Jerusalem's growing web of walls

Israelis are erecting a network of barriers in East Jerusalem after years of deadly attacks. The barrier is changing lives on both sides.

Jamal Dirawi jolted awake to the thunder of fists pounding his front door. 1 a.m. He shared a tired glance with his wife and got dressed. This had happened before. In the weeks to come, it would happen again.

That July night, Israeli border police arrested Mr. Dirawi and 15 others in his village for entering Israel illegally. Dirawi was born here, just south of East Jerusalem. He was living here in 1967 when Israel declared the area part of greater Jerusalem. The villagers weren't told until 1992. When they applied for proper identification as Jerusalem residents, they were denied, making them illegally present on land they had never left. Now they are trapped.

Dirawi and his neighbors don't have the ID to enter Jerusalem, to the north. An Israeli settlement hems them in on the west. To the south and east, Israel's new security barrier cuts them off from Bethlehem, their urban hub, and the West Bank beyond. And as bulldozers blazed the barrier's path, the border police raids began.

"A government man came [in March] and said they want this area as a no man's land, that they'll cut our electricity and water," Dirawi says. "After this man, we've seen no good. Israel wants our land, but it doesn't want the people."

After three years of conflict that has claimed over 800 Israeli lives and shattered many more, Israelis desperately crave the safety that the barrier seems to offer.

They believe a physical divider will stop suicide bombers from entering Israel proper, despite events like the Oct. 4 suicide bombing in Haifa, where the barrier is already complete. On the other side of that divide, in the West Bank, the barrier's rapid construction is altering lives, the landscape and, critics say, foreclosing on the possibility of a viable Palestinian state - all factors that will deepen Palestinian anger and motivation to strike at Israel. As this is happening, the barrier is shaping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in other ways. Indeed, the barrier's dusty path through Jerusalem highlights like nowhere else how Israel uses law, policy, and construction to control lands the Palestinians claim as their own.

"Jerusalem is being radically changed in a way it hasn't been for centuries," says Daniel Seideman, an Israeli lawyer who heads a group that provides planning services to residents of Palestinian East Jerusalem. "It's the first time there has been a serious intent to build a wall around the city since the 16th century," Mr. Seideman says. "It's certainly the biggest change to Jerusalem since 1967."

Though the US has said that the Palestinians must act first to stop militant violence, it has expressed concern about the barrier and raised the possibility of financial penalties against Israel.

"The wall is not really consistent with our view of what the Middle East will one day have to look like, two states living side by side in peace," US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters on Sept. 22. "We understand that the Israelis have some security concerns [but] it is extremely important, if it is going to be built, that it not intrude on the lives of the Palestinians, and most importantly, that it not look as if it's trying to prejudge the outcome of a peace agreement."

Jerusalem has always been a crucible for ethnic, religious, and political tensions - "a golden basin filled with scorpions," one Arab resident wrote 10 centuries ago. A metaphor for peace, holiness, and the divine for adherents to the three major monotheistic faiths, the city has endured massacres, sieges, war, desolation, and repeated rebuilding over its 4,000-year history.

For Jews, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently said, it is "the capital of the Jewish people for the last 3,000 years and the united and undivided capital of Israel forever."

Arab Christians see Jerusalem as the birthplace of their faith, while Arab Muslims declare it the third-holiest city in Islam, the place where Mohammad rose to heaven to receive the word of God and upon returning reportedly said that, "to die in Jerusalem is almost like dying in heaven."

Religion infuses and complicates the political struggle over Jerusalem. It underlies the decision by foreign mediators to make the city a "final status" negotiating issue, leaving the thorniest topics to the last. And it's one more reason why barrier construction here is so problematic.

Israel has already built 84 miles of barrier that include two sections the Ministry of Defense calls "Circling Jerusalem." Totaling almost 11 miles, these two barriers, when seen on maps, resemble giant brackets separating Jerusalem from Palestinian neighborhoods to the north and south. A third Jerusalem section was approved on Aug. 20, the day after a Hamas suicide bombing claimed 20 lives and galvanized support for the barrier (see part 3 of this series online at www.csmonitor.com/barrier).

