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Women's day 2020: Dreaming of harvest in a war-zone

Intesar a-Najar, a 53 year old farmer from the town of Jabalya in the Gaza Strip, is a mother of 11 children and the sole breadwinner in the family. Time and again, Israel destroyed her plot of land; time and again, Intesar replanted, watered, picked and served. Her husband cannot work as he has severe chronic illnesses and has had limited mobility following an injury from Israeli shelling in 2008. Intesar runs between her plot of land and her kitchen, where she makes couscous for sale. On 22 January 2020, she spoke to B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd about the challenges in her life:

Intesar a-Najar in her fields

I started working in farming before I was married, as it is my family’s primary profession. As a nine-year-old, I helped my father tend to our land, which lies each of Jabaliya, a kilometer from the fence.

When I was 15, I married my cousin, who worked in construction in Israel. My husband has chronic medical conditions, bone infections and depression. So, as far back as 1990, when I had four young kids, I decided to go back to cultivating the land I had inherited from my father. My young children, Hasan, Hussein, Rashad and Maryam came along and watched me do everything myself: plow, sow, plant, water, fertilize and spray the crops. Among the olive and lemon trees I planted okra, mulukhiyah, broad beans and white beans.

Four years later, my husband stopped working in Israel and things were very tough financially. His health got worse, until he was almost paralyzed. After he went to Egypt for treatment, he managed to walk again. I become the sole breadwinner for a family of thirteen.

In 2004, the Israelis ruined all my crops, destroyed my well and uprooted everything. It was a catastrophe for me. My only source of income was gone.

With some of her crop

Since I couldn’t get to my land, I decided to start making couscous and selling it to shops in Gaza. I made only 400 shekels (approx. 115 dollars) a month, but there was no other choice – I knew I had to work and provide for my family.

It took six months until I could get back to my land! I couldn’t believe it was really happening. I was so happy, I almost flew through the air on my way there. As I was walking, I came across a shepherd who noticed me and said: “You’re lost”. He helped me find my plot. In the end, I identified it thanks to some banana trees I’d planted before the military destroyed everything. The land was barren, I didn’t recognize it.

I couldn’t start growing again because I didn’t have the money to rehabilitate the land. I left it deserted for several months. When the Red Cross came to help rehabilitate lands with bulldozers, I sowed some winter seeds. I couldn’t plant any summer crops because there weren’t any wells left in the area, after the military destroyed them all. I went back to farming while making couscous at home and selling it.

In 2008, during the war, my husband was injured by an artillery shelling close to our house. As a result, he is generally handicapped, partially deaf, and has shrapnel in his body and spine. Since then, he hasn’t worked at all. He can’t even help me in the field and stays home all day.

Every Israeli invasion and every war destroys the land entirely, along with the trees and saplings, which cost me a lot of money and effort to purchase and cultivate. I haven’t enjoyed full harvest even once. Whenever I get my hopes up because the harvest is finally coming, the bulldozers arrive and I go through the sadness and difficulty again.

In the field

In recent years, farmers have become very poor. I owe a lot of money to merchants, because I extract very little out of the land. The Israeli military fires bullets and teargas at us and sprays the land with pesticides that ruin the crops and cause us heavy losses. When the crops get sick, we have no solutions, because Israel does not allow substances that could help treat plant diseases into Gaza.

Still, I’m not giving up. The airstrikes have destroyed the crops again and again, but in the lulls between the fighting I’ve restored the plot and replanted broad beans, peas, potatoes and other vegetables. Some we use ourselves, and some I sell at the market. I planted citrus and olive trees, and dug a new well together with farmers from nearby plots. I go to work at six every morning and stay there all day. Sometimes I sleep on my plot, in a shack I built out of tin sheets, so I can get everything done. Even when it’s quieter and I manage to grow something – there’s always uncertainty and anxiety, because in Gaza, you never know what tomorrow will bring.