Israel shuts down office of Palestinian agricultural union in Ramallah
The Israeli army shut down the headquarters of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) in Ramallah on Wednesday, breaking down the office door and confiscating computers and documents.
The soldiers then barred the main door with solid metal plates and pasted a military order on the door, closing it for six months, stating that the decision was "necessary to maintain public order and the security of the Israeli army".
Established in 1986, the UAWC is a non-profit organisation and one of the largest agricultural development institutions in Palestine.
Rizeq Bargouthi, a member of the board of directors of the UAWC, said that the decision to close the union's headquarters is part of an ongoing attack by the Israeli army against the UAWC.
“Our organisation's activity is focused on agriculture and our sole motto is ‘we protect our land and defend our people,’ and this motto is worrisome for them,” he said.
“There was no security reason to demand the closure of UAWC headquarters.
"We are nothing but an organisation that successfully endeavours to take care of land and farmers and help them. Our agricultural projects are public and transparent.”
The UAWC was founded by a group of agronomists, and is heavily dependent on volunteers who have formed agricultural committees across the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip.
The committees work with Palestinian farmers to help them set production targets, and to implement the union's programmes and community activities.
About 200 UAWC employees work in the West Bank and Gaza, including administrative officers, agronomists, field workers and volunteers.
'Killing them on their land'
The UAWC organises popular campaigns to support Palestinian farmers standing up to Israeli attacks on their land during the different agricultural seasons.
“Ounah” is one of the important campaigns organised by the union, especially during the olive season, attracting activists from around the world to help the Palestinian farmers collect their olives, particularly in dangerous areas repeatedly targeted by settlers.
'Where is the terrorism in what we do? We work on rehabilitating the land and supporting poor farmers; there is no terrorism in that.'
- Rizeq Bargouthi, UAWC
The union also builds agricultural roads, irrigates land, drills wells, and rehabilitates agricultural land rehabilitation across Area C, which is under full Israeli civil and military control.
Palestinians living in the parts of the West Bank designated Area C, where Israeli settlements continue to expand at the expense of Palestinians, are constantly threatened with the seizure of their lands under various pretexts – the most notorious of which is the Israeli claim that a plot of land has been abandoned, even as Palestinian farmers are prevented from reaching it.
The UAWC is among the few non-profit organisations that provide such services to Palestinians, and has had a tremendous influence on agricultural development, particularly in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has failed to provide such support.
Bargouthi said: “We are the opposition to the settlements.
"We protect the land from the Israeli settlement beast and help the farmer to stay on his land, while Israel does exactly the opposite: confiscating lands, chasing farmers, harassing them and killing them on their land.”
'We refuse to give up our activities'
The UAWC said it would continue its activities and would not be constrained by the closure of its West Bank office.
It will also remain operational in the Gaza Strip, where the second branch of the union is located.
“We work with farmers on the ground, and we will pursue work on our land and under the trees," said Bargouthi.
"We refuse to give up our activities because we respect our people, who count on us.
"Israel seeks to destroy us as humans by stealing the land beneath our feet.
"However, our resilience and steadfastness are unshakable and we will not give up the land that our people have been defending and dying for; it is happening right now in Beita, where the Israeli occupation army killed five Palestinians who were protesting against the establishment of a new settlement on Sobeih mountain.”
Bargouthi said that the Israeli army has persistently targeted the union and attacked it on social media, claiming it supported terrorism.
“Where is the terrorism in what we do? We work on rehabilitating the land and supporting poor farmers; there is no terrorism in that,” he said.
The shutting down of the UAWC office comes a month after Israeli forces raided the Union of Health Workers Committee (UHWC) headquarters in Ramallah.
At the time, Amnesty International warned of “catastrophic consequences” for Palestinians in need of medical attention following the six-month closure of the UHWC office, which provides vital health services to Palestinians.
Saleh Higazi, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said that the targeting of the UHWC was part of a wider attack by Israel on Palestinian civil society organisations.
“The Health Workers Committees is one of the main providers of health services in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, running hospitals and health clinics providing medical care to marginalized communities," Higazi said.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces also detained the director of the UHWC, Shaza Abu Owda, and confiscated a vehicle belonging to the NGO.
Bargouthi said the closure of the UAWC office was part of a collective punishment policy adopted by the Israeli army against union employees and Palestinian farmers, with UAWC projects and activities benefiting around 20,000 Palestinians a year.