Israel's security fence, dividing lives

The wall that slices deep into Palestinian land has made Israelis feel safer, but left Palestinians bitter.

Published January 13, 2005 12:15AM (EST)

The world of Abu Salih, 77, keeps getting smaller. Every day, the old man sits in his nursery at sunset, wearing a black-and-white traditional Palestinian headdress, the keffiyeh. Rows of the small oleander and olive trees Salih sells are lined up behind him. The Israeli wall towers in front of his shop less than 30 feet away, casting long afternoon shadows. Abu Salih is filled with bitterness as he looks at colored graffiti on the concrete wall and remembers the land on the other side, the land that was taken away from him.

Salih and his town of Kalkilya are now completely surrounded by the wall and its checkpoints. At first, his fellow Palestinians were driven to leave Kalkilya, but now the city's inhabitants are locked in. The wall rises more than 25 feet on the western edge of town. In the northern and southern sections of Kalkilya, the security installation widens to include a strip up to 150 feet wide of fences and ditches. A single gate on its eastern end connects Kalkilya with the rest of the West Bank.

"I feel like a bird in a cage," says Abu Salih, hitting the earth in front of his plastic chair with a stick. About 40,000 people live in Kalkilya, which has become essentially a walled-in city. Before the first phase of the fence went up in 2003, close to 15,000 residents commuted to Israel to work in the fields or in road construction. Nowadays, those who don't have a border pass sit around in the walled-in city or spend their days elsewhere looking for work. About 640 shops have already closed, and more than 6,000 of the city's inhabitants have moved away.

Palestinians and Israelis living in the shadow of the security wall now know firsthand what it's like to live in a divided country. Here, along the historic 1948 Israeli border, the so-called green line, the security wall has destroyed bonds that had been nurtured for years, places where Israeli and Palestinian cities had grown together. There is little evidence here of the much-touted prospects for peace that filled diplomatic rhetoric after the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in November. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may view Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a potential herald of peace, Sharon may release Palestinian prisoners, and Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, may call for an end to violence, but there is little sense of a vision of successful cooperation between two independent states here along the border.

Kfar Saba, Israel

When Shosh Griffel, 72, looks out of the window of her spotless kitchen on the 11th floor of a high-rise apartment building, she now has a view of the wall surrounding Kalkilya. Others may find it depressing, but for Griffel, a retired nurse, it's a reassuring sight. "I thank God," she says, "that this wall exists. I feel safer now."

Palestinian terrorists have attacked Kfar Saba, a town bordering the occupied West Bank, six times. Once an attacker fired on pedestrians in the center of the town, killing an 18-year-old student. Another time, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Kfar Saba's train station.

For Griffel, these incidents only strengthen her conviction that no one can trust "the Arabs." "They make a big show of welcoming you into their homes," she says, "but be careful not to turn your back on them." Griffel, who was born in Jerusalem, holds these views despite the fact that her family was saved by an Arab during anti-Semitic riots in Palestine in 1936. She is a member of the peace-oriented Labor Party. Nevertheless, she no longer wants any contact with Palestinians, a sentiment terrorism has prompted many Israelis to share.

"I don't even notice the Palestinians anymore, I just ignore them," admits Ofra Nachmias, an unemployed marketing specialist. Her small house is on a quiet, tree-lined street in the heart of Kfar Saba. Nevertheless, Nachmias, a mother of three, finds it unacceptable "that we have created a sort of apartheid system in the Palestinian territories." That's why she believes that the security fence must be removed again one day, because "it will only create more hatred in the long run." Her daughters attend Kfar Saba's Democratic School, which places a special emphasis on tolerance and reconciliation. Nachmias' daughter Talian, 15, has met with Arab teenagers, and the experience taught her that while they may wear different clothing, they aren't all that different. Her friend Jarden Sneor, 14, says: "We live five minutes away from them, but we know nothing about each other."

School in Ras Atiya, directly at the security wall, West Bank

They have never seen Jews who were not in uniform. For Baraa Ratik, 15, and Nibal Marabi, 11, the only Israelis they know are soldiers who block their way when they go to school, search their book bags, divide their life into zones they can enter and zones that are off-limits, and who break up their days into an hour-by-hour rhythm they cannot comprehend. They can't imagine that Jews could also have been victims, both throughout history and in the present. Neither side sees the other as victims. The other is always the culprit here.

