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The Fence – Relief or Grief?

While heated debates concerning the construction of a buffer zone take place behind closed doors in Israel’s government offices, little is known of how much say is being given to those destined to dwell in the fence’s shadow.

Israel is currently constructing a barrier between Israeli and Palestinian territories, which it says is a security measure to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into Israel and killing innocent civilians. Over 900 Israeli citizens have been murdered since the violent clashes broke out in September 2000.

When translated into reality, residents on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side of the barrier see far more to it than the dry figures of its cost, route or length. Through the eyes of the individual, the barrier may symbolize animosity, despair, obtuseness, or perhaps a more secure future.

Hasan Abu ‘Asleh is a resident of ‘Sur Baher, an Arab neighborhood in south-east Jerusalem which numbers around 15,000 residents. A former employee of the Jerusalem municipality, he spends much of his retirement explaining why he thinks the fence a bad idea.

Hasan Abu ‘Asleh (Dudy Sa’ad)

The entrance to the neighborhood is less than a minute’s drive from the Israeli Jewish collective community, Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. The village’s light brick houses adorn several adjacent hills overlooking Bethlehem, Beit Jala and other nearby Arab neighborhoods.

The barrier is planned to run straight through ‘Sur Baher, cutting off a large part of the neighborhood from Israel and leaving 150 families — about 700 residents — outside of the boundaries of their own village. Although the barrier has not yet been erected, bulldozers and tractors are already leveling the ground in the village.

(Dudy Sa’ad)

The fence enveloping Jerusalem is planned to be approximately 90 kilometers (56 miles) long.

Trees in the designated barrier area have already been uprooted and planted elsewhere on stony ground. “The olive picking season is in October,” says Abu ‘Asleh, “but these trees have been uprooted and replanted on inadequate land. They can’t grow on rocks, so this year’s season is lost.” Abu ‘Asleh says replanting trees is only a partial solution and is not always practical, since not everyone has extra land to accommodate the uprooted trees.

(Dudy Sa’ad)

Many residents of ‘Sur Baher depend on agriculture for their livelihood. “We grow a tree the same way we grow a child,” says Abu ‘Asleh. “They could easily have surrounded the whole village [with the barrier] and saved us this unjustified misery and suffering. The fence is planned to uproot thousands of olive trees,” he adds.

Despite occasional hostilities between ‘Sur Baher residents and their neighboring Jews, the relationship between the two populations is generally good. The Arabs depend on Jews for employment, and many have personal ties with Jews. Their grievance is directed towards the government more than towards Israeli individuals. Yet, they note, the government is a reflection of its voters.

Inhabitants of ‘Sur Baher carry blue Israeli identity cards which means they are Israeli residents but not citizens and therefore cannot vote for the government.

While driving to the area designated for the fence construction, it is clear that Abu ‘Asleh’s new Volkswagen does not reflect the financial condition of ‘Sur Baher. Driving through the village’s dirt tracks, he points out that this is the main road of the village. Garbage is heaped on the streets, and sidewalks are practically non-existent.

Located high on a steep hill opposite ‘Sur Baher is the neighborhood called Sheikh Sa’ad. Only one access-route connects the neighborhood to Jerusalem, and the fence is planned to run across this route, cutting off the residents from all the neighboring villages. They are uncertain as to their prospects of livelihood once the fence is erected.

Entrance to Sheikh Sa’ad (Dudy Sa’ad)

Abu ‘Asleh explains that when these residents find themselves on the other side of the fence, it is doubtful whether the struggling Palestinian Authority [PA] will provide them with the necessary services such as education, transport or welfare. The Palestinian Authority clearly does not wish to burden itself with more residents under its governance.

‘Sur Baher residents realize that if annexed to the PA, they will fall between the cracks and will be cut off from community services, from family members remaining inside the fence, and from their livelihood.

