Israel swaddling Jerusalem in barbed wire's thorny bands

Tall, new security fence cuts off Arab neighbors

May 31, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QALANDIYA, West Bank - The coils of barbed wire begin at the military checkpoint here and follow the rocky terrain, skirting a refugee camp and an abandoned airport before ending at another Israeli army post three miles away.

The barbed wire fence, in places 10 feet high, is the latest attempt by Israel to intercept Palestinian suicide bombers before they reach Israeli cities - part of an ambitious plan called "enveloping Jerusalem" intended to protect the city's neighborhoods in the West Bank with a protective fence or wall.

About eight miles of fencing have been built along part of the southern perimeter of Jerusalem, including between the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo and the Palestinian towns of Beit Jala and Bethlehem.

When the project is completed, officials say, there will be about 20 miles of fencing in what have been the most porous and sensitive areas. But Palestinian sections of what Israel considers greater Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the city.

The residents - Palestinians with Israeli identification cards - live in the northernmost part of the area that Israel annexed decades ago. They pay Jerusalem municipal taxes but often cannot pass through the army checkpoint at Qalandiya to reach jobs, schools, stores or relatives.

The new fencing has made it impossible to circumvent the checkpoint by hiking through the surrounding hills. And for the past three days the checkpoint has remained closed, effectively cutting off the northern West Bank from Jerusalem.

`This is crazy'

Yesterday, soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse an angry crowd waiting to cross.

"They kept yelling, `It's closed. Go home. Go home. Go home,'" said Issam Omari, 38, who lives in Akab, adjacent to the Qalandiya refugee camp, and was trying to reach the neighboring village of A-Ram, all technically part of Jerusalem.

"This is crazy," said the Palestinian father of three. "The Israelis say I'm a Jerusalem resident, yet I cannot go from one part of the city to another. I was trying to reach some friends for a meeting. But there is just no way to pass."

Omari said he came within 50 feet of the checkpoint. He spent an hour in the crowd and then hastily retreated when the first tear gas canister landed nearby. Palestinians said seven people were injured, either by the gas or by bullets.

The Qalandiya checkpoint is a dusty crossroads on the main road between Palestinian-controlled Ramallah and Israel's capital, Jerusalem. Even on a quiet day, crossing from one side to the other requires paperwork and passports, and can be a tense, draining experience.

Pedestrians have to wait under a scorching sun in one of three lines that converge at a single point, next to idling cars and trucks spilling exhaust and kicking up clouds of dust when they inch forward. Soldiers hunched behind large concrete barriers 50 feet from the line summon people one at a time, aiming their assault rifles as each person approaches.

Palestinian males must stop halfway and lift their shirt to show that they have no bombs. Anyone carrying a bag or a case must open it and show the soldiers from a safe distance. The average wait is about two hours each way.

Many people have permits to travel between Jerusalem and the West Bank, but many others are simply trying to get from one Jerusalem neighborhood to another. The difficulties stand as a stark contradiction to the statements of Israeli leaders who proclaim Jerusalem a unified city.

The construction of the fence - a precursor to a longer barrier expected to be built between the West Bank and Israel - only makes the divisions between Arab and Jewish neighborhoods sharper.

Jerusalem officials refuse to discuss the political significance of the fence or address why it wasn't built farther north, along the so-called "seam-line," a loosely defined border between the West Bank and Israel.

Security and hardship

The army and Israeli police say the placement of the fence and the Qalandiya checkpoint were based on security concerns, and that they do not run contrary to the political mandate that Jerusalem not be split.

"It was put up to stop suicide bombings," said Superintendent Gil Kleiman, a police spokesman. "It was not meant to separate neighborhoods. It was built along topographical lines, not to cut the city in half."

Kleiman said that any Palestinian holding an Israeli identity card is allowed to pass through the Qalandiya checkpoint. But the fence and army post mean that those Palestinians have to endure long waits and other hardships to move about the city.

Army officials said yesterday that they know that closing the Qalandiya checkpoint created hardships, but insisted that there was precise information that one or two suicide bombers were headed from Ramallah to Jerusalem.

Two Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem were placed under curfew, and roadblocks were set up throughout much of northern Jerusalem, creating traffic jams that stretched into downtown.

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