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Fences Make Bad Neighbors

Photos by Nancy Updike

It’s strange that the peace plan known as the road map, which is a very detailed document, doesn’t mention the 90-mile fence/wall that Israel is building right now. This barrier — which is a fence at some points and a wall at others — is not being built on the Green Line, the armistice line that was the de facto border between Israel and the West Bank until the Six Day War in 1967. Rather, the barrier is cutting deeply into the West Bank in many places, affecting thousands of acres of Palestinian land in the process.

“Barrier” doesn’t quite capture the scope of what’s being built. It’s a whole barrier system, with successive layers, each of which takes a bit more land. It includes: a motion-sensitive electronic fence (and sometimes a wall); a service road running alongside the fence (on the Palestinian side, but Palestinians will not be able to use this road); a barbed-wire fence; “a trench or other means intended to prevent motor vehicles from crashing into and through the fence” (as the Israel Defense Forces described it in response to a recent, unsuccessful lawsuit to halt construction); three roads on the Israeli side of the fence and another barbed wire fence.

So far, about 24,000 acres of Palestinian land have been cut off from the rest of the West Bank and are now on the western (Israeli) side of the barrier.

President George Bush is against all this construction, but so far that hasn’t mattered. He sent his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to tell Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon how he felt, but Sharon rebuffed her, saying the barrier is for security and Israel is building it, period. The barrier is popular in Israel, on both the left and the right: In a poll last weekend, more than two-thirds of the Israeli public said they support it.

Grunt work on the barrier is being done, in some places, by Palestinians, some of whose land has been taken by Israel in order to build the fence/wall. I drove with a translator north to Jenin, where men in the villages nearby are working on the barrier.

Rebhiyeh Igbariyeh, center, had to move her husband’s grave.

Saleh Jaradat, whose full name is much longer but who gave me permission to use the summary version, looks older than 56. He has a white strip of beard on his chin, and he opened his mouth to show me that he has no teeth left. Saleh is working on the barrier near his home village of Zbuba. He does this work, he said, because he’s got 15 kids and no other income. He makes 100 shekels (about $22) a day, moving stones from 7 in the morning until 6 at night.

He was telling me this in a room with five other men from his village — including the head of the village council — and I was surprised he was willing to talk about it in front of others; some men working on the wall don’t even tell their families what they’re doing. I suddenly hit a nerve, though, when I asked if the man who told him about the construction job had let him know exactly what sort of work it was. He answered angrily, through the translator.

“I have 15 kids waiting for me, and in the end of the day I have to feed them,” he said. “What do you want me to do? I know that this is difficult, impossible. I know that I am making this fence around myself, but I need to feed my kids.”

One of the village council members jumped in to defuse the tension.

“I want to tell you about this contradiction,” he said. “In the beginning we were saying it’s not even a normal thing: It’s not logical that they confiscate our land and then we are going to build [this barrier]. But more than 350 workers used to do work inside Israel, and they lost their only income. They lost everything.”

This unemployment crisis isn’t just happening in Zbuba. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, tens of thousands of Palestinian families were supported, before the intifada, by one family member working inside Israel or in settlements. Most of those workers haven’t been able to get into Israel in the last 30 months, and have lost their jobs.

In Zbuba, the village council met to discuss the barrier, and tried to convince people not to work on it. The conversation got heated. Some villagers saw the work as an outrageous betrayal, while others were desperate to take the job. Finally, the ones who wanted to work told the others: If you give us each 100 shekels a day, we won’t do it. Otherwise, we’re going.

Sharon says that the barrier — which has cost about $200 million so far — is a security measure, not a political border, and that it can be dismantled once Israel is safe. Since more than two dozen suicide bombers in this intifada have come into Israel from Jenin — right next to Zbuba — it’s easy to see why Israelis support putting a fence around the area, and fast. It’s also true that walls and fences have been an effective security measure for Israel so far: A barrier was built around the Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s, and in this intifada only two suicide bombers have made it out of there, and they held British passports.

But Gaza is much smaller than the West Bank, and there is evidence that a barrier in the West Bank may not get to the heart of the problem. A report published last year by Israel’s State Comptroller’s Office said, “IDF [Israel Defense Forces] documents indicate that most of the suicide terrorists and the car bombs crossed . . . into Israel through the checkpoints, where they underwent faulty and even shoddy checks.” In other words, checkpoints — and not the open areas that the fence is supposedly being built to protect — may be the weak link in the security chain. IDF spokeswoman Major Sharon Feingold said she isn’t familiar with the comptroller’s report. “We have a whole defense concept around this fence,” she said. “It’s a whole system, not just a defense barrier.”

It’s significant that even though a majority of Israelis support building the barrier, they are deeply divided about where it should be. Of those who said in the poll this month that they support it, 40 percent said build it to include settlements and 39 percent said leave the settlements behind and build it on the Green Line.

