Fayez and his land Fayez between the factory, the wall and the recycling plant

Fayez Ataneeb is a Palestinian farmer in Tulkarem, a town bordering Israel in the northern West Bank. When I visit his 1.7 hectare small holding, he shows me tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers (ordinary and hot), beans, and various herbs thriving in a row of greenhouses. He also keeps chickens, has fruit trees, and a field of wheat. It is potentially a good living. But the series of disasters that have befallen his land, and Fayez’s 25-year fight to keep it, demonstrates the precarious nature of farming under Israeli occupation.

Fayez explains. The first disaster came in 1984 when a chemical factory was removed from the Israeli coastal town of Netanya ten miles away because local residents objected to it on health grounds. Using a law that allows building on abandoned land in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli owner, a Mr Geshuri, built on a disused railway line adjacent to Fayez’ land. Fayez took Mr Geshuri to the Israeli courts, claiming waste discharge was poisoning his land but was told that as a Palestinian he could not claim because the factory was under Israeli jurisdiction. Israeli farmers the other side of the Green Line joined him in his fight, but the courts said Israel’s strict environmental regulations could not be applied because the Geshuri factory was now on the West Bank. In effect, a Catch 22 situation. The factory offered to buy his land but Fayez refused. He subsequently suffered non-stop harassment from the factory, had his irrigation pipes broken, his crops ruined and has even been shot at.

Fayez beside the bullet hole

Disaster struck again in 2000. At the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada, Israeli bulldozers flattened his greenhouses in retaliation for alleged insurgent attacks on the factory and because, as leader of the Farmers’ Union, Fayez was a dubbed a troublemaker. He rebuilt the greenhouses. They were flattened again in 2002 during the invasion of Tulkarem by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to root out suicide bombers. Again Fayez rebuilt. Then in 2003, when the separation barrier reached Tulkarem, half of Fayez’ land disappeared beneath the Wall. His greenhouses were flattened again in the process. While the barrier encroached as much as 4 km into Tulkarem province to take fertile farmland to the Israeli side, the chemical factory was left in the Occupied Territories.

Fayez’ remaining land is now encircled on three sides: by the Wall, by the Geshuri factory, and by a new Israeli recycling plant at the far end. At the other end 2 kilometres away, an Israeli industrial estate is apparently planned, reportedly as a joint venture between the Israeli authorities and Palestinian entrepreneurs. Being on the West Bank, it will not have to abide by Israeli minimum wage and environmental standards. It will employ Tulkarem workers now cut off by the Wall from their traditional jobs inside Israel, and the many farmers who have been forced off their land.

Fayez is determined, however, not to be one of them. For him, the factory, the barrier, the closures and raids on Tulkarem, are all part of the same strategy. “To make life so impossible for us that we will leave voluntarily. We call it the quiet transfer.” “There’s only one problem,” he tells me “I won’t go. I’ve seen refugee camps in other countries, it’s not for me or my family. Even more than wanting my children educated and married, I want to see my land free. But there is so little hope”.

Not long after I last visited Fayez at his farm, he phoned me. Bulldozers had appeared out of the recycling plant accompanied by soldiers and flattened his wheat field. I went to see. The harassment goes on.