Safat Hamduna is 23. He is an agriculture student. We’re standing at his cucumber field in the outskirts of Beit Lahia, a small town in the north of Gaza.
I didn’t arrange for a meeting with him. I was driving a narrow road through fields to look at the agricultural plots near the wall that divides Gaza and Israel. Safat Hamduna was the first person I met at the vegetable patch. He agreed to talk to me.
He comes from a farmers’ family. They’re not refugees, they own a large plot, and his family has been living on this land for many generations. Him and his brothers work 10 to 12 hours a day. Their relatives and neighbours also work with them.
I see the Israeli border wall, towers and numerous surveillance devices along the horizon. The wall chopped away a 500-meter soil stripe of the Hamdunas’ property. He pointed where his plot used to stretch in the past. They weren’t paid any compensation for it. They do have ownership documents for this plot.
‘See this green field border, and then sand? This is our land too. But they evened it out with their bulldozer. One cannot approach the wall any closer. This rule works for all farmers’, Safat said. He explained that Israelis removed the fertile soil layer and took it away. He used the word ‘they’ instead of ‘Israelis’ or ‘Jews’. Every time I had to clarify who he was talking about. And he was pointing at the wall.
I asked what would happen if anyone got closer to the wall and started farming in his 500-meter land area.
‘They’d kill you’, he replied and smiled in an attempt of softening his simple answer. ‘They ordered cutting down old and tall trees. We can cultivate only the low-growing plants. We cannot plant olive trees. They told us to remove sheds, or they would bomb them. Working in fields is dangerous; they can start shooting any moment. During seven months, seven of our neighbours were killed. Two weeks ago, they were shelling. They arrived in tanks and destroyed our irrigation system for no reason at all. They were shooting in the morning again. They’ve been shooting at our house for four days now’, Safat said.
I asked what party him and his family belonged to. Safat laughed:
‘We’re farmers, not politicians. We work on the land’.
‘Perhaps they though that you were supporting Hamas, that’s why they were shelling your place’, I asked.
‘They’re doing it because they don’t want any Palestinians around, farmers or not, whether we are for Hamas or against it’, Safat replied.
‘Are there Hamas members among farmers?’, I asked.
‘You have to understand, farmers don’t have time for politics. Those who become involved in politics are present in all parties. But they don’t live here, they don’t work in the fields. They know about it, but they don’t care who they’re shelling’, Safat believes.
I asked whether he saw those who could launch missiles to Israel from here. Safat didn’t know a spot for launching missiles in this area.
He pointed to the wall: ‘See these towers, there’re topped with cameras. They’re moving all the time as they react automatically to any suspicious motion. During the day, they keep watching. If they shoot they see that they’re shooting just farmers. If a dog runs out in the dark, they shoot it automatically’.
I asked whether they could see us now. ‘Of course they see us’, Safat was convinced. He pointed towards their surveillance location.
‘What if I write ‘don’t shoot’ on a piece of paper, would they see it?’
‘No’, Safat smiled again. ‘They see just the outlines of our bodies sanding and talking’.
His brother Kamal is 19, he is a student as well. He comes closer to join our conversation: ‘We’re growing plants that we wouldn’t feel too sorry about if they got destroyed. We cannot sell anything abroad, as Israel is in control of everything. They drive their bulldozers across fields, rather than roads. During the war, they threw farmers away and destroyed their crops. See this portable plastic container?’ He pointed at an inflatable cube swaying in the wind.
‘We organized it when the Red Cross told us to take our shed apart, according to Israel’s order. If we didn’t follow it, they’d hit it. We moved our shed several times, and then we gave it up. Now we have this portable one. We’re not refugees, as refugees don’t own land. Where would we go? This is our land, our source of nourishment. True, it’s dangerous to work on it. But we have no way out’.
I asked how they were coping with exploded mines after the bombing.
‘There were many bombs left after the war. When we see something suspicious we call for police and engineers’, Kamal replied.
I asked whether they had clashes with Israelis after the war, other than shelling.
‘We sure did. They’ve been driving their armoured vehicles up here. Last week, Israelis came and took away a farmer’s horse that he was using for ploughing. They instructed the farmer to lie on the ground, and if he disobeyed, they’d shoot him and say he was a terrorist. Two days later, they brought the horse back. They use our horses to check for mines’, Kamal explained.
The Hamduna brothers are lucky that they still have their land, and their family, a home. They managed to recover their crops after the bombing in 2008 and 2009. They’re alive. And they can pay for their education.
In the Gaza Strip, 1.1 out of 1.5 million people are refugees, i.e. those who don’t own land. After the Operation Cast Led that had destroyed all workshops and factories, they don’t have work either. Thus, the Hamduna farmers are just the luckiest people ever.