Living behind the wall

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“We’re going to declare the establishment of our own state, the independent Republic of Baqa Al Sharqiyeh,” joked the men lounging in the town’s municipal headquarters. Outside, the dust-blown streets were under curfew, and Israeli military patrols could be heard making their rounds.

That was November 2002, and Baqa Al Sharqiyeh was in a bind. Snug up against the Israel-West Bank border, rumor was that the town would soon fall into a no-man’s land. Israeli plans to build a “separation wall” in the region were to cut the town off from the rest of the West Bank, leaving residents unsure of how their future might unfold.

Now, five months later, that wall is almost complete. Based on observations of its construction, locals expect it to be finished within another two months. And, as the men’s nonchalant laughter about founding a new state insinuated, no solution has been found to address the town’s precarious existence. Rather, more towns and villages have since fallen to the same fate, cut off from the West Bank as the wall changes course and envelops more Palestinian communities.

Breaking social fabrics

“We’re going to be stuck in a sandwich,” says Yousef Bawaqneh, a Baqa Al Sharqiyeh resident, as he describes the impending encirclement of his hometown. Here, the “wall” is 100 meters wide, he says, a series of roads, trenches, and electronic and barbed wire fences punctuated by military checkpoints. When this section of the wall is complete, Baqa Al Sharqiyeh’s some 3,500 residents will be completely penned in.

“Sharon has a dream,” Bawaqneh continues, referring to the current Israeli prime minister. “He has sheep at his ranch, and when you have a baby sheep, you put it in a corral. This is what he wants to do to the Palestinian people; he wants to put walls around all the cities and close them off.”

Further north, the village of Bart’a Al Sharqiyeh is already hemmed in on all sides. A military vehicle sporting an oversized Israeli flag rolls along its main street to and from the wall. Only the gate is yet to be constructed, and here, on a shaved strip among olive orchards, Israeli soldiers determine who can leave and enter the village.

“When they finish the gate, they could just close it on us if there are problems,” fears village council member Marwan Kabha. “It’s like Fatima’s Gate in southern Lebanon,” he adds, referring to the crossing at the border with Israel. Muhammad Kabha, a student of Middle Eastern history, cuts straight to the point. “Our village has become a prison,” he says.

Perhaps what makes this isolation particularly painful is that it wasn’t so long ago that Barta’ Al Sharqiyeh and Baqa Al Sharqiyeh were significantly better off. Both are the eastern halves to larger towns that were split when the state of Israel was created in 1948. It wasn’t until Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 that they were forced to separate more distinctly. But even since then, until recently, large markets that sprung up along the border attracted customers from across Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Ironically, the intertwining nature of these communities is being exploited by Israel to justify construction of the wall deep into West Bank land. Before the High Court of Justice, the State of Israel argued that it could not build its wall along the Green Line – the invisible border between Israel and the West Bank – for fear that it would “break the social fabric” between such communities.

Now, as the wall’s course continues to veer, often cutting deeper into the West Bank, 15 Palestinian towns and villages fall on the wall’s western side. Upwards of 15,000 Palestinians will be trapped within four narrow enclaves in this northern section of the West Bank. Barred from entering Israel and isolated from West Bank communities, whatever new social fabric they manage to weave is likely to be fragile indeed.

Where the fear comes from

“We are becoming gypsies,” warns Bawaqneh. “They want to round us up like the gypsies in Lebanon, near the Shebaa’ Farms. That’s where the fear of transfer comes from.” He worries that by cutting his town off from its agricultural land and effectively putting its marketplace to rest, Israel is trying to make the residents leave.

“In 1948, they used force to get rid of people, but they won’t use force now. Instead, by forbidding us from going to Israel or the West Bank, when I need to feed my children but have no means to do so, they are indirectly forcing us to leave.”

Marwan Kabha agrees. “They are trying to starve the people here,” he says.

The hamlet of Nizlat Issa is a case in point. One of the communities Israel claimed to be protecting from “broken social ties,” Nizlat Issa is snuggled between Baqa Al Sharqiyeh and the Green Line. Its entrance, marked by the quintessential metal archway, has been blocked off by the Israeli army with boulders and piles of earth. Residents trudge over the mounds and are ferried between the roadblock and hamlet in private junkers.

Despite the village’s small size, Nizlat Issa’s market attracted upwards of 30,000 customers a day before the Intifada, and was a major buttress of the area’s economy. However, after an Israeli was killed in the market and the Israeli military tightened its grip on West Bank areas during the Intifada, that number dwindled to around 3,000. Then, early this year, Israeli bulldozers leveled a wide swath of the market to the ground.

A graveyard of crumpled corrugated tin still litters the area, painting a monochrome background to the embroidered dresses of village women out to market. At the edge of the ruin, a shopkeeper still sells ovens to bake traditional flat round bread. By May 15, however, he expects that the Israeli army will demolish his shop too. Like most people in the area, he is unsure what to do, paralyzed by a lack of viable options.

