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From the field

Testimony: Israel prevents elderly resident of Bethlehem from harvesting his olives, which lie on the other side of the Separation Barrier, October 2009

Elias Mariyyeh, 80

Muhammad Eqneibi

I am eighty years old. I've seen a lot in my life. The most important thing to me is my land, which I can't get to. Nobody else in my family can get to our lands either, to plow them and pick the fruit.

I have twenty-seven dunams of land [almost seven acres] with olive trees. Seven dunams are in a-Tantur and thirteen in Khallet Mar Elias, behind Checkpoint 300. Another seven dunams are in Jaren al-Hams, under Har Homa. All these lands lie behind the separation fence north of Bethlehem.

Every time olive-harvest time comes, I have lots of trouble, because my sons and I can't get to our land to pick the olives, eat them, and make oil from them. I have hundreds of olive trees, but since the beginning of the second intifada we've barely been able to get to our land. I get no benefit from the fruit.

Since the separation fence was built, it's been impossible to get to our lands. During the harvests of 2005 and 2006, I went, along with a few farmers who have land in the same area, to the Palestinian liaison office and applied for a permit to get to our land. The Israeli officials in Etzion refused, saying it was forbidden to go to land on the other side of the separation fence. We lost the crop those two years.

In 2007 and 2008, all farmers with land on the other side of the fence, to the north of Bethlehem, were asked to go to the Bethlehem Municipality to submit a form with details about their land. We went and did that. The Municipality prepared lists of owners of land on the other side of the fence and of some of their family members. This list was handed over to the Palestinian liaison officials and they forwarded it to the Israeli officials in Etzion. We were surprised when the Israelis gave permits to enter the land, but the permits were only for the landowners and not their family members. This caused a great problem for us, because you need lots of people to pick the dozens of olive trees. You also need equipment and special tools for the harvest, which the landowner can't carry all by himself. So giving a permit only to the owner was a problem, not to mention that the permit was only for a few hours during the harvest. The permit also required passing through the gate at Beit Sahur, meaning that the farmer has to walk a long and hard path to his land, which takes about an hour. It's obvious that the farmer can't carry all the tools he needs for the harvest.

This was a tough situation for all the farmers, especially for elderly ones like me. I'm eighty years old. To get from my house to the road in front of it, one of my sons has to help me. So how can I go alone to my land, and walk the long way through the gate? So I couldn't get to my land during the 2007 and 2008 harvest. Despite my yearning for my land, I didn't think I could make it there on my own. I'm afraid I'll die without saying goodbye to my land, which I've been tied to from the day I was born.

This year, 2009, we went, in early October, to the Bethlehem Municipality and met with the mayor. He said he would file a list with the names of the landowners and one family member for each, so they could get permits to enter the land north of Bethlehem.

Three days ago, we heard from the Bethlehem Municipality that the Israeli officials in Etzion did not issue permits. There is a new condition: the farmers with land on the other side of the fence have to provide documents showing they own the land. This is a new procedure. Of course, this takes time, and the olive harvest has already begun. Now the farmers are afraid they'll lose the harvest before the permits arrive. I've already lost this season. This is the sixth season that I haven't been able to get to my land for the olive harvest.

Elias Judah Anton Mariyyeh, 80, married with two children, is a farmer who lives in Bethlehem. He gave his testimony to Suha Zeid at his home on 7 October 2009.