Farmers, fishermen and other workers toiling near the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel fight a battle that is rarely talked about.
Gazans are not allowed to fish, farm or even walk in what is called the “buffer zone,” a wide swath of Palestinian land along the border, with the ever-shifting boundaries determined by the Israeli army. (Today, it is 500 meters deep, or about 1,640 feet. But sometimes it extends as much as 1,500 meters, or a mile.) The prohibition is enforced by Israel with live fire from sniper towers and tanks, as well as “leveling operations” with bulldozers. Just between December 7th and 20th, there were 12 incidents in which Israeli soldiers shot at farmers and other workers. (The border area also is the only place Palestinians can protest the Israeli occupation, since the “security fence” and its sniper towers are the only contact we can have with our occupiers. Most of the 12 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since U.S. President Donald Trump announced the unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on 6 December have been from Gaza.)
The creation of the buffer zone is devastating economically as well as physically. The buffer zone consumes 17 percent of Gaza’s total land, including about a third of the most fertile soil. According to the Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Resource Center, six factories, three schools, three mosques, 305 water wells, 197 chicken farms, 6,377 sheep farms and 24.4 square kilometers of cultivated land have been leveled.
One of the affected workers is Mahmoud Aamer Abu Jibba. Here, he speaks:
“I used to own a cement factory east of the Gaza border (with Israel), but then it was completely razed during the 2008-2009 war. Now, all that’s left is rubble, but I have two machines that I use so I can survive. [As we talked, we sat in the midst of sand and rocks. I felt as if I was talking to a man in the street, not inside a factory.]
“I’m 28 years old, with a wife and four children; the youngest is a year and a half old and the oldest is 9. I know firsthand the threat of living and working near the border, but I have no choice. I leave my work three times a day and head to my house just to check on my children. I recognize I might get killed at any time, but I need to work, to feed and educate my children, and, most importantly, to live and not just survive.
“Cement is typically made from limestone and clay or shale. I use a machine to extract the stone from the quarry and crush it into a very fine powder. To buy a new crusher after it was destroyed by the shelling cost me $15,000. The other machine I need, blend the ingredients in the correct proportions and produce blocks, cost $25,000. I also have to pay around $400 a month for electricity. I used to have 20 workers, but now I can only afford to pay seven. Each worker gets $17 a day. We don’t work during Ramadan, the Muslim holy time when we fast for a month, and we can’t work during the two months of winter, since cement blocks need sun to dry. So, we have weeks with no pay.
“I've lived with the fear of being shot for a long time; Israel is more powerful than us and we can’t fight them. But we can fight to live for the sake of survival. To help avoid being a target, my workers and I surround our area with sand dunes, stones or blocks. In the evening, though, Israelis consider the area a security zone and target anything that moves 500 meters away from the border. A year ago, one of my workers, Saed Elkitani, was hit by an Israeli missile, despite the fact that he was doing nothing but working. The missile hit his intestines, and he couldn’t eat or defecate for a whole year. A bag outside his stomach was attached to a tube inside his body to remove toxins and urine. He used to stay in his house all of the time, embarrassed by the smell of the bag.
“I thought the reconciliation [between the two main political parties, Hamas and Fatah] would make a difference, but nothing has changed. I have lost hope. Israel is now building a ‘smart wall’ around Gaza that can detect underground activity. It will sit behind the existing fence, creating an even bigger buffer zone. The wall will rise 20 feet above the ground. But it will secure the Israelis from nothing except the site of Palestinians trying to work.
“The Israelis’ apartheid walls rip through our lives and lands, denying our basic freedom of movement, and expanding state violence and control. The world’s silence is killing us.”