Israelis want suicide attacks to stop, but plenty of them are wary of what the government sometimes does in the name of security. Settlements were built and justified, in part, as a security buffer for Israel, then huge areas of land around the settlements were claimed as a buffer zone for the settlements, and now more land is being claimed as a buffer zone for the fence.

Israel has stressed — through the State Attorney’s Office — that it is taking control of land for the barrier temporarily; the land-seizure orders do not transfer ownership of the land to Israel. But these “temporary” seizures can be extended indefinitely, and they don’t prevent the state from building, on this temporarily seized land, non-temporary structures like settlements, roads and walls. In response to another recent, unsuccessful lawsuit filed to stop construction of the barrier, the state attorney said Israel can use temporary seizure orders “even for the purpose of erecting structures that are not necessarily temporary in nature . . . such as bypass roads and Israeli communities.”

 

Zbuba is not the worst-case scenario for the villages and towns along this barrier. The city of Qalqilya, for instance, is now completely enclosed by a 25-foot concrete wall on one side and the electronic fence, etc., everywhere else. Other villages are trapped between the Green Line and the barrier complex, in a no-man’s land that the IDF is designating a closed military zone. Residents of these areas will probably need special permits to stay in their homes, and will have to cross a checkpoint to go anywhere outside this zone, including the rest of the West Bank, making it harder to see friends, family, doctors or anyone else. Other villages are cut off from large chunks of their farmland, and will have to pass through designated gates, with special permits, in order to work their land.

But even in areas that aren’t getting the worst of it, the barrier is making life difficult enough for some people that the road map seems irrelevant.

“I didn’t feel any change in daily life [from the road map],” said Mohammed Abu Bakr, a slight, exhausted-looking 23-year-old in Zbuba. “Not me, not my parents. The opposite. It’s checkpoints and it’s closure and it’s a fence around us. This is what we see.”

Mohammed said he has sickle cell anemia, which is part of the reason he’s so drained. Since the start of the intifada, when his father stopped being able to work inside Israel as a plumber, the extended family has been living off his father’s land, growing olives and almonds. Mohammed, his wife and his two brothers had to drop out of university when his father stopped working, and Mohammed was no longer able to get to Jerusalem to see the doctor who specializes in sickle cell anemia. Still, everyone was making ends meet with the orchards. When the barrier started going up in their area, Mohammed found out that about one-third of his father’s land had been taken for the fence. It’s not clear how the family is going to get by now.

Mohammed Abu Bakr says the road map is going nowhere.

I drove south through the villages along the barrier, with the translator and a local guide. We pulled into the parking lot of an elementary school in Taybeh. A woman named Rebhiyeh Igbariyeh and her family have been living in two of the school’s classrooms for the last couple of months because her house was smothered by mudslides from the explosions used to clear rock out of the way for the barrier.

Rebhiyeh said she first saw Israeli soldiers on her land last November. They were making marks on the ground along the ridge above her house. Her husband was buried on the ridge.

“I climbed up to my husband’s grave and asked them, ‘Why are you marking the grave of my husband?’” she said.

Once she found out that a fence was going to be built right over her husband’s grave, she started pleading with the soldiers to leave the grave alone (it’s forbidden in Islam — and in Judaism — to move a grave). She asked them to build the fence right through her house if they had to, but leave the bones. She said they gave her 800 shekels (about $175) and told her she had to move the bones.

When she saw bulldozers coming to dig the path for the fence and the surrounding roads, she asked her neighbors to help her move her husband’s remains, so at least they wouldn’t be bulldozed. No one wanted any part of such a shameful activity, she said, especially since they had known her husband. She had to go to another village, where no one knew her, to get help.

When Rebhiyeh talked, her voice was high and small. She spoke in little bits at a time, just answering my questions. She looked like she couldn’t quite believe what was happening to her. It was very hot in the fifth-grade classroom (sign still above the door) we sat in. We were all sweating, a lot.

I asked Rebhiyeh whether she’s seen her house since she left it. She said she went once, and it’s still standing — barely — but after that, she never went back. I asked whether she stopped going because it’s too sad. She started to cry.

Her problems, clearly, go beyond the barrier. She and most of the other villagers living along the fence in the north are very poor. There is no electricity or sewage system. There’s been running water for just two years, and it only runs through the pipes every week or two.

But now on top of that, her house is uninhabitable, and her husband’s land, which has been her only source of income for years (she grew olives and almonds), was taken to build the fence. She had to beg her neighbors for flour three days ago. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be able to stay at the school; people are grumbling about their kids having to learn all crammed together on the top floor, with her and her kids living below. Her oldest son, at 19, is wandering around — she doesn’t know where — trying to get into Israel to work. She said he’s very angry and can’t stand seeing his mother and sisters living like this, with nothing, so he left. I felt a little queasy as she said this, picturing one more enraged, hopeless 19-year-old Palestinian man in Jenin with lots of time on his hands.

When I asked Rebhiyeh about the road map, she looked confused.

“You mean the road they just opened now [along the wall]?” she asked.

She’s never heard of the road map, and has no idea that there is a peace plan struggling to happen around her.