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After 18 years, Palestinian farmers gain access to their lands

An illegal Israeli settlement has been established on their land. Yet after a successful legal action, Muhammed and Salim have recently been able to enter their agricultural lands again.

Palestinians farmers Muhammad Sabah (58), and Salim Sabah (67). Photo : Garry Walsh Palestinians farmers Muhammad Sabah (58), and Salim Sabah (67). Photo : Garry Walsh

It takes courage, perseverance and grit to keep fighting for your rights for nearly two decades. Palestinians have a word for it – ‘sumud’. This translates as ‘steadfastness’.

Muhammad and Salim Sabah are Palestinians farmers with sumud in spades. An illegal Israeli settlement has been established on land owned by their family, south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. For 18 years, the Israeli military have prevented the family from accessing their lands.

Due to a successful legal action through Trócaire’s partner organisation Haqel, Muhammed and Salim have recently been able to enter their agricultural land again after so long.

“Even if our people were killed here, we would come back” says Muhammad. “It’s like the air for us. We used to live here for many, many years.”

The Israeli settlement of Ma’aleh Rehavam was established in 2001 on their land. This is a painful memory for the farmers. Prior to that, the Zir and Sabah families lived on 90 acres of land here and grew wheat and barley. They used to store grain in caves and used cisterns for watering their crops and flocks of sheep.

“We used to come here and no-one would prevent us from coming here. In the spring and the winter, we came here because it’s warmer, so we used to live here for at least six months” the family tells us.

Since the establishment of the Israeli settlement, the farmers became afraid to access the lands as a result of violent attacks and theft. The settlers used firearms and vicious dogs. The family say that one of their cousins was even killed. Following this violence and harassment, the families felt unsafe to try and access the land, and the settlers took over the land.

“We came with our sheep and we were violently attacked” says Muhammad of an attempt he and Salim made to visit the land in 2014. Salim, 61 at the time, says he was pushed to the ground by the violent settlers and threatened with a gun. They were worried for their lives.

The experience of the Sabah family is not unique. There are over half a million Israeli settlers now living in settlements built on Palestinian land in the West Bank. As settlements expand, Palestinian families have their homes demolished, or are unable to access their olive groves or their farms. Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, and are a major obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Salim Sabah (67) was violently attacked by Israeli settlers when trying to access the family’s land. Photo: Garry Walsh/Trócaire. Salim Sabah (67) was violently attacked by Israeli settlers when trying to access the family’s land. Photo: Garry Walsh/Trócaire.
Muhammad Sabah (58). Photo: Garry Walsh/Trócaire. Muhammad Sabah (58). Photo: Garry Walsh/Trócaire.
Muhammad Sabah (58), and Salim Sabah (67), and Armagh’s All-Ireland winner and professional counsellor Oisín McConville, look out to the illegal Israeli settlement of Ma'aleh Rehavam established on their land. McConville met the farmers while travelling to the West Bank to support Trócaire’s work. Photo: Garry Walsh/Trócaire. Muhammad Sabah (58), and Salim Sabah (67), and Armagh’s All-Ireland winner and professional counsellor Oisín McConville, look out to the illegal Israeli settlement of Ma'aleh Rehavam established on their land. McConville met the farmers while travelling to the West Bank to support Trócaire’s work. Photo: Garry Walsh/Trócaire.

“We never lost hope”

This is not an area of the world where you often hear good news. Settlements continue to expand and create misery for Palestinian families like the Sabah family.

Yet these families can often still use the law to try and demand their rights. Despite the huge challenges, Trócaire’s legal projects do manage to get farmers back on their land against the odds.

For over a year, our local partner organisation Haqel has taken legal action with the Israeli authorities on behalf of the Sabah family. Haqel demanded that the families access their lands and be protected. Initial letters remained unanswered. However, following the filing of a legal petition, the Israeli army finally withdrew its opposition.

After almost two decades, the Israeli army allowed the farmers to enter their lands again. With their land in bad shape, they brought tractors and began to plough the fields. They plan on cultivating wheat for the next harvesting season.

“Hope is always here. We always wanted to keep the land and we never lost hope” the family members tell us. However the threat of violence is still real and they will need the protection of the Israeli army to continue to access the land.

This is still a significant success, and brings hope to the family and to many other farmers.

“We hope we can remain here” says Muhammad. “So many people over the world struggle to help us. This gives us hope.”

After 18 years, the families gain access to plough their lands. Photo : Haqel. After 18 years, the families gain access to plough their lands. Photo : Haqel.

Success stories like this are possible because of your support to our work.

This year, Trócaire’s funding has been hit badly by the Coronavirus crisis. The people your donations support overseas are among the poorest and most marginalised people in the world. People like Muhammed and Salim.

This crisis affects us all. But together we will defeat it.

Please support our appeal so we can continue our work.

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