Olive trees are the staff of life for Palestinian people. Some of the trees have produced olives and oil for hundreds of years. In the Palestinian village of Jayyous, where I'm living for three months as an ecumenical accompanier with the World Council of Churches, farmers and families are launching their annual olive harvest. It's a ritual by which Palestinian families renew the economic and cultural foundations that have sustained them for centuries.
This year the olive harvest is threatened by a different reality: the newly constructed Israeli "Separation Wall." At Jayyous it snakes 6 kilometers inside the internationally recognized Green Line (1967 Israel-Palestine boundary), separating farmers from their fields and the groundwater beneath them. Upon completion "the Wall," as it's known to Palestinians, is expected to extend 400 miles, destroying or confiscating 40,000 acres of prime Palestinian farmland.
The barrier takes many physical forms: At the West Bank city of Qalqilia it's an 8-meter-high concrete mass with watchtowers. In other places, including Jayyous, the Wall is a system of fences, trenches, patrol roads, barbed wire, cameras, trace paths to detect footprints and buffer zones, spanning a 70- to 100-meter width. The Israelis say the barrier's purpose is security. To Palestinians, the Wall means outright theft of land and livelihood.
At Jayyous, the Wall blocks farmers from free access to more than 2,000 acres of their land, effectively placing 120 greenhouses, 15,000 olive trees, 50,000 citrus trees, six groundwater wells, plus livestock pasture on Israel's side. Following completion of the wall, more than 80 percent of Jayyous families will be without work or income due to lack of access to their farmland. This reality will be repeated throughout the entire West Bank.
Because of its importance to Palestine's farm economy and its location on the route of the wall, Jayyous villagers have invited international observers to maintain a presence in the community and to witness what's taking place. As an ecumenical accompanier, I spend part of each day doing "gate watch" a presence at one of the two gates in the wall at Jayyous to observe and record what I see.
I can testify from daily experience that Palestinian access to their land is controlled absolutely by Israeli military. For these farmers, the Wall is a nightmare of restrictions, regulations, waiting, lost income, humiliation. Two nights ago, I waited three hours with 35 farmers for the Israeli soldiers to arrive and open the gate so they might simply return to their homes. Some days only farmers age 35 and older are allowed to reach their fields.
When Minnesota farmers go to their fields this month to bring in the harvest, the farmers of Palestine are doing the same, as they have for centuries.
On behalf of the families and farmers of Palestine, I urge the people of Minnesota to speak out to our government against Israel's Separation Wall. For the survival of Jayyous and other villages throughout Palestine, it's a matter of simple survival not to mention elementary justice that these farmers have free, permanent access to their own land.
The Rev. Don Christensen of St. Paul is a United Church of Christ pastor.
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder