Palestinian merchants mutter as Israeli bulldozers raze market

Arabs say demolitions, security wall will destroy livelihoods, expand Israel

January 22, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAZLAT ISSA, West Bank -- It was raining when the Israeli soldiers arrived, and the villagers began throwing stones. The order of the day for the soldiers was to destroy the village marketplace, and they fired tear gas to hold back the crowd.

By noon, the merchants standing in the downpour gaped at piles of corrugated metal that had formed the walls and ceilings of their shops, with wares that ran the gamut from fresh oranges to wedding gowns.

Israeli officials said the shops had been built without permits. But the market also happened to be in the path of a wall that Israel is building to seal off the West Bank in hopes of stopping suicide bombers.

"We lost everything," said Issa al-Far, 39, who owned four shops, one used by a dentist. "And for what? A wall that won't bring the Israelis security. Everything that I have worked for is gone, for nothing."

Soldiers said they destroyed 28 market stalls yesterday (Palestinians said the number was 62) and posted demolition notices for about 50 more. As some merchants stared at what they had lost, others worked frantically to empty their shelves before the bulldozers' scheduled return today.

Authorities began building the "separation barrier" in June after a series of suicide bombings. In some places, it is a fence, in others a wall made of giant concrete slabs. Eventually, it is supposed to stretch for 225 miles, through towns and over rugged terrain.

Small sections have been completed along the northern tip and the western edges of the West Bank, where the Palestinian cities of Tulkarm and Qalqilya abut Israel. Nazlat Issa is a village of 600 people a few miles north of Tulkarm and 12 miles east of the Israeli city of Hadera.

Palestinians complain that the wall is an excuse for Israel to grab land and subtly expand its hold on the West Bank, already dotted with Jewish settlements and carved up with security buffers and roads that have turned Palestinian-controlled areas into isolated islands.

The barrier's route roughly follows the internationally recognized "Green Line" that divides Israel from the West Bank, which it captured in 1967. But the path of the wall frequently veers sharply into the West Bank, cutting through Palestinian farmland and villages.

That is the case in Nazlat Issa. The Israeli army checkpoint that serves as a border control station is a half-mile into the West Bank, dividing the village. The market is on the Israeli side of the checkpoint.

It is part of the irony of the situation that a security fence being built to divide Palestinians from Israelis would leave a substantial number of Palestinians on the Israeli side, making it easier for them to enter Israel than their own village.

They will be caught in a no man's land -- cut off from family and friends in the West Bank and prohibited by law from venturing into Israel because they lack identification cards required by Israel.

Rachel Niedak-Ashkenazi, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Ministry, said that the wall's path dips into the West Bank in Nazlat Issa because of terrain and to ensure that a nearby Palestinian town, Baqa esh Sharqiya, is entirely on the West Bank side of the divide.

"The exact route of the wall hasn't been decided," she said. "But we want this larger town to remain on the Palestinian side so that we don't add another 8,700 Palestinians to Israeli territory. We are trying to find the best location for the wall, and the action taken today is a preliminary preparation for that."

Niedak-Ashkenazi said yesterday's demolition was the largest to date to make room for the wall and fence.

"Until now, all we had to deal with was uprooting and replanting trees," she said.

The market grew from a single produce stand years ago to a bustling one-stop shopping center with strips of metal storefronts that resembled a warehouse district. People could stop for coffee and buy bedding, lumber, toys, rugs and eggs.

Merchants chose the site because it was on the Israeli side of the checkpoint yet still in the West Bank, meaning they were exempt from Israeli taxes and other regulations. Arab-Israelis flocked there to purchase goods at lower West Bank prices.

But the area has never been under full Palestinian control. Even after the Oslo peace accords of 1993, large blocks of West Bank land remained in Israeli hands, particularly tracts around Jewish settlements and near Israel's boundary.

A local governor oversees the day-to-day affairs of Nazlat Issa. But the Israeli army controls village security and land issues, which enables it to demolish structures as it did yesterday. The army says the town is dangerous -- an Israeli who mistakenly walked in last year was killed -- and that it is a conduit for smuggling arms and explosives into Israel.

But the Palestinian merchants complain that the wall, and demolitions that go along with it, are another way for Israel to destroy their livelihoods and expand Israel's borders ahead of final peace negotiations.

Merchants said Israeli soldiers visited them Sunday and warned them to empty their shops. Because the stores are deemed illegal, Israel offered no compensation.

Soldiers blocked roads yesterday as bulldozers plowed through the market, after which residents began to assess the damage.

Sami Shawareb, 35, looked at what was left of his two wedding shops, which help support an extended family of 30 people.

"They are destroying everything that is left of our economy," he said. "What do they expect us to do now?"

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