A regular stop in the tours that the settlers take you through the occupied territories (Judea and Samaria to them) is "Sharon's balcony". From this vantage point on the western side of the Samaria hills range, one can see "all of Israel", the whole coastal plain where most of the population lives, all (both) of Israel's power generating stations and Israel's single international airport. The message is self-explanatory; it illustrates the strategic "control" that the Palestinians will have if Israel stops controlling these territories. This "control" is meaningful however, only if a line-of-sight is actually required in order to launch a missile or fire an artillery shell, and that is something that may have last been true in the times of the bow and arrow, less so today.
Sharon, Israel's former (now comatose) prime minister, had quite a few of these "balconies" to which he took foreign visitors and journalists. The one I was taken to, on two tours, was in Peduel, a settlement of nice private houses, whose inhabitants commute to work across the "green line" to the Tel-Aviv area, 30 minutes away.
There, I noticed for the first time the collection of rusting metal barrels strewn in the open area around the settlement. As I passed near some of these on the foot trail to the vantage point, I peeked in to see what's inside. In most of them, there wasn't anything to see. In some, one could discern the remnants of a dead seedling. None had any irrigation, drip or otherwise. No seedling was tied to a pole, and as far as I could see, most were either standing on rocks or on a pile of stones with precious little soil underneath. Not a setting that would allow for high survival rates for the seedlings planted in those barrels.
At that time I thought that this was a remnant or a Tu-B'shvat tree planting ceremony. In these ceremonies, trees are planted to celebrate the Jewish day of trees but occasionally some of the trees die later for lack of care. I also assumed that the barrels are there to prevent goats and sheep from eating the fresh seedlings, and the barrel as a whole may serve as a rudimentary drip irrigation scheme where the barrel gets filled with water, and the water drain slowly through holes in the bottom, but then I noticed that the bottom was completely missing in most barrels, so that option was unlikely.
Later in the tour I noticed similar clusters of barrels in many locations in the occupied territories, but I got around to ask about those only on a later tour, of the southern Hebron mountain, with "breaking the silence" – an organization of reserve soldiers committed to tell the rest of us what they were forced to do as part of the occupying army. There I finally understood what "barrel farming" is all about, and it works like this:
Israel never applied the Israeli law in the occupied territories. The Israeli law is applied only to the Israeli citizens living in the occupied territories, the "settlers". A post (in Hebrew) about the anomalies this creates, is here.
The Arab population in the occupied territories is governed by a combination of military laws, enacted on a need-to basis, and the laws that were in effect in those territories prior to the Israeli occupation: the Jordanian law, the British Mandate law and before that, the law set by the Ottoman sultan. All these law systems are concurrently in force in the occupied territories, and Israel has the option to choose, in each case and for each situation separately, which law in that set of laws suits it best, or more accurately, suits the Palestinians less. And it does exactly that. A must-see documentary on exactly this topic is "the law in these parts".
The law for land ownership was pulled from the Ottoman law. An old Ottoman bylaw, designed to maximize taxes paid to the sultan, returns ownership of agricultural land back to the Sultan if it was not cultivated for more than 3 years, and on the other hand, gives land ownership to any farmer that has cultivated a plot of land more than 10 consecutive years. This applied to "Mawal" land, defined as plots of land far enough from the village to that the call of a cock at the edge of the village cannot be heard in them. Gives you inkling as to when these laws were written…
This Ottoman law is interpreted very loosely when applied to Jews in the territories, and a lot more narrowly when applied to Palestinians living there.
If a Palestinian does not cultivate his land for three years, due for example to the IDF preventing him from doing so, on a pretext that the plot is too close to a settlement and cultivating it poses a security risk, he loses ownership.
On the other hand, if a Jewish settler places some barrels in a plot of land (as in the picture below) and perhaps even plants a seedling in each, if he keeps the barrels on the same plot for ten consecutive years, the land becomes his. Even if no plant survives. Even if he has not spent a single minute watering, providing fertilizer or taking care of the plants in any way or form. Even if he "planted" the trees not on a 3 by 3 meter grid as typically done in orchards, or even on a 10 by 10 meter grid. As few as 4 barrels per Dunam (1000 square meters) will typically do in order to fake cultivation of the land.
The interpretation of this ottoman law is extremely liberal for Jews, but consider that Jews in the occupied territories are supposed to be solely under Israeli law, which does not support any form of Ottoman style land grab anyway.
So, why can't the Palestinians do the same, toss some barrels across a hilltop in order to gain ownership? Well, they can't. Definitely not in the 60% of the area under direct Israeli administrative and military control (area C). Their barrels will not survive a day. The settlers will remove them at gun point or paint them over and claim them to be theirs, again by force. The settlers are armed and have the backing of the army, the Palestinians can try to throw stones, but that's about it. Even if the barrels survive, and they manage to cultivate the trees, the settlers will likely cut the trees down on the first occasion they get, as they have done in olive orchards all over the territories.
The Palestinians will also not be able to water the trees. Water from wells is supplied only to Jewish farmers and if the Palestinians dig cisterns to collect rain water, these cisterns are considered "building without permit" and the IDF will send a bulldozer to plug them. Building permits are issued as a matter of course only to Jewish construction as the Israeli governor cannot spare the time, for almost 50 years now, to draw a plan for the Palestinians that would enable issuing building permits.
That's how it works.
The name of this post, "barrel distortion", is a term in optics. Camera lenses have it, and in modern digital cameras, post processing of the images can effectively correct such distortion. But no amount of post processing will be able to eliminate the "barrel distortion" in the images one sees daily in the occupied territories.
This post is an English version of an earlier Hebrew post. I thought it worthwhile to translate this one so that people who cannot read Hebrew can read this – I was that bothered by this cynical and abominable form of "farming".