Unhappy New Year (November 7)

Tad Mitsui, an Ecumenical Accompanier (EA) in Jayyous, has been chronicling his experiences in the small farming community near Qalqiliya, which has been virtually split in half by Israel”s "security fence." He wrote the following letter as the Israeli military continued to deny farmers access to their own fields during the critical harvest season. Military officials cited recent terrorist attacks as well as threats of further attacks during the Jewish holidays as the reason for keeping the gates closed.

Tad MitsuiAnother day was wasted for at least four young farmers at the south gate in Jayyous today. It was an ideal harvest day–sunny, not too hot and the rains had yet to come. But the gates were closed for them. Probably much of the crops in the fields, greenhouses, and olive groves are ruined by now after nearly a month of forced neglect. It was the first day the gates were opened since Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah was followed closely by two more Jewish holidays — Yom Kippur and Succoth. The gates were closed throughout all three holidays. Today, when the gates were finally opened, the soldiers allowed only women and men older that 35 to go to work.

Muhammed, a young farmer, was so angry that he appeared to turn blue as he was shouting at an Arabic-speaking soldier. His two brothers had to pull him away. All three did not want to go home, knowing that that the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is approaching. Beginning October 27th, Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, making working in the fields a health risk. So we sat down under an olive tree and began the futile wait. At that moment, we heard an old woman shouting. It was Muhammed”s mother who had stopped a jeep and was demanding that the soldiers reopen the gate so she could cross back from the fields and to the village side. She had seen the confrontation her sons had had with the soldiers and wanted to be able to prevent any further trouble, both for her family and the other villagers.

By the time we sat down again for tea and cigarettes it was 8 a.m. The sun was making its ascent in the sky, dissipating the cool of the morning and bringing on the heat of the day. We”d been at the gate since 6 a.m. I took my jacket off, rolled it into a pillow and decided to take a nap. All the trees on the village side of the fence had been cleanly picked of olives, leaving no work for us. All those olives were already extra virgin oil by now — thick, green, beautiful stuff. But there was so much work to be done on the other side of the fence and time was running out.

The military had announced that the gates were going to be opened after Yom Kippur. But two events led to the extended closures. The fields between the 1967 Green Line and the "security fence" in Jayyous were declared "military zones" after a suicide bombing in Haifa and an armed attack on a settlement in Gaza. Jayyous and a few other communities were cut off from their fields or from their work places by the security fence, or wall, because the gates were not opened. People watched helplessly as their valuable crops ripened unharvested on the other side of the fence.

During the time of closures we kept going to the south gate because it was supposed to be opened for the children who live on the other side of the fence so they could attend school. One day last week I was with fellow Ecumenical Accompanier (EA) Maren, a Danish medical student visiting in Jayyous. It was 2 p.m., the time when the gate is to be opened so the children, with their mother Zarefeh, can go home. The soldiers were late but so was Zarefeh. The construction of the fence has been a particular hardship for her as she must spend her entire day in town after accompanying her children to school in the morning. Zarefeh”s tardiness created a nervous situation. "What if the soldiers don”t wait for the family?" I thought. We went to the gate and asked the soldiers to wait, initiating a tense 10 minutes.

Maren ran to the house where the children said their mother was. She came back huffing and puffing, reporting that Zarefeh was expecting some vegetables to be delivered. She did not want to move without her vegetables. "Oh, dear!" I thought. "I hope she knows what she is doing." I asked the soldiers if they could come back in half an hour and they agreed. One half hour later six jeeps arrived with 30 soldiers! But Zarefeh was still not at the gate.

Maren and I were scared at the seemingly inexplicable actions taken by the soldiers. Both sides of the road on the other side of the gate were blocked by four soldiers and the rest faced us with their rifles poised in our direction. Finally Zarefeh appeared, laden with vegetables of all sorts, as if she didn”t have a care in the world. She went right to the gate, asked the soldiers to open it, told the children to follow her with some vegetables, and disappeared down the hill as though nothing unusual had happened. Maren and I, the two foreigners, were the only ones sweating. We wondered if, because they were asked to wait so long, the soldiers thought that there was something sinister being schemed on our side of the fence, necessitating 30 soldiers for reinforcement. But Zarefeh, a tough Bedouin woman in black, was in command of the situation.

The following day, I went to the south gate again, this time with Louise and Arn, two more Danish EAs visiting Jayyous. This time there were farmers waiting, causing us to wonder if they had heard something we hadn”t. There was no problem getting Zarefeh and her children through to the village side of the fence. But the farmers were a different story due to the declaration of a "military zone." Louise went to the soldiers and said, "These people haven”t been to the fields for nearly a month! Their crops are being ruined." A grey-haired reservist with a pony tail looked at Louise and said, "I”m sorry. I”m just following orders." He looked sad and remorseful as he gave his reply.

Louise left the gate and went to sit with the women who were still lingering around, hoping somehow that they could still go to the olive groves in order to harvest. A few minutes later, I found all of the women with tears in their eyes. These were signs of the days of frustration that had been building up in all the people of Jayyous as they saw their livelihoods imprisoned and ruined behind a chain-link fence.

On our way back to the north gate we ran into some British aid workers who were sitting on a rock to catch their breath. We told them what had happened at the south gate and one replied, "You cried!? Good for you! I have been angry for so long that I forgot to cry. It”s the most helpful thing you could do."

Unhappy New Year to you Jayyous! Ramadan is nearly here and we wish all of Jayyous a proper month of fasting and prayers to acquire the strength to endure until a better day.

Tad, Ecumenical Accompanier

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