Fear and hate, block and wire

Alienation takes a concrete form

Israel: As work goes ahead on the barrier between Israelis and Palestinians, each side blames the other for the need.

January 23, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JABARA, West Bank -- The Palestinian children of Jabara arrive at the gate early, from the schoolhouse perched on a hill. Some let their backpacks slip off to land in the dirt while others peer through the rungs of the fence, careful not to touch it.

They are at the separation barrier that is the largest construction project in Israel's history, a series of trenches, earthen berms, barbed wire, chain-link fencing, gates, sensors, concrete walls and buffer roads that represent a new, darker way of thinking in the Middle East.

The barrier marks the Israeli government's conclusion that the only way to live peacefully with Palestinians is to live apart, and it signals an end to dreams of coexistence.

Israeli officials say the barrier is a security measure against Palestinian attacks and note that the number has declined in areas where the barrier is complete. But Palestinians say the project has involved the confiscation of Palestinian land, helped ruin their economy and brought new hardships to dozens of communities.

The World Court is scheduled to begin hearings next month about the legality of the barrier. Israel has not yet said whether it will send a legal team to the proceedings in The Hague or whether it will recognize the court's authority.

And construction continues: Israel intends to finish the barrier -- 480 miles long, at a cost of $1.3 million a mile -- by the end of next year.

The schoolchildren were waiting for the gate to be unlocked and swung open. The key was in the hands of an Israeli soldier, assigned to come in the mornings and afternoons to allow the 88 pupils of Jabara to cross.

If he's late, they have to wait.

"Our entire day depends on whether the soldiers are on time or late, or whether they come or not," says Nazmeih Zebdeh, principal of the school in neighboring Kfar Sur. Like her students, Zebdeh lives on one side of the barrier and goes to school on the other.

When they approach the gate, they pass an earthen berm; an unpaved area groomed smooth, the better to show the footprints of intruders; then coils of barbed wire; a low chain-link fence; signs warning people not to approach except at the gate itself; a deep trench; then the main 9-foot-high fence.

Jabara, population 300, is a scattering of one- and two-story cinder- block homes about 30 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. It is in the West Bank, a few hundred yards from the border with Israel. For reasons not even the engineers in charge of building the barrier claim to know, Jabara is on the Israeli side of the fence, the rest of the West Bank now out of reach past the locked gate.

People here once raised roasting chickens, but the fence cut farmers off from customers, and the people of Jabara are not allowed to enter Israel without hard-to-obtain permits.

"For years, we could move about and go anywhere," says the owner of Jabara's only store, Mohammed Awad, who has six of his 11 grandchildren living on the other side of the fence. "I'm an old man, and life for us has become impossible."

Awad is 54 but looks far older. He used to grow olives and raise chickens, but the only thing left in his fields is a dying donkey scrounging for weeds. He sold his 8,000 chickens when the fence went up.

"This town used to be the center of action," Awad says, sitting outside his shop, nothing more than wooden planks and a corrugated metal roof held together by frayed ropes. "Now, it is nothing."

To stock his shelves, he gives the schoolchildren money and plies them with candy; in return they buy canned vegetables and soda at stores near their school and carry them back across the fence.

They are the only people from Jabara regularly permitted to cross the new divide.

Forty-five minutes after the students arrive at the gate, an Israeli army vehicle stops nearby, on the Israeli side of the highest fence. The students scramble into a loose line. Two soldiers get out; one stands guard with his M-16 rifle while the other unlocks the gate and lifts the crossbar.

The gate swings open, and the children file through, one by one, most of them smiling, the drill already familiar. The soldier appears relaxed. He does not check identification cards, but he counts the students to make sure the same number that left in the morning return in the afternoon.

It takes only a few minutes, but the experience lingers. For these Palestinian children, the fence becomes another daily reminder of Israel's unwelcome say in their lives.

"Sometimes the soldiers laugh at us," says Amin Odeh, 16. "They try to provoke us. Sometimes they open our bags and dump everything on the ground."

He tells of seeing homework papers scatter in the breeze or bindings on his books breaking in the fall. Students tell of having to wait 90 minutes in a driving rainstorm because soldiers said they had lost the key.

"We get to school late, we get home late," says Wiam Awad, a seventh-grader.

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