The two girls live in the sealed-off zone between Kalkilya and Ras Atiya, imprisoned in the middle of the West Bank by a security wall that separates them from their friends and their school on the other side of the fence. According to the U.N., only 15 percent of the Israeli security facilities run along the official green line between Israel and the West Bank. The remaining 85 percent are installed in Palestinian territory, suddenly transforming 400 square kilometers into a no-man's land between the new border and Israel.

Classes ended more than an hour ago, but Baraa and Nibal are still waiting to go home. Checkpoint 36 at Ras Atiya is open three times a day, each time for exactly one hour and 15 minutes. Three times a day, Israeli soldiers drive to the checkpoint and open the steel doors positioned between ditches and fences.

The short window of time in which the security wall is opened forces the girls into isolation. Their friends live on the school side of the fence, but they have little time to play. Gate 36 opens for the last time at 5:30 p.m. If they miss this opportunity, they'll be unable to return home to their families on the other side. When asked why they don't move away, move to a place where lives aren't unnecessarily complicated by walls and barbed wire, they say, "No, if we don't pass through this gate every day to go to school, the Israelis will shut it completely."

Kibbutz Eyal, Israel

Pine, palm and eucalyptus trees line the paths in this kibbutz. It's a peaceful, idyllic place surrounded by greenery. Each family has a small house with a garden. Two technology companies owned by the kibbutz, farms and a number of small companies provide plenty of work. The kibbutz even has a bar, "Coral." It was shut down after the second intifada began, but kibbutz secretary Nimrod Siv, 54, hopes it will open its doors again next summer, so that local inhabitants can once again sit down for a drink and relax in the adjacent country club, with its swimming pool and playgrounds.

"The fence is good for us," says Siv. He points to the south, to the unwelcome neighboring Palestinian city of Kalkilya. The houses of Arabs are visible from the edge of the kibbutz, and the voice of the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer carries over to Kibbutz Eyal.

The kibbutz manager complains that "even before the intifada, they came from over there and ransacked our fields. They stole irrigation hoses, seed and fruit, and they set our fields on fire. The attacks caused a tremendous amount of economic damage. Those days are over now." Siv believes that the security wall is a good idea, and that it should remain in place. "A clear division is the best way to begin a new relationship with the Palestinians," he says.

Chuffin military base, West Bank

Captain Sohar is young, friendly and almost annoyingly good-humored. The 28-year-old holds a new kind of position in the Israeli army. He and his unit have been assigned to guard the security fence between Israel and the Palestinian territories at its most strategic point, a coastal plain northeast of Tel Aviv that is densely populated by both Jews and Arabs. Most of the soldiers working in the control room, where all data and images generated by Israel's high-tech electronic monitoring system come together, are young and female. Suddenly a 1980s song by Queen begins blaring from loudspeakers in the room: "Another one bites the dust." In this place, however, the rock music isn't for entertainment. It's an alarm signal indicating that someone or something has touched the fence. Highly sensitive sensors are activated by even the most innocent contact: Palestinian school children throwing stones at the hated wall on their way home, stray dogs coming too close to the barrier.

But Israeli soldiers often face more critical situations. A few months ago, for example, a suicide bomber riding a bicycle blew himself up at one of the checkpoints. More recently, the captain's Druze scout discovered a 25-pound package bomb, which the Israelis managed to defuse before it could explode.

But with the exception of an attacker who managed to breach the wall in July 2003 by crawling through Kalkilya's sewage system, the Israeli government considers its 600-kilometer security fence, of which the first 200-kilometer section has already been completed, a success. According to government sources, the number of victims of terrorist attacks in the protected territory has dropped by 84 percent as a result of the security wall and military missions. Israeli officials hope that Palestinians also appreciate the difference. In fact, Captain Sohar has trouble understanding why the Palestinians are complaining. "We just cause trouble for those who get involved with terrorism," he claims. "We have installed gates so that the farmers can get to their fields. The hours of operation are oriented toward their needs."

When asked why the gates are not kept open all day long, he responds brusquely: "Three times a day. That's enough."

