Back-to-back in Guava Land

A report from the Gaza Strip on the farmers and fishermen in the part of Khan Yunis called Mawasi.

At the end of June there was a wedding in the Saidam family. They are a large family with branches all over the Khan Yunis and Dir al-Balah area.

The groom lives in an agricultural part of Khan Yunis called Mawasi. The place consists of 14,000 dunams of soft sand dunes that slope from the edges of Rafah, Khan Yunis and Dir al-Balah down to the seashore. What could be a more appropriate setting for a family event than the Mediterranean seashore at sunset with nearby vine-draped courtyards?

However, of the hundreds of relatives, the Israel Defense Forces allowed only 40 of them to attend the wedding.

Since the middle of November, Mawasi, including the seashore, has been closed to Palestinians who do not live there. On January 14, Roni Tzalach, a resident of Kfar Yam, was murdered there. Since then new traffic laws have been imposed on the Palestinians.

The names of 40 celebrants at the wedding were submitted in advance to the IDF; 38 of them came to the wedding with a military escort. The army jeeps, Khan Yunis residents relate, waited outside. After three hours, the soldiers politely came up to the celebrants, congratulated them and said that it was time to go home.

Tall palms, guava orchards and vegetable hothouses rise from the Mawasi dunes. They say that 85 percent of the "Palestinian" guavas - from the West Bank and Gaza Strip - are grown on 4,000 dunams in Mawasi, as are 35 percent of Palestinian vegetables.

Around 25 Palestinian clans own these agricultural plots. The plots are the primary source of income for those families and clan members living in the Mawasi area, approximately 7,500 people, based on information provided in Khan Yunis. Some of them also support themselves by fishing. In the past, some also earned a living from work in Israel. They lost those jobs and therefore agricultural work was transformed from a primary occupation to the only one.

Landowners living in the surrounding cities used to come every morning to work their lands and arrange the sale of produce. For many Khan Yunis and Rafah residents, the Mawasi orchards and seashore were the only escape from the concrete jungles where they live. At least they were until the middle of January 2001.

According to the Oslo Accords, Mawasi was defined as an area under Israeli security control where the Palestinian Authority (PA) has civilian and administrative authority over the Palestinian residents. Unlike the nearby settlements, the Palestinian residents are not connected to Mekorot's water system, even though it has wells that pump Mawasi's groundwater.

The Palestinians use water from home wells. Only a few of the Palestinian homes in the area are connected to the national electricity grid. The rest use home generators. In 1995, in the Mawasi area, there was an attempted suicide attack next to a car filled with Jewish settlers. Since then, the roads have been separated: wide, paved roads for the Israelis and narrow, side roads for the Palestinians.

The coastal road is open to Israeli and Palestinian traffic: at two roadblocks less than a kilometer apart, every Palestinian car is inspected.

For the first two weeks after Tzalach's murder, no Palestinian was permitted to enter or exit the Mawasi area. Anyone taken ill needed security coordination to leave the area and go to Khan Yunis or Rafah, 100 meters away from the checkpoint. Then there was a problem in supplying food to Mawasi residents. Gradually, some rules were established: every resident of Mawasi received an additional identification number, handwritten in ink on the plastic cover of his identity card and that number was added to the Palestinian population registry data stored in Israeli computers. Every soldier has access to this data.

This identification number confirms that its bearer lives in Mawasi and is permitted to leave and return to the area. At first, two different numbers were written on the plastic case: one allowing the bearer to leave the checkpoint for Khan Yunis and one allowing him to go to Rafah.

Recently, a decision was made allowing every Mawasi resident to go past only one checkpoint to either Rafah or Khan Yunis. Anyone without a number cannot pass through.

Red tape

Several weeks ago, relates Abu Ghaid, his wife went with their young son to Khan Yunis. The son is registered in his father's identity card. When you leave, the soldiers do not check documents, they only inspect them when you return. The soldiers did not permit the boy to return to Mawasi because he is not registered in his mother's identity card. The father had to be called out to prove that his wife was not smuggling an unregistered resident into Mawasi.

After there was frequent talk of people feeling ill and not getting appropriate help on time until their trip to a city 100 meters away from the checkpoint could be coordinated, Khan Yunis officials decided to set up a local clinic and have an ambulance on call.

Until July, the ambulance was not permitted to cross over the checkpoint. The patient was transferred at the checkpoint from one ambulance to another, using what is known as the back-to-back method. Now the ambulance is permitted to cross the checkpoint, but not before first undergoing a security inspection to check for explosives or other terrorist material. Now only agricultural produce being taken out of Mawasi and food and construction material being brought in are transferred back-to-back. Residents cannot leave Mawasi in their cars. Consequently, 10 taxi drivers in Mawasi have lost most of their livelihood.