A commotion at a local grocery store is perhaps an indication of what the barrier is aimed to prevent. Around twenty people have arrived in ‘Sur Baher from Bethlehem and are waiting for a van to leave for Jerusalem. Many of these Palestinians enter Israel illegally, some Israelis may argue that they do so for terror purposes, but mostly they enter to work, sell goods, pray in the Al-Aq’sa mosque, or visit family in Jerusalem. If caught, they are detained for several hours and usually sent back to the territories with a warning. At present they have no difficulty circumventing Israel Defense Forces checkpoints by avoiding being seen by soldiers or by building underground tunnels. The barrier, once erected, may put a stop to this, or at least decrease the extent of illegal traffic.

Na’im Atrash, an elderly native of the village, lives in a spacious well-kept house that rests on land that will be annexed to the Palestinian side of the fence. Atrash has lived in this house for eight years with his two sons, two daughters-in-law and five grandchildren.

The Atrash home (Dudy Sa’ad)

The natural growth in the village, like in many parts of the West Bank and the Arab society in general, is high. For want of more space, Atrash moved to the southern part of the village to better his quality of life. The barrier will be constructed behind his house, cutting it off from the rest of the village. “I have no choice,” says Astrash. “[Once the fence is built] I will have to move back into the village to be on the Israeli side of the fence. I moved here to improve my standard of living. Now I have an extended family. I don’t know where I will live, my family in the village has no room…meanwhile my house here is lost. I guarantee that one month after I leave there will be nothing left of it. Everything will be looted.”

Atrash explains that working in the Palestinian territories will earn him around NIS 500 a month ($125), whereas for the same work on Israeli territory he can earn NIS 5000 ($1,250), a significant factor in moving back inside the fence.

The total area of ‘Sur Baher is around 2,500 acres. Its residents claim the Israeli government encouraged them to move to the south-east part of the village after the Six Day War in 1967, since room was becoming scarce and the village congested.

‘Aziz Ibrahim Abu Tir, born and bred in the area, says moving eastward was the obvious choice because it was easier to obtain planning and building permits from the municipality. ‘Aziz, a well-spoken civil engineer currently working as a contractor in western Jerusalem, has already built a house on the ‘Palestinian’ side of the neighborhood — a house that was planned to accommodate four of his eight brothers.

‘Sur Baher residents oppose the concept of the barrier altogether. Yet, if they are doomed to live with it, they prefer the village in its entirety to be annexed either to the Palestinian territories, or to Israel, but without splitting it in two. “If there is no choice and they insist on this stupidity, they should build the fence on the border of the village and not separate families, detach children from schools and us from our land,” says Abu ‘Asleh.

“I have no sympathy for these people,” says Tsafi Adorian. Adorians’s husband, Eli, was murdered in July 1997 when two Palestinian terrorists in disguise blew themselves up in a crowded marketplace in western Jerusalem, killing 16 people.

“It doesn’t stir my sympathy that a population that wages war on me has a technical problem getting their children to school. You can’t compare their killings to them being prevented from seeing their family.”

Despite the seeming security advantages of the barrier, Adorian opposes its construction. She maintains that had a fence existed in 1997, it would not have prevented the terrorists from entering Israel. “The fence is an illusion,” says Adorian. “It’s deceiving the public and throwing sand in their eyes. Instead of fighting terror and dealing with it, we are building a fence and wallowing in self deception.”

Adorian sees the fence as both a moral problem and a practical one. The fence is reportedly costing the Israeli tax-payer between seven and fifteen billion shekels ($1.7-$3.3 billion). “This will come on the account of the economy, healthcare… Israeli society is paying for an illusion that will blow up in its face,” says Adorian.

The way to deal with terror, says Adorian, is to fight it, not to hide behind a fence. “They can always dig under the fence or use long-range weapons. The fence is obstructing our ability to defend ourselves from them.”

Adorian’s horrific experience and bereavement, Israeli officials may argue, indicates the reason that the fence should be built. “What the government claims it’s doing for ‘me’ makes no impression on me. They need to see what is right,” she says.

The Palestinian population, according to reports, seems to be unanimously opposed to the fence, but the Israeli side is far less homogeneous in its opinions, even among terror victims.

