In August 2003, when we first visited Qaffin (see Challenge 81), one could still cross from the village through the excavations that marked the fence’s future course, thus reaching the groves that spread to the west. Since then this part of the fence has been finished. There is only one gate through which the landowners are permitted to cross to their plots, provided they have a permit from the District Commander’s Office (DCO).
The neglect of the last two years is all too apparent in the groves beyond the fence, which have filled with thorns and brambles. This year has seen a bumper crop, but the people of Qaffin reaped little of it. Of the 1500 villagers who applied for permits to enter their groves, half were turned down. The rejects had to ask the lucky ones to pick their olives, and they wound up with only a third of the harvest. To make things worse, says Taisar Harasheh, head of Qaffin’s Local Council, almost half the crop had been lost beforehand. Some had been stolen. Some was lost because cows had fed on the olive leaves throughout the year.
Only two tractors were allowed past the fence to haul back the tons of hastily harvested fruit. This limitation proved harmful, for the time and treatment of olives are critical factors. The longer it takes to reach the press, and the greater the weight that is put on them, the poorer the oil will be. Such considerations do not count for much in the eyes of an occupying army.
Harasheh told me: “We got a promise from the army that the permits would be issued for half a year. The groves demand more than just harvesting. You have to work the land, add fertilizer, prune and plant. A few days ago the DCO officer, Rabeh Maklada, announced that the permits would go void in two weeks. Just like that they changed their minds. They claim that the harvest is over and that people are exploiting the permits to work in Israel.”
Harasheh added that since the fence went up, the unemployment rate in Qaffin has climbed to 85%. Before this, 90% of the village’s breadwinners worked in Israel. Day after day, not less than 3000 workers would cross to the other side of the Green Line: to the fields, the construction sites, and the factories. Today about 50, those with permits, get through. These are prohibited from crossing at the gate near Qaffin, which is intended only for farmers. Instead they must use the Barta’a Checkpoint several kilometers northeast of their village. (See map.)
Abu al-Abed, who heads the Fruit Trees Association in the Jenin area, arranged to meet us at the Barta’a Checkpoint. We became acquainted last month at a Slow Food convention in Turino, Italy, where he was a member of the Palestinian delegation. (See Challenge 88.)
Drenching rain is not conducive to finding West Bank checkpoints. On the other hand, it was Sabbath: the supervision is normally less tight, and the soldiers more relaxed, than on other days. We made the mistake of supposing that the Barta’a Checkpoint would be near Barta’a village. We passed through the village unhampered and continued, almost alone, on a road winding south and east. At one point we thought we were lost. No checkpoint in sight, no soldiers, just a road in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, at a bend, the separation fence popped up – and in front of it, a checkpoint. But no, it was not the Barta’a Checkpoint, just an improvised one the police had thrown up. Two drowsy cops. Three cars with West Bank plates, waiting to be checked. The officer examined our papers and waved us on. We asked where the Barta’a Checkpoint was. He told us to drive about two kilometers along the dirt road flanking the fence.
The Barta’a Checkpoint looks like a fortress, surrounded by fences, gates and guard towers. Dozens of soldiers, rifles at the ready, patrol both sides of the gate, trying to direct the unceasing flow of traffic, vehicular and pedestrian. A soldier checks our papers and seems almost happy to find an Israeli I.D. “Shalom,” he says grinning broadly, “Welcome!” As a friendly gesture, he cautions us against returning by the way we came. That road, he says, is meant only for Palestinians; the police (the very ones we had just encountered) are stationed there to write traffic tickets, and they’ll gladly do it to anyone who attempts that shortcut between here and the village of Barta’a.
The checkpoint’s main gate is intended for vehicles, mostly those of Israelis driving to and from the settlements. The width of a two-lane highway, it seems as if from another planet. Beside it is another gate – a tiny hole, really – for Palestinian pedestrians, mostly women and children. They wait to be checked. The female soldiers entrusted with the task seem in no great hurry, nor are they flustered by the pleas of the women.
A smiling Abu al-Abed waves from the other side of the fence. He’s left his car in a special lot. He has no permit to pass. He has already spoken with the soldiers, and he knows that there isn’t a chance that they’ll let him give us the goods he has brought: 60 bags of za’atar (the biblical hyssop), picked and packaged by a women’s cooperative in Jenin. “We can’t help you,” says the good-natured soldier. He advises us to go to the Jalameh Checkpoint: “It’s a super-modern cargo terminal. Why else did they pour millions into it? It’s exactly for what you want to do.”
The cargo terminal
Having no alternative, we again mount our chariot and take the main road back into Israel. After half an hour’s drive through Wadi Ara, we reach the Jalameh Checkpoint. It’s closed on Sabbath. The drowsy soldier commiserates, but he does not have the phone number of the officer in charge. A lone representative of the Agriculture Ministry informs us that the checkpoint is only open from Sunday through Thursday and that every visit must be arranged in advance. Meanwhile, Abu al-Abed has reached the other side, and we part by cell phone. He returns to Jenin with the 60 bags of za’atar .
Two weeks pass. Dozens of phone calls to liaison officers and people-in-the-know lead nowhere. The regular phone information service gives us a number that leads to a short-tempered female clerk in the Kishon Prison, which is deep in Israel but is also called Jalameh. We then try merchants who ferry goods from Israel to the West Bank. They give us the number of an officer named Bassam who is in charge of the Jalameh Checkpoint. A whole day of phone calls and messages produces, in the end, a brief conversation with the person who is responsible for the principal artery of commerce between the West Bank and Israel. “You don’t need to do anything. He’s the one who has to get a permit.” “But he says they told him we have to get a permit.” “He’s a liar. Don’t believe him.”
In order to export za’atar, it turns out, Abu al-Abed must indeed get a permit from the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture. To receive this, he must prove that the za’atar wasn’t plucked wild. (It’s a protected plant in Israel, although it is a venerable Palestinian tradition to go out and pluck za’atar from the hillsides in the fall.) He can prove this by presenting a declaration from the cultivating farmer. Permit in hand, he must then go to the Liaison Office of DCO, where he must provide the license numbers of the vehicles from both sides and the identity numbers of the drivers. Abu al-Abed does all this, and within 24 hours, he has the desired permit.
We arrange to meet at the Jalameh Checkpoint on a Monday at 11:30. I bring a good thick novel and something to nosh on. To my astonishment, everything goes like clockwork. The soldiers check my I.D. and within minutes I’m inside. The terminal is surreal: no less than 25 passages, equipped with concrete ramps and hydraulic gates – and nobody in sight. Then I notice a lone vehicle at the end of Passage No. 3 on the Palestinian side. I pull up opposite it on the Israeli side. Four workers toss the bags of za’atar from this vehicle into mine. A few soldiers provide “security.” The operation is over in the flicker of an eyebrow.
His driver has a permit, but Abu al-Abed does not. Only if I ask will they let him enter to receive the payment for the za’atar. At the end of the terminal is a room with a fiberglass barrier. Abu al-Abed enters on one side, I on the other. A bored female soldier keeps guard while we talk through holes in the fiberglass. Abu al-Abed is satisfied: “Thanks be to Allah, everything’s so nice and orderly here – no problems at all!” Only one thing troubles him: how will the Palestinian producer ever get to know his Israeli customer, now that the Occupation has set this gulf between them?