An olive plantation in the sealed-off zone near Isla, across from the Alfei Menashe settlement

Both Israelis and Palestinians like to picnic on a terrace built on a small hill between the Palestinian village of Isla and the Alfei Menashe Jewish settlement. It's a peaceful setting where local families sit next to a cistern surrounded by a small stone wall, between oleander shrubs and cacti, gazing down at the disputed valley below. Osman Suleiman, 50, lays out a lunch of figs and fresh flatbread flavored with thyme on a wooden table. He says that his family has been coming here for generations, that his father built the little wall encircling the space. "The settlers who come here from Alfei Menashe know nothing about the land they have stolen," says Suleiman, "they don't know the history of the trees they cut down to build their roads."

Suleiman walks down into the valley and points to a tiny plot of land where only the stumps of felled olive trees remain. The land sits between a building being constructed for Jewish settlers and a road where bulldozers are still digging into the earth. "My land was where the road is now," the farmer says. Even before the court had issued a ruling in his case, Suleiman found out that the government was claiming the field adjacent to his. "I won the lawsuit for the farm land they're turning into a road now," he says, with a wry smile, "but to compensate me, they offered me the land they have just confiscated."

Alfei Menashe settlement, West Bank

The road leading into this Jewish settlement is fast and convenient, but Palestinians aren't allowed to use it. The fact that it passes through Palestinian territory isn't readily apparent. But it's a fact that the Israelis who live in Alfei Menashe have long since put out of their minds. "We are only two kilometers behind the border," says settler Roni Benjamini, 28, "and you don't get the feeling here that you're in the territories." The settlers feel validated by the security fence. "Now we clearly belong to Israel," they say.

The truth is that settlements like Alfei Menashe are to blame for the fence cutting so deeply into the West Bank. The barrier makes a wide loop around the settlement, separating a number of Palestinian villages from the surrounding territory. Ironically, Alfei Menashe already had its own security fence, which had been very effective in protecting the settlers from attack in the past. Chisdai Elieser is the 49-year-old mayor of the settlement, which was established by the government in 1983 to house retired military officers and secret service agents. He doesn't believe that the future of Alfei Menashe is in jeopardy. "Even the most radical, left-wing peace plans have us on the Israeli side. We will never be removed." Gaining more territory was also what then Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon had in mind in the 1970s, when he aggressively pushed for the construction of Jewish settlements.

Alfei Menashe is a jewel among the Jewish outposts near the green line. It boasts generously proportioned apartment buildings, and the settlers enjoy a glorious view of the Tel Aviv skyline from the top of their hill. They have built a swimming pool, gymnasiums, a dance club, painting and sculpture studios. Israelis who moved here were not ideological settlers itching for a fight. They moved here looking for "quality of life." Many were even left-leaning liberals.

But Elieser, a former lieutenant colonel in a paratrooper unit, is a Likud man, and he also believes that the party's leader, Ariel Sharon, must have lost his mind to be calling for Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza strip. The mayor of Alfei Menashe says that only when the Palestinians renounce all violence will he -- possibly -- be willing to clear territory "in small steps." Elieser claims that he doesn't have a problem with the Palestinians. On the contrary, he says, he maintains "excellent relations" with them. "They work for us, and we help them with their problems. I even bought thicker sewage pipes and had them installed so that Kalkilya could also be connected to our system."

Palestinians work in the mayor's house, just as they do in a new section of rapidly expanding Alfei Menashe called "Morning Dew." "I'm not comfortable building houses for the settlers," admits 18-year-old Anas. He's from the nearby Palestinian village of Ras Tira. "But what else can I do?" He shivers in the cold east wind, perhaps partly out of fear that he could lose his work permit.

Israeli administrative office in Kaddumin, West Jordan

Raslan, 48, learned all his skills from Israelis. He knows how to maintain houses and roofs, how to install shingle or flat roofs, how to plug a leak, and whether to use plaster, corrugated metal or cardboard. He spent eight years commuting from Tulqarm to Kfar Saba to work on the roofs of Jewish families' houses. He spoke Hebrew with his employers and their children. But now Raslan sits on a blue wooden bench under a corrugated metal roof in front of the counters at the Israeli government office in Kaddumin, begging for a work permit. There is almost no work in the West Bank for craftsmen like Raslan. The Palestinian economy is stagnating, forcing Raslan to come to this office once every three months and suffer the indignity of being yelled at by soldiers behind glass windows.