Daniel Turjeman, a 29-year-old electrical engineer, was seriously injured in an attack at the Moment Cafe in Jerusalem in March 2002. Eighteen months later, Turjeman is still in rehabilitation, his arm is paralyzed and he constantly takes painkillers. The terrorist who perpetrated the attack was reportedly from eastern Jerusalem.

“The fence in my opinion will be a deterrent,” says Turjeman. He is in favor of the barrier but doubts its benefit. “They will still be able to transfer weapons and money as usual…but I’m in favor of the fence even though it will cost the taxpayer a lot of money.”

Turjeman is well aware of the plight of the Palestinians where the fence is being constructed, but as a victim of terror, he still sees the fence as an essential step. “It’s hard to say this, but I’m done with self-pity, and with pity for the other side…once I was sympathetic towards them but now I’m not.” Although Turjeman believes the barrier would not have prevented the specific attack in which he was injured, he believes that things should be put in order, “even if it means splitting families, so they should see what suffering they are causing us.”

Gila Weiss was also seriously wounded in a terror attack in April 2002. A female Palestinian disguised as a pregnant woman blew herself up on a bus in the center of Jerusalem, murdering six and injuring dozens. Weiss was in a drug-induced coma and could not function properly for several months.

Like many other terror victims, Weiss has become wary of going to public places or riding buses for fear of being targeted again.

Gila Weiss

“As a whole, I am in favor of the fence,” she says. “Unfortunately, even though I do believe that the average Palestinian probably just wants peace and a nice happy life there are a lot of people who do not want that to the extent they are coming in with bombers, and we need to do something to prevent that.”

However, Weiss strongly doubts the justification of the barrier’s route, which Palestinians claim is confiscating land and exceeding the Green Line on the pretext of security measures. “The need for security does not justify us going in and snagging huge amounts of additional territory…so we can also take an outlined settlement that we established without any logic.”

Weiss believes that the government should be forced to explain, in greater detail, exactly what security purposes exist behind the buffer’s twisting route. She stresses the importance of questioning the government’s decisions.

Weiss admits that the barrier’s Jerusalem segment is more problematic than in the rest of the West Bank, since Arabs and Jews live alongside each other, making the separation all the more complicated.

“I feel bad for [the Palestinians], but they need to do something to take care of these militant groups. If they want something different, let them try to build a different society.” Weiss sees the barrier as the best solution Israel has to offer under the present circumstances. “Hopefully with [the fence] maybe we can succeed in building two separate states and maybe over time things will get better, but right now we need to be practical,” she concludes.

Back in ‘Sur Baher, the Arabs are not so optimistic. “The fence invites hatred and animosity,” says Abu ‘Asleh. “Whoever wants to pass through can go underneath. Its real aim is to confiscate land.”

Abu ‘Asleh fails to see the security benefits of the fence and labels the buffer an “anti-security fence.”

A wall in the village is sprayed with graffiti in Arabic reading “Islamic Jihad,” a terror group that has taken credit for many murders of Israelis. Upon questioning one of the residents as to the meaning of this slogan, and whether it reflects the climate in the village, he plays it down. “It’s just kids,” he says.

A suggestion aimed at easing the plight of Palestinians is checkpoints that will run across the barrier, enabling traffic to flow in both directions. This suggestion has fueled much anger among ‘Sur Baher residents. “The people [supervising] at these checkpoints will be the same as the people at the checkpoints in Qalandya and Bethlehem,” says Abu ‘Asleh. “The same mentality, the same behavior. [The soldiers] can make a man stand in the sun for ten hours; they were taught that Arabs are worthless.”

Checkpoints have indeed become a sore spot for Palestinians, who wait, sometimes for hours on end, while soldiers search for potential terrorists or illegal workers. Security priorities at the checkpoints take their toll on the population and at times prevent Palestinians from receiving humanitarian care.

“This is not the way to obtain peace,” says Abu ‘Asleh. “The word missing in their lexicon is justice. As long as there is no justice, there will be no security.”

The so-called “buffer zone” has given rise to many synonyms – separation fence, security fence, racist wall, separation wall – each side labeling it to match its sensitivities and perceptions.

At the present stage, it is still unclear whether this fence will in fact make good neighbors.