Gazans Reclaim Destroyed Farmland
By Alan Johnston
April 05, 2005

Gaza - Zakariah Zaneen lowered the tiny orange tree gently into a hole he had dug on his farm in northern Gaza.

He shovelled the earth back in around the sapling and left it standing about knee-high - its leaves gleaming in the sunshine.

It was the first tree planted in what will be a new orchard - a replacement for the orchard that the Israeli army destroyed.

"Thank God," said Mr Zaneen. "This is a happy day for us and for the children and for the neighbours. I've waited a long time to be able to rebuild what the occupiers bulldozed on this farm."

Mr Zaneen was one of many farmers around the town of Beit Hanoun who had their orchards uprooted last summer.

Army bulldozers moved in and systematically laid waste some of the best farmland in Gaza. Tens of thousands of orange and lemon trees were torn out.

Bulldozer's Work

One of Mr Zaneen's neighbours, an elderly relative called Ahmad, remembers the day the soldiers came to wreck the orchard that he had tended all his life.

"We couldn't leave our houses because anyone who went out would have been shot - so we watched through a window," Ahmad said.

"We saw the bulldozer begin to harvest. It was like an earthquake. In an hour-and-a-half our green paradise was turned to dust.

"The trees were left lying in the tracks of the bulldozer - it was as if they were lying in their graves."

The Israelis said the trees around Beit Hanoun had to be destroyed because they were providing cover for Palestinian militants who were launching rocket attacks.

A frequent target was the town of Sderot, which lies just a few kilometres away - beyond Gaza's perimeter fence - in southern Israel.

'Shelter for Militants' There were several deaths in Sderot last summer. Among them was that of Afik Zahavi, a four-year-old boy killed when a rocket fired from Gaza came crashing down near a nursery school.

Palestinians often justified these attacks by saying they were retaliation for the deaths they suffered almost every day under Israeli army occupation in Gaza.

But Israel said no nation would tolerate the random bombardment of its homes, schools and offices by groups like Hamas - which say they are committed to Israel's destruction.

The orchards that sheltered the militants had to go.

But you meet farmers like Ahmad and Zakariah Zaneen who say that they had nothing to do with the militants - and that rockets were never fired from their fields. They believe they were victims of collective punishment on a grand scale.

They say that the destruction of Beit Hanoun's wells and greenhouses had nothing to do with Israel's security. The farmers believe the army was trying to break their community economically.

The army says no.

"Exposing these areas where there were trees and wells and infrastructure used by terrorists to fire rockets from was very necessary," says Captain Yshai David, of the Israeli Defence Forces. "It helped the IDF have better visibility and it pushed the terrorists back."

Gaza Spring

It is spring in Gaza now. A time to plant again - and a time of some hope for peace.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has urged the militants to halt their attacks on Israeli targets. He says it is time to try to negotiate an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

But, even as they start the long, hard effort to bring their wrecked orchards back to life, there is little real optimism among the farmers.

They fear that there will be more violence, and that one day the bulldozers will be back - perhaps long before their fields bear fruit.

"Believe me it will happen again," said one of the farmers. "There's no trust between the governments."

But the farmer said that it was still worth replanting.

"This is my land. If you destroy it, I will rebuild it. If you destroy it every day, I will rebuild it."