Thirsting for aid

In a hamlet near Baqa Al Sharqiyeh, Abu Faisal reports one meter and 70 centimeters surplus in water this year, due to the exceptionally heavy winter rains. His well is in tiptop condition, ready to serve the four villages dependent on it for drinking and irrigation water. But the Israeli separation wall now runs a mere 50 meters from his well and water pump, cutting off 200 dunams of Al Nizleh Al Gharbiyeh’s cultivated land, fields that Abu Faisal’s well used to irrigate. What’s worse, perhaps, is that during construction of the wall, many of the well’s water pipes were destroyed.

Villagers have sold their hothouses trapped to the west of the wall, but those with cultivated land on the other side are simply at a loss. “We don’t know what to do. What about the olive trees, should we sell them too?” Abu Faisal asks. With less land and broken pipes, Abu Faisal has cut the pump’s operation from 24 hours a day to seven.

What really infuriates him, however, is that there is more land to the south that could be cultivated if only he could get water to it. “If we had pipes, we could redirect the water course there and plant. Everyone in the village has five dunams or so, plots that belonged to their grandparents. If there is water, there is land available.” But the villagers don’t have the funds for pipes, and Abu Faisal has yet to secure any outside assistance.

In Barta’ Al Sharqiyeh too, water is aplenty, but for over a month now it has been polluted by sewage runoff from a nearby settlement. When water engineers traveled from Ramallah to evaluate the water, tells Kabha, Israeli soldiers barred them from crossing the wall’s gate and entering the village. As the water is unfit for drinking or cooking, residents must now buy expensive water, or fill up at tanks provided by the village council. Lack of outside help forces the villagers to make do with what little resources they have.

Indeed, the increasing physical isolation of these communities is matched by the silence and inaction of outside parties, some residents complain. “People are fed up,” Bawaqneh says. “Thousands of journalists have come, and for what? The people are suspicious of foreigners – they want olive trees, not news articles.”

Bawaqneh adds that the Palestinian Authority is unable even to form an official position on the wall. “When the PA is not making a single move, how can I expect to accomplish anything?” he asks.

No way out

Near Baqa Al Sharqiyeh, in Deir Al Ghusun village, one farmer has kicked up a fuss over the wall taking his land, hothouses and pond. He hired a lawyer and took Israel to court, being promised in the end that a special access gate would be built for him, his family and laborers. “But we will have to wait to see if they actually implement that or not,” says his lawyer, Fathi Shbeiteh.

In fact, there are plans to build electronic gates every two, three or five kilometers along the wall, but no one knows exactly where, Shbeiteh says. “The fellahin are scared that they won’t open for them, that the gates will be closed for ‘security reasons,'” he explains.

“Any successes we have through legal recourse are very modest,” Shbeiteh adds. “When they go one or two kilometers into the West Bank, we can get them to retreat 50 meters to save a hothouse, for example, but we can’t make them go all the way back to the Green Line.”

Shbeiteh tells of another village he is working with, south of Tulkarem. Khirbit Al Jabara will be surrounded on all sides by the wall, and construction is currently underway. But even now, residents have been forbidden from leaving or entering the village except on foot. Recently a chicken farmer had his truck loaded up, ready to deliver throughout the West Bank, when Israeli soldiers told him he couldn’t pass with a vehicle.

And in nearby Hable, Shbeiteh says, children can’t reach their school even though it is only 100 meters away. Students have to finagle a travel permit, and papers in hand, must loop six kilometers around the wall’s periphery to make it to class.

Healthcare is yet another concern for these villages behind the wall. In Barta’ Al Sharqiyeh, there is only one doctor, and all he has is a needle, Kabha says. Last week, a local boy had to travel to the hospital in Jenin for a scheduled operation, he tells. The soldiers manning the gate wouldn’t let him pass, however, and he was forced to reschedule for another day.

This is what resolve looks like

“We might be part of the Palestinian state. No one knows exactly what we will become,” Kabha says unsurely. But whatever the future holds for these communities trapped behind the wall, the residents are determined to stay.

“We already left Haifa, our village of Sindiniya, in 1948. Now that we have settled in Baqa Al Sharqiyeh, we’re here to stay,” says Bawaqneh. “It’s enough that when my parents came here in 1948 they had no place to sleep. Now we’re firmly in place here, like the roots of the olive tree,” he affirms.

Abu Ghalyoun, another Baqa Al Sharqiyeh resident, has no plans to leave despite the freedom to do so afforded by his marriage to an Israeli citizen. On a warm spring evening, surrounded by his large family, he instructs laborers pouring a new concrete floor on his roof. He is building an airy patio in which to enjoy yet another summer in Baqa Al Sharqiyeh.

Drinking coffee up there in the night breeze, Abu Ghalyoun can see the lights of other villages trapped within the wall’s corridors, as well as city lights in Israel sparkling in the other direction. Despite the many problems Baqa Al Sharqiyeh is facing, this is where to wants to remain, living in his hometown, with his family – even if it’s behind a wall.

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