Israelis keep farmers from their fields with taut curfew in occupied territories WAR IN THE GULF


EL-UJA, Israeli-Occupied Territory -- From the dusty soil, Ali Abugush lifted a fat eggplant and stared scornfully at the sickly yellow tinge spread across its skin.

He tossed it aside. With the frustration of a man whose long faith in the earth now mocked him, he ripped one after another of the rotting vegetables from their drooped vines and threw each away in disgust. None wore the glossy black shine that would lure a buyer at the market.

"I was supposed to pick them 15 days ago. Everything is ruined," the farmer said angrily.

The curfew imposed by Israel on the West Bank and Gaza Strip has brought ruin to thousands of Palestinian farmers like Mr. Abugush. Some analysts say most of the winter crop is a loss, a staggering blow to an industry that provides one-third of the income for 1.7 million people.

Soldiers carrying automatic weapons prevented farmers from picking vegetables that had come ripe, from starting water pumps for the frequent irrigation needed in this dry land, from putting sheep and goats out to pasture, from spreading fertilizer to make their plants grow or chemicals to protect them from disease.

Instead, the farmers have been confined to their homes since Jan. 17.

"Agriculture faces serious, serious problems," said Maher Nasser, an official of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Mr. Abugush, a solidly built man of 60 with creases on his weathered face that merged with the white folds of his kaffiyeh headdress, spent harvest days lying on the thin mat that is his bed. The open land here lets Israeli lookouts on the nearby hills easily spot an attempt to sneak into the fields. An attempt could mean jail, a fine or worse.

Yesterday, during a break in the curfew, he inspected the results of his absence.

He seized a tomato plant festooned with what looked like small cherry tomatoes. "They should be that big," he said, thrusting forward the open palm of his hand. Without life-giving water from his irrigation pumps, they had withered.

The economic repercussions of keeping such a large population stagnant have become impossible to ignore, and Israeli military authorities began easing restrictions this week. Yesterday, Defense Minister Moshe Arens met with leaders of the Gaza Strip, and the government announced that Palestinians would be allowed to go to work in Israel starting Sunday.

Israeli authorities fear that loosening of the curfew will invite a resumption of violence. Yesterday, two Arabs suspected of collaborating with Israel were murdered in the West Bank town of Jenin.

Mr. Abugush dismisses such concerns with a wave of a hand: "I do not speak of politics," he replied. "I speak only of how to feed my family."

That has become more difficult since the war began, he said. He had gone into debt for about $7,500 to stores that advanced him seeds for his field, plastic to line the rows of tomato plants to protect them from the cold, and fuel to run the pump that reaches down to an underground river.

When the vegetables ripened, he expected to repay the debt with a profit to spare. That prospect is gone. He salvaged some peppers -- turned red on the vine from a more-profitable green. But they sit in boxes in the field, unsold. The local market is glutted with the offerings of other farmers who also used the first eight-hour break in the curfew to pick peppers.

The curfew has shattered economic ties. Every few days there is a brief intermission to allow people to rush to the market. But workers without income for three weeks have no money.

Economist Abdel Fattah Abu Shukor estimates 30,000 agricultural workers have been frozen from their jobs. Losses of wages are nearly $45 million a week, he said.

"Business is very bad. Nobody has any money," said Mohammed Hafedh, overseeing a roadside vegetable market in Jericho.

Without customers, merchants have stopped buying from farmers who, desperate to sell what crops they had salvaged, have drastically lowered their prices.

In the dusty courtyard of his home, Mr. Abugush and his family explained the dilemma ahead.

"I have no more money until next year," he said. "I will have to borrow to plant again. I will have to borrow

food to eat."

He got up, and with hands as cracked as the soil they know well, offered a visitor tea sweetened by the family's dwindling supply of sugar. His kitchen contained flour enough for 10 days, rice for five days. There was no meat, milk or poultry.

Najah, at 15 the youngest of his eight children, sat in a bright pink wheelchair. Disabled at birth, she had lived most of her life in a home near Jerusalem cared for by German missionaries. When the war broke out, the Germans left the country, her school closed because of the curfew, and Najah returned home.

"She needs special food and special things that I cannot provide," said Mr. Abugush. "Two days ago she asked for a hot water bottle to make it more comfortable. It's nothing -- 10 or 15 shekels. But I could not afford it. I have no money."

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