This section will run some 38 miles through the eastern part of the city. Safety does not come cheap. At $4 million per mile, the barrier's price tag will reach at least $1 billion, but Israelis want a divider as quickly as possible, no matter the cost.

Controversy is slowing things down. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has repeatedly and publicly called the barrier "a problem" most recently on Oct. 3.

This is because the barrier veers from the Green Line border between Israel and Palestinian territory and dives into the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to establish their state.

The most contentious barrier section runs down a central section of the West Bank near the settlement of Ariel and would involve a 12-mile indent if Ariel were to be included. Israel approved that 270-mile barrier section Oct. 1, leaving a gap in the barrier opposite the settlement.

Israeli media and analysts widely expect Ariel to be included inside the barrier in a few months. In the meantime, four separate barriers and obstacles will be built east of Ariel and other neighboring settlements.

In Washington meetings on Sept. 21, Israeli envoys told the Bush Administration that the barrier's route has been determined only by security considerations and is not intended to create future political borders.

The US concern is that the Ariel diversion, along with other detours, would make it hard to create a Palestinian state out of one, uninterrupted piece of land. If Israel extends the barrier around Ariel, the US has threatened to deduct monies from the $9 billion in loan guarantees it gave Israel this year.

Israel media noted, however, the US silence about the Cabinet approval of the Ariel section. In the Ma'ariv newspaper, analyst Ben Caspit noted that Israeli politicians expect the US to disengage from the conflict over the coming year due to coming elections and other foreign concerns, thereby allowing Israel more freedom to act.

That has yet to happen though. On Oct. 3, Secretary Powell said the administration was having "intense discussions" about Israel's plan to leave gaps in the barrier. "The gaps in and of themselves do not satisfy me," he told the Washington Post. "The question is what becomes of the gaps in due course.... We have not yet come to a conclusion about what to do and what our action should be."

The US has doubts about the Jerusalem barrier. This is a sensitive area where the barrier will have a substantial impact on residents, and from a security perspective, its route is counterintuitive. As it winds around the hills of East Jerusalem, the barrier dips beyond Israel's boundaries for the Jerusalem municipality and into the West Bank, so that some 60,000 to 70,000 West Bank Palestinians will be on the "Israeli" side of the fence. At the same time, Palestinians with Jerusalem ID and lives that revolve around the city will be left outside.

Inside the city, surveillance cameras will oversee a 26-foot-high wall, high tech intrusion-detection fences and a patrol road. This barrier won't divide Palestinians from Israelis.

Instead, it will separate Palestinians from Palestinians, cutting people off from their families, jobs, schools, hospitals, community graveyards and land. Already, students, housewives, and others are climbing over or squeezing through gaps in the 8-foot concrete blocks plunked down in the middle of East Jerusalem's Abu Dis neighborhood.

"There is so much human pressure on both sides of this wall," says Mr. Seideman, looking down on the concrete divider from the hilltop courtyard of a local hotel. A wiry, rumpled man with intense green eyes, he anchors his conversational flood with facts, figures and historical detail.

Below him, the makeshift concrete wall squats along the edge of a dusty, litter-strewn street, a precursor to the barrier to come. The registrar's office of Al Quds University lies on one side. On the other, a gaggle of female students heave themselves up and through a chink in the barrier.

"While they can do it, people are going over the wall, under the wall, around the wall; residents have marked gaps in the slabs for people of various girths," Seideman says.

This barrier-induced pressure on communities in and around East Jerusalem is building. Seideman worries that it will radicalize one of the most peaceful Palestinian areas during this conflict. And many residents now wonder aloud whether they'll have to move to reach jobs and schools.

This pressure is amplified by other Israeli actions around the contested city - road creation, settlement expansion, and building restrictions on Palestinians. The overarching purpose, Israeli analysts say, is to shape Jerusalem's demographic profile and, by doing so, its future.

Hassan Abu Asleh spent his working years laying the physical foundation for life in East Jerusalem.

