Capt. Shadi Saleh and his comrade Ali got up early Tuesday December 10, and by 6 A.M. they were next to the agriculture gate in the separation barrier, which cuts off the villages of Mas-ha, Al-Zawiyyeh and Rafat from their land. Saleh and Ali both serve in Israel’s District Coordination and Liaison office, which oversees the area of Qalqilyah, Tul Karm and Salfit.
Saleh is the commander of the liaison contingent at the Eyal checkpoint near Qalqilyah, and the farmers know him by his full name. They only know Ali by his first name. The two were stationed at the gate to confiscate agricultural permits allowing access through this entryway.
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Dozens of landowners from the two villages had already gathered at the gate, waiting for the soldiers to open it as they’re supposed to do three times a day. The separation barrier twists through the heart of the orchards and fields.
The gate, which the army calls Magen Dan 1669, is on land belonging to the village of Al-Zawiyyeh. Like 74 similar gates along the separation barrier, it exists to follow the High Court instruction to the State to reduce as much as possible the barrier’s harm to Palestinian farmers and to their right to reach their land and cultivate it.
Access to the land, sometimes a few kilometers away, is possible only by foot, and sometimes by donkey (if the soldiers don’t demand to see a donkey’s permit, which does not exist). Only recently have Palestinians been allowed to enter with their electric bicycles as well. Magen Dan is among the 28 gates opened either several times a week or every day all year. The other 46 gates are only opened two or three times a year.
That Tuesday, 49-year-old Ali Zuheir of Mas-ha planned to prune his olive trees and to oxygenate the soil, as must be done after the harvest.
“When they opened the gate, two soldiers crossed to the other side, at the start of the path, to make sure we couldn’t return,” he recalled. “Shadi took our ID cards and our agricultural permits, and asked where we were going. We said we were going to the land. He put the permits in his pocket and returned our ID cards.”
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According to Zuheir, Shadi said “that we were using the permits to work in Israel. ‘If you want the permit back, come on Thursday to the liaison’s office at the Eyal checkpoint and show me the map of where your land is.’”
Zuheir just got his two-year permit in September. Village farmers must undergo long exhausting bureaucracy with Israeli authorities to receive a permit, including the submission of documents like probated wills, deeds and detailed lists of their crops.
They have to prove that their share in the family plot is more than 330 square meters (3,550 square feet), because the Civil Administration arbitrarily declared that any tracts smaller than this serve “no agricultural need” and thus don’t receive approval to be worked. All these documents pass before the diligent eyes of several officers serving all kinds of bureaucratic functions.
The farmers from the neighboring village, Al-Zawiyyeh, recounted to me nearly the same scenario that took place on Thursday morning, December 12. Capt. Saleh confiscated the permit of Ahmed Shqueir, 37, at the gate. Yasser Moqudi, 39, managed to get past the gate and soldiers and walked with other farmers to his land.
“We had walked nearly a kilometer when the two ran after us and demanded our permits,” he said. They were told that if they wanted their permits back, they should come to the liaison office at the Eyal checkpoint.
Six hundred and fifty people – from several villages in the area, whose thousands of dunams are imprisoned beyond the fence – have permits to cross "Magen Dan." Fifty-six permits were confiscated on those two days.
Dozens of people cleared their schedules to meet with Capt. Saleh on Thursday the 12th. Only a few, like Shqueir, made it into his office. But not everyone can read maps, and he failed Saleh’s pop quiz. In the end, the few who entered the office left as they came, without their permit.
Moreover, the officer filmed them “failing” to point out their plot on the map.
While Capt. Saleh tested Shqueir and other villagers, dozens of other farmers waited hours outside the liaison office until they were sent home. No one would receive you now. If you want your permit back, come with a map or aerial photos of your plot, they were told.
They’re all old enough to remember their land from before the fence, when walking to it was a family event, whether for the harvest or to enjoy a Friday, and when they could go there with a tractor and a cart and even go out and return twice a day. Their fields and the natural vegetation on their villages' land have become by now the green lungs of the Elkana settlement, an ideal place for morning strolls and twilight walks of settlers.
