Up against the wall

Israel continues building a mammoth barrier in the name of border security. Opponents charge that it's carving more land for Jewish settlements -- and assaulting Palestinians' human rights.

Published September 18, 2006 12:41PM (EDT)

"We haven't seen our land since January last year," says Abdul Ra'uf Khalid, sitting in his home in the Palestinian village of Jayyus. The Khalid family's 5.5 acres lie on the Israeli side of the separation barrier, which in Jayyus consists of a tall electric fence winding its way across the hilly, rural terrain. The Khalids have greenhouses, and olive, citrus and fruit trees, on the land but aren't allowed to cross the divide to tend them. "The apricots and peaches are falling from the trees and rotting," says Abdul's wife, Itaf. Stuck here, restless and unable to work, the Khalids appear to be deteriorating in similar fashion.

Along much of the West Bank's border with Israel a similar story is unfolding. It is a story of land, livelihood and a way of life lost to Israel's rising barrier, known as the "security" or "separation fence" by its supporters and the "apartheid wall" by its opponents. In June 2002, the Israeli government approved the building of the first stage of a physical barrier separating the Jewish state from the West Bank. In July 2004, the International Courts of Justice deemed the wall illegal and called for its removal. Now, the wall -- built from various combinations of concrete, razor wire and electric fencing -- is 51 percent complete, and construction of the rest continues apace.

Israel says the barrier has succeeded in preventing terror attacks, the stated aim for its construction. But opponents charge that Israel is using it to steal land and develop desirable real estate for its own citizens. They also charge that the barrier is depriving whole groups of Palestinians of their human rights -- including the freedom of movement and goods, access to work, educational and social opportunities, and other basics of daily life stopped cold by the concrete and wire and heavily fortified checkpoints. Yet, despite international censure and defiant protests on the ground, analysts agree that the barrier will almost certainly be built to completion.

According to the most recently approved plans, when the barrier is finished it will cover 436 miles of ground, even though the Green Line, the internationally agreed armistice border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, is less than half that length. This is because the barrier is quite often circuitous when, topographically speaking, it could run straight. Only 20 percent of the barrier's path actually runs on the Green Line, while the rest juts east into occupied territory, in some locations as much as 13 miles.

Indeed, critics say that the plan for the barrier is to encircle Israeli settlements on the Palestinian side of the Green Line with a clear purpose. "We say it again and again," said Ronen Shimoni at Betzelem, the Israeli human rights group. "The route of the fence is not for security but to gain more and more land."

Around the city of Bethlehem, the approved barrier route cuts a large block of land off the West Bank to encompass Gush Etzion, a sprawling block of Jewish settlements with a population of more than 20,000. A 26-foot-high concrete wall has already been built around Palestinian East Jerusalem, securing the sprawling Ma'ale Adummim settlement. (While Israel speaks of Jerusalem as its "eternal and undivided capital," East Jerusalem is internationally recognized as occupied territory, even by the U.S.) Farther north, the proposed barrier path takes two wide "fingers" of Palestinian land to gather in the settlements of Ariel, Barqan, Immanuel, Shomeron and Qedumim. Still farther north, a completed section carves loops of concrete into the West Bank, encircling the settlements of Alfe Menashe and Zufin. These loops have left the Palestinian village of Qalqilya surrounded by the barrier on three sides, with only a narrow exit to the east.

Lawyers currently involved in court cases challenging the barrier have discovered that its route also accommodates settlement expansion plans. "This is no longer a secret. It was proved in court in several instances," said solicitor Michael Sfard, a Tel Aviv-based human rights lawyer. The Israeli Association for Civil Rights cites cases involving the settlements of Zufin (which borders Jayyus) and Sal'it. In some lawsuits, companies have already bought the rights to build on the land allocated for expansion; in such cases, lawyers say, these companies are a presence in court and weight is given to their appeals.

In a written statement, Israel's Ministry of Defense said the following: "The Security Fence is not a land grab mechanism. It does not annex lands. Lands seized for the construction remain the property of their owners, who are offered compensation for use of lands and loss of crops (in cases where the lands were agricultural lands). The opinion of the Supreme Court repeated over and over in all its rulings is that the Fence is a security measure." The Ministry of Defense added that the purpose of building it is "to counter terrorism of the most brutal kind, not to dictate a border that is and remains the subject of permanent negotiations. It is our hope that by building this fence its very function will become irrelevant and that one day it will be dismantled."