Every crate of fruit and vegetables from Mawasi now goes through five or more loading and unloading stations before reaching its destination. At the checkpoint between Mawasi and Khan Yunis (Tufah gate), every crate is transferred from one truck coming straight from the orchard, to a second truck from Khan Yunis. The soldiers monitor the transfer of crates that are marked "Israeli fruits."

The truck travels to the Karni checkpoint, where the contents are transferred to an Israeli truck. The Israeli truck sells the produce in Israel or travels to the Tarqumiyah checkpoint in the West Bank: there the produce is again unloaded and reloaded onto a Palestinian truck.

That truck then brings the produce to markets in the West Bank or continues to the Allenby Bridge and unloads the produce onto a Jordanian truck.

"Once," Abu Ghaid longingly recollects, "drivers came here directly from the West Bank or Jordan and took our guavas." They say that 60 percent of Mawasi's guava yield is exported to Jordan. The rest goes to Israel and to West Bank and Gaza Strip cities. Now, the nine stops every guava or any other fruit or vegetable has to make are reducing its appeal to the foreign buyer. Who wants squashed and dusty guavas in their fruit stall?

The numerous loading and unloading stops substantially boost the price of guava and selling it becomes not worthwhile for the grower.

The losses are no longer taken into account. At the beginning of the week, the newest decree of Israel's agriculture minister, Shalom Simhon, took effect: he banned the transfer of Palestinian agricultural produce from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. This order came in response to a directive from the Palestinian agriculture minister, Hikmat Zaid, that certain types of Israeli foods and agricultural produce should not be sold in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This directive of the Palestinian agriculture minister was in response to the transfer problems encountered by Palestinians all over the West Bank.

Due to these restrictions, the Palestinian growers and vendors are having difficulty bringing their goods to Palestinian markets. Mawasi residents are concerned that last year's events, when most of the October yield rotted, will recur.

Abu Ghaid has a fishing permit. But now, fishermen are only allowed to go to a distance of three miles (4.8 kilometers) into the sea, instead of 12 miles and fish are hard to catch at the distance.

Aside from the coastal road, there is one other wide, asphalt road used by Palestinians and Israelis. It leads to the grassy entrance of the Neve Dekalim industrial zone and then it disintegrates and rises slightly as it approaches the Tufah gate, the entrance to the Khan Yunis refugee camp. This gate has become a military fortress. There are two concrete positions from which gun barrels peer out along with the hand of the soldier checking the documents of those entering; an electronic gate and revolving door through which the those coming in pass, a position dug into the sand and covered with nets and barbed wire along the pedestrian path. All around are stones that were thrown at the soldiers manning the post and black sooty fragments from petrol bombs that exploded and caught fire.

Between the two concrete positions is a low concrete fence and the trucks transferring goods back-to-back meet on opposite sides of it. Food shipments to aid needy families in Mawasi are permitted to enter the area directly, but that must be coordinated in advance and requires a military escort. The same is true for a truck loaded with cement. Usually, it means hours of waiting to enter and transfer goods from back-to-back.

The IDF Spokesman's office related that there are clearly defined hours for loading and unloading at the back to back area, in order to make things easier for the residents: until 12:00 noon, the trucks from Mawasi unload their agricultural produce. After 12:00, the trucks bringing food and building materials to Mawasi unload. Everything is under the supervision of soldiers. But all of Mawasi's residents as well as the drivers at the checkpoint in mid-August for some reason did not know about this arrangement that was meant to make things easier for them. They waited for hours at the checkpoint, before and after 12:00.

At a certain point, the soldiers decided not to let the driver of a tractor carrying sweet potatoes unload. He was making problems, they explained, and in the middle of the day they froze all movement through the checkpoint for two hours. "Until they got things in order," they said and complained that the drivers were fighting among themselves over who would go through first. The drivers actually said they were getting along fine and agreed to let the guava truck unload first even though it had arrived last.

There is an awning at the checkpoint giving some shade and intended for the use of the drivers waiting their turn. On that day in mid-August, the soldiers ordered the drivers to come out of the shade, line up their trucks at a distance and wait there. Several Israeli cars passed by: one was carrying ceramic tiles to the industrial zone and another was towing a motorized tricycle and headed to the industrial zone.

Mawasi residents return from Khan Yunis by foot, always carrying something on their head or back, or in their hands. Some just cross the checkpoint, approach a food truck waiting to cross through and take a sack of flour. They do not have time to wait for it. An old man and two children around 10 years old alternated dragging and carrying the sack. Women carry filled gas canisters on their backs. A truck loaded with gas canisters waits on the eastern side of the checkpoint: instead of entering and bringing the filled canisters to the residents, they come to the truck. Everyone must return home by 7:00 P.M., when the checkpoint closes to the passage of Palestinians. "That's it, we're closing shop," the soldiers announce.