Proof of eligibility
The liaison office, part of Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, answers to the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. COGAT said to Haaretz: “Residents with permits for ‘agriculture along the seam zone’ who sought to cross through the Magen Dan gate were asked upon entry to prove their linkage to the land by pointing out the agricultural land they work – the goal being to confirm that they are eligible for the said permit. During the check, permits were seized from residents whose response indicated a contradiction between the right to hold a permit and the land they marked.”
COGAT added: “These residents were called to a hearing at the liaison office in Efraim [the military name for the district] to once again prove, with survey maps, according to COGAT's standing orders, their affiliation with the land. As of this writing, survey maps had not been presented as requested to confirm affiliation, so the validity of the permits will be reviewed when the required documents are presented.”
But contrary to COGAT's written response, from what farmers told Haaretz and the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual, it doesn’t seem the request to identify one’s land on a map was done next to the gate. It appears the confiscation was done arbitrarily in places where the farmers had a full right to be.
Ahmed Shqueir told Haaretz he offered to show Capt. Saleh his plot and his family’s plot, but Saleh refused. Shqueir added that two years ago he was caught, without a valid entry permit to Israel, by a policewoman in a supermarket in Rosh Ha’ayin east of Tel Aviv. He told the officer that he had come to buy gluten-free products for his three daughters, which “we don’t have in the West Bank.” He said she was understanding and let him go home.
“Write it down, it’s no problem,” Shqueir said. “What will they do to me? Demolish my home?”
Providing survey maps as a condition for retreiving a confiscated permit requires the hiring of a surveyor, the coordination of his visit among several Israeli and Palestinian officials, and a waste of time and money.
In a complaint in mid-December to the Civil Administration head Brigadier General Ghassan Alian, Hamoked Director Jessica Montell called the permit confiscation cruel. She said the offices who confiscated he permits didn’t respect COGAT's own standing orders; they should have provided the farmers with a “confiscation document” and told them they had the right to ask Saleh’s commander, Lt. Col. Dani Sandler, to open an “investigation by the liaison office head.”
They didn’t do that. Montell recounted other written regulations that the officer ignored after testing the farmers’ map-reading skills. As of this writing, Alian hadn’t responded to her complaint.
In her complaint letter, Montell noted that the permit confiscation was done just days after her group petitioned the High Court of Justice regarding the Magen Dan gate on behalf of several farmers and village council heads from Mas-ha and Al-Zawiyyeh. This gate is known for the chronic tardiness of the soldiers who are supposed to open it.
The petition documents dozens of cases in the past three years in which farmers waited hours for the gate to be opened so they could reach their land or return home. Winter or summer, rain or heat, they were stuck, and the soldiers didn’t come.
Each time people reported the closed gate, Hamoked's representative called the liaison office and the army to rescue the farmers. She has gone from soldier to soldier, military post to post, heard excuses for the delay, and then the whole thing repeated in a few days or a month. Hamoked wrote complaints to the generals in command, the Civil Administration heads, brigade commanders and liaison officers. They’ve since been replaced, and the delays at the gate continue despite formal pledges to improve the situation.
In her complaint about the confiscation of permits, Montell implies that the army is retaliating for the petition, but it’s very likely that when the two officers confiscated the permits at Magen Dan last month, they weren’t aware yet of the petition’s existence.
What’s for sure, Montell told Haaretz, is that “the confiscation is pure bullying. This is another step in the creeping dispossession of Palestinians from their land that’s trapped on the other side of the separation wall.”
On December 21, accompanied by Shqueir and others, I found an Al-Zawiyyeh resident with an electric bicycle and a bag of pruning tools waiting an hour for the gate to be opened. “We came at 12 and there was no one,” said the soldier at the post, whom Shqueir had just called.
Later, at his home in Zawiyyeh, I asked his children, nephews and nieces if they had ever been in their land on the other side of the separation fence.
“No,” they answered.