But for the Palestinians whose lives the barrier cuts through, there is only one conclusion. "The aim of the wall is to force us to leave," said Nidal Amer, mayor of Mas'ha, a village of 2,000 in the Qalqilya district of the West Bank. Eighty percent of Mas'ha's land, 1,250 acres of agricultural land, is now on the Israeli side of the barrier. Before it went up, Mas'ha's markets selling furniture, tiles and flowers were famous across the West Bank -- and across the Green Line, too. "From Kiryat Shmona in the north [of Israel] to Beersheba in the south, Israelis would come to the market," said Amer. "You couldn't move for people." In the past, he adds, there were good relations among the residents of the village and their Jewish neighbors. "It was quite common to find Israelis at wedding parties in the village," he said. Today, the village is eerily quiet. Shops and workshops are shuttered, while empty restaurants bearing Hebrew signage wait in vain for customers.

It's a similar story in Jayyus, where 72 percent of the village's land currently lies on the wrong side of the barrier. A village of about 3,500, Jayyus is dependent on agriculture. Here, as in other rural areas, there are access gates along the barrier to allow Palestinian farmers through to their land on the other side. Unlike most other areas, the farmers gate at Jayyus is, according to observers, open all day. One of the soldiers guarding it when I visited described it as a "humanitarian gate." He added: "It's our job to help the civilians here."

But to pass through the gate, farmers need a permit, and they face daunting regulations. Each farmer has to prove the land belongs to him personally, and not his father or grandfather -- and with Israeli-approved documentation. More often than not, it is an impossible task. And where permits are allocated, it is usually on the basis of one per household, for land that requires several hands to work it. In many cases, the permit allocation process comes across as bizarre or just plain bungled. "At first, they gave 3-month-old babies, old grandmothers and dead people permits," said Showqat Samha, the mayor of Jayyus. And there's a legal factor that adds another dimension: If not cultivated for three years, land that is not registered as privately owned -- as is the case in much of the West Bank -- can be declared property of the Israeli state.

Then there are places like al-Mawahel, a village south of Ramallah and a five-minute drive north of Jerusalem. Most of its 1,200 Arab inhabitants have Israeli I.D. cards or passports. They came to the area in the 1970s from cities like Nazareth and Haifa in Israel, looking for a "quiet, clean place to live," says Ali Shatera, a village resident. Shatera points to the concrete and fence barrier around the edge of his village, surrounding it on three sides. Only 42 of al-Mawahel's residents have Palestinian citizenship -- but now the logic of the barrier deems the entire population to be Palestinian. Al-Mawahel is one of the villages trapped in what the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs describes as the "Bir Nabala enclave." Most of the 15,000 Palestinian inhabitants of the enclave have long-standing ties to Jerusalem -- work, family, and health and social facilities -- but now they are closed off from the city and connected only to Ramallah.

Farther south, in Bethlehem, the barrier carves another strange path. Here, a concrete wall surrounds the north side, and entry to the city is through a formidable "international border crossing" center. International passport holders are fast-tracked through the center, while Palestinians have to wait. Critics say the real purpose of the barrier's route here -- which cuts a concrete corridor into the city instead of running along the city's perphery -- is to bring Rachel's Tomb into Israeli territory and to make room for Jewish settlers wanting to move close to the tomb, considered the resting place of the biblical matriarch.

"No security expert would advise you to build a security wall like this," said Leila Sansour, director of Open Bethlehem, an international campaign to save the city. The road on which the barrier now sits, she added, "used to be vibrant, rich, a busy main road filled with shops and restaurants. This was the historical route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the path of the patriarch." Sansour, a Christian Palestinian, grew up in Bethlehem and is now watching the place she loves being strangled by the wall. "You realize that you are totally being put into a prison," she said. "Instead of taking us to prison, Israel is building one around us."

Bethlehem is testimony to the decline caused by the barrier in urban as well as rural parts of the occupied territories. The birthplace of Christianity, Bethlehem has always relied on tourism as a primary source of income. Now, tourism is in grave decline. The tourists who do visit come on Israeli-organized trips. They go straight to the Nativity Church in Bethlehem's Old City and straight back out again -- not even stopping for a coffee or to pick up a souvenir. "They see the wall and must have been told that it is for security, that 'we' are dangerous and shouldn't be spoken to," said Sansour. In a city where Christianity was the dominant religion, only 30 percent of this community now remains in Bethlehem, according to Sansour -- anyone who can leave has done so. "Bethlehem is a living document of Christianity. A lot of rituals and practices here mimic biblical traditions that have been the same for 2,000 years," she said. "But Christianity here is going to die."