Mr. Abu Asleh's career as an urban planner and surveyor began with the Jordanians who ruled the eastern side of the Green Line until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. When the Israelis annexed the eastern half of Jerusalem, "they took me with my table, my chair, my pencils, and maps. They needed me," says Abu Asleh. He retired last year to an airy, open home he built in East Jerusalem's Sur Bahir neighborhood, just north of Jamal Dirawi's village. Time has bleached Abu Asleh's close-cropped hair and lined his skin, but his hazel eyes still convey the thoughtful intelligence evident in early photos.

The Israelis were new to East Jerusalem in 1967, but they had ideas. Abu Asleh watched them extend the city's boundaries, confiscate Palestinian land for settlements, and institute new construction rules in East Jerusalem.

"Nothing happened to Palestinian land in Jerusalem without me having a finger in it," he says. "After the war, people had to apply again to build and the Israelis said, 'Wait, we want to do new planning,'" He pauses. "Today there are places that still haven't got permission to build."

Planning - the decisions about whether you can build, where and what you can put up - can determine the potential and limits of a community, and, to some degree, the lives of the people residing there. Building a school, park, business, or even just a home extension creates new options for communities and families.

In East Jerusalem, a thicket of bureaucracy and an absence of planning have stilled that potential. This is a deliberate policy, critics say, driven by the Jerusalem municipality's stated goal of maintaining a ratio of 72 Jews to 28 Arabs in the city.

Abu Asleh nudges aside the bowl of fat purple figs on his coffee table and pulls out maps of the Palestinian villages now part of Jerusalem.

Large kelly-green splotches enliven the charts, connoting the city's "open green spaces." These aren't parks, but private Palestinian lands where all building is forbidden. These areas make up 54 percent of East Jerusalem, according to the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICAHD).

In the already crowded areas where building is allowed, complex restrictions and legal and financial hurdles delay construction for years.

And as Israel continues to confiscate land, the squeeze on Palestinian East Jerusalem grows ever tighter. Abu Asleh has only to look out his living room window to see 1-1/2 acres of family land seized for the creation of a Jewish neighborhood in 1970. This July, a confiscation notice arrived for his remaining 2-1/2 acres, claimed for barrier construction.

"It makes me feel ill," he says, curling a fist against his chest as he turns from the window. "I have the land under my feet now, that's it. And it's not just my story; it's the story of everyone in my village. There's not an inch for people to grow or expand."

As a result, when families expand, Palestinians build illegally.

In response, Israel demolishes. Israel has destroyed an estimated 2,000 Palestinian homes in Jerusalem since 1967 and has more than 1,000 demolition orders outstanding, according to ICAHD.

"It is part of the strategy," says Shuli Hartman of Bimkom, a group of Israeli architects and planners who study Israel's use of urban planning. "There has been no planning in these neighborhoods, so anything they do is illegal."

After a home demolition, families are forced to move, often outside Jerusalem. If they do, the Ministry of Interior invalidates their ID; they can no longer enter the city legally.

"In Jerusalem, Israel turned urban planning into a tool of the government, to be used to help prevent the expansion of the city's non-Jewish population," Amir Cheshin wrote in his 1967 book, "Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem." A retired army colonel, Mr. Cheshin went on to become a mayoral adviser on Arab affairs in Jerusalem.

"The idea was ... to move as many Arabs as possible out of the city," he wrote. "Policy in east Jerusalem was all about this numbers game."

The floor-to-ceiling windows in Benny Kashriel's office offer a view of single-minded determination in the form of row upon row of neat, new steeple-roofed houses. Mr. Kashriel is mayor of Maale Adumim, the 30,000-strong settlement east of Jerusalem. As an assistant to Israel's housing minister in 1980, when Maale Adumim was founded, then as mayor for the past 14 years, Kashriel has been concerned principally with the settlement's safety and growth. He says the Defense Minister recently assured him that Maale Adumim will fall within the Jerusalem district fence, part of the barrier projected to swing out some 9 miles into the West Bank, far beyond the current borders of the settlement's urban center.

Kashriel, an urbane man with a politician's easy warmth, says he isn't all that impressed. "The fence doesn't give security," he says. "It's more a temporary medicine for politicians under pressure