting with the Hirshehs was preceded by one with Ibrahim Amar. His house on the outskirts of the village is surrounded by a small plot, perhaps 130 or 160 square meters, which proves that even a "negligible" plot can produce a bounty - bananas, avocado, Pecan and citrus, to name some - when the crops are properly tended.
Last March, thanks to Hamoked’s assistance, Amar and his son Khalil received new permits to work their land after 10 months without permits. During that period, “I got sick from frustration,” Amar said. He needed an operation on his head, and his leg was paralyzed for a period. The weeds grew to the height of a man, he added.
Once, the liaison office said he only had 60 square meters, he told me, speaking with anger and hurt as he recounted the troubles he has undergone since 2002, including arguments with Civil Administration officers and with the soldiers who open and close the gates in the fence.
In September 2017, when he had already been without a permit for four months, the Civil Administration’s ombudsman told him and Khalil that their requests for permits had been denied because their land wasn’t in the seam zone.
Amar and his son had been through this before. In 2011 and again in 2013, the Civil Administration made the same claim, until Hamoked petitioned the High Court of Justice on their behalf.
Following that petition, Civil Administration officials surveyed and measured Amar's lands and confirmed that they were indeed where they had always been. Amar and his son received the permits and the petition was withdrawn.
Now, just a few years later, the saga has begun again, as if there were no computers that remember all the details. But when Hamoked informed the authorities it would petition the High Court again, the permits were miraculously restored to Amar and his son for another two years.
Because the gates are open only three days a week, Amar, like the Hirshehs, gave up on crops such as vegetables, which require daily care. His eyes, too, show a longing for the days when he grew watermelons and sesame between the olive and almond trees.
Ibrahim Amar and Jihad and Fahima Hirsheh are in their 60s, which means they don’t need a personal permit to enter Israel. Yet according to COGAT regulations, they can’t use the freedom of movement their age grants them to go to their family’s plot or to the village's other lands, which are trapped between the separation fence and the Israeli border. Only Israelis and tourists can enter the seam zone– that is, Palestinian land – without a military permit.
From the roofs of the Hirsheh and Amar houses, you can see the Israeli community of Harish. “Harish was built on lands that were ours before 1948,” when Israel was established, Amar said. “Let me at least continue to work the lands that remain with us.”