As we drove around the Bethlehem district in late July, we passed Cremizan, a serene forest winery and monastery -- the only remaining green recreational space for the city's residents. Three weeks before, according to Sansour, the Israeli army had come and chopped down trees along a strip of land nearby -- usually a sign, she said, that the barrier is coming. Bethlehem's residents fear that Cremizan, along with the historic and proudly maintained agricultural terraces alongside it will end up on the Israeli side of the barrier, for the nearby Israeli settlement of Gilo to enjoy.

Israeli analysts speak of a property boom reported in the Israeli press, to be found on the land just west of the barrier -- land freshly annexed by Israel. "It's a blurring of the Green Line," said Gadi Algazi, a history professor at Tel Aviv University. Algazi says that such areas, having been made "secure" by the barrier, now appeal to Israelis seeking rural isolation close to the main cities. Har Adar is one example, he says -- a settlement afforded stunning views by its location in the hills surrounding Jerusalem. Founded in the mid-'80s, this settlement is currently expanding rapidly, especially along its northern and eastern sides, where row upon row of new houses sit awaiting occupants, and teams of workers are busy building more.

This part of Har Adar borders the Palestinian villages of Biddu and Beit Surik; people from both villages say their land is currently being used to expand Har Adar, having been cut off by the barrier. Now that the barrier is up, the value of Har Adar property has risen by 15-20 percent, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. According to Algazi, this settlement expansion represents a middle-class quest for quiet, gated communities, new houses with tidy lawns and great views. "These are upper-class settlers, without orange flags," he said, referring to the trademark banner of the ideological settlers' movement. He noted an additional irony: The barrier was built to keep the nearby Palestinians out for security reasons, but now that the barrier is up, the villagers are allowed back in -- as laborers on the many construction sites.

According to Dror Etkes, who monitors the settlements for the Israeli group Peace Now, the majority of Israelis "see the barrier as an effective tool in preventing suicide attacks and are mostly not aware of the fact that it takes Palestinian land." Most Israelis, he added, don't know where Ariel and Kedumim, settlements deep in the West Bank, are in relation to the Green Line. These settlements draw the path of the barrier as far as 12 miles east of the line.

"It's a hazy thing," said Algazi. "Israelis may know that Palestinians are losing land here and there. But the political project, for most Israelis, is not being perceived." Israeli public opinion has in principle turned against the hardcore ideological settlements in the heart of the West Bank, but in the aftermath of the Lebanon war, there has been little talk of pulling out of them. Indeed, the experience of both Gaza and Lebanon, in many Israelis' eyes, is proof that disengagement and a retreat to internationally recognized borders do not bring peace to the Jewish state.

In villages that have been in the barrier's path thus far, such as Mas'ha, Jayyus, Biddu, Abud and Bil'in, joint Israeli-Palestinian demonstrations opposing it typically have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets and declarations of a closed military zone by the Israeli army. People in Bil'in, staging weekly protests against the wall, have faced the gas and bullets for 20 months now, with many Palestinian but also Israeli demonstrators suffering a horrifying catalog of injuries. The Bil'in campaign helped push legal challenges to the barrier into court, and has become a symbol of joint Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Around half of Bil'in's land has been engulfed by the barrier, and a new Jewish settlement, Matityahu East, has already been built on some of it, with heavy investment by Africa-Israel, one of Israel's biggest construction firms.

But despite the protests and legal challenges -- which may succeed in altering the path of the barrier here and there -- few people doubt that the barrier will be completed. That the physical barrier has been an effective security measure is a powerful argument, although some opponents hold that it is impossible to say for sure, since there had been a cease-fire in place for much of the 18 months concurrent to the barrier's construction.

"This is a massive project," said Algazi. "The wall can be seen by satellite. It is not simply an object but a whole social system. It leaves the Palestinians with a feeling of total impotence and dependence. And the worst aspect is that it is not considered an act of violence." There is an inert violence to the wall itself -- the military signs all along it warning of "mortal danger," and the fact that anyone who approaches it "endangers his life." Army units, alerted by electric fences and surveillance cameras, are mobilized within minutes of anyone nearing the barrier, a broad, perpetual operation. The barrier therefore also stands as a heavy burden for Israel, Algazi noted. "The moment you construct a line of this sort it becomes an enormous liability. The Israeli army has to defend every single meter of it."

By Rachel Shabi

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