Sometimes they turn him away, and sometimes he gets an extension of his work permit. But on some days he isn't even allowed to cross the border, even though his papers are in order. At first he was told that every family that owns land on the other side of the fences is entitled to pass through the checkpoints. But then papers were only issued to the owners of the land, not to their sons. Young people are generally suspected of being terrorists.

"This system creates fear and uncertainty," says Raslan, "no one is hiring workers because they keep getting turned back at the checkpoint."

A highway overpass at Midhal Sawiya, West Bank

Fauda Kaumiya, 33, stands shivering and freezing at night under a highway overpass, rubbing his wrists. The Israeli police detained him for hours, then removed his handcuffs and dropped him off in the middle of nowhere without his passport. They told him to wait by the side of the road. That was three hours ago, and Kaumiya is still standing here in his thin T-shirt.

To feed his family, Fauda Kaumiya has been traveling to Israel illegally for the past 13 years. It takes him an entire day to travel from Jenin to Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, where he works in a vegetable wholesalers' market. "It was the only work I could find," he says. Kaumiya, along with 13 other illegal workers, sleeps at the top of a wooden food shelf. "It's terrible there," he says, "there are cockroaches all over the place." The police caught him this morning, but he refused to reveal the name of his employer. Thousands of Palestinian guest workers still cross the green line to Israel illegally every night. For them, an independent Palestine can only fulfill their dreams temporarily. Many secretly hope for a state shared with the Israelis, one in which everyone has the same rights and that could guarantee their survival.

The headlights of a police car illuminate the space under the overpass. Kaumiya jumps up, and the officers return his passport. He doesn't have much time. He wants to get going while it's still dark outside, so that he can get back to his sleeping shelf in time to open his Israeli employer's shop at 5 a.m.

Outskirts of Kfar Saba, Israel

An abandoned garbage dump rises from the ground next to Highway 6, which passes along the wall around Kalkilya. In July, about a thousand Israelis climbed this hill, switched on their megaphones, and called out to the other side, where Palestinians had gathered in a Muslim girls' school to communicate with the Israelis.

"The interests of both sides are more tightly intertwined than most people want to believe," says Israel Milo, 58, one of the initiators of the unusual peace demonstration. Milo, the town's former deputy mayor and a member of the leftist Merez Party, has spent the past 10 years trying to build a partnership with Kalkilya. He founded the "Good Neighbors" association in 1996. Milo and his fellow peace activists have developed many joint projects for both Palestinians and Israelis, including environmental protection programs and medical services for both sides. But his efforts were first hampered by a lack of funds, then by the second intifada, so that most of his ambitious plans never came to fruition. Now, in the calm that has followed Arafat's death, Milo is optimistic once again. The mayor of Kfar Saba also says that he supports "any initiative that can bring our two cities together."

Many cooperative business ventures were formed before the security fence was built. Israeli businesses were attracted by lower Palestinian wages. But the wall has made everything more complicated for local businessmen, such as Gibor Sabrina, a lingerie manufacturer in Kfar Saba. Shipments between the two sides are now constantly delayed. "It's become easier for us to work with Jordan than with the Palestinian city next door," says the company's personnel director, Avi Barak.

A textile factory in Kalkilya, West Bank

Darvish Said Darvish finds it difficult to imagine a Palestinian woman who doesn't have some kind of relationship with Israel. The good-humored businessman wants to do business, create jobs and feed his employees and their families. But he can no longer rely on neighboring Arab states or the Palestinian political leadership. "We want a future," he says, stroking the elastic waistband of a pair of pink panties. "I would be in trouble without the help of my Jewish partners from Kfar Saba." He is as mistrustful of the current upbeat mood as he is of entrenched pessimism. "The wall will not disappear," says Darvish, "but it will also not prevent us from trading with one another."

Darvish produces 200,000 undergarments for the Gibor Sabrina Company on the other side of the fence. His Israeli business partners lent him the money for sewing machines, and they trained him week after week. But ever since the wall has separated Kalkilya and Kfar Saba, Darvish can no longer attend meetings. To make sure that the Palestinian keeps up with the latest production methods, his Israeli business partners are now sending him training videos on tailoring technology. "I know that these Jews truly like and respect me," says Darvish, "and I want my sons to learn Hebrew and to continue to nurture this relationship. That is the only way for our future."

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Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. ) For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, please visit Spiegel Online at or subscribe to our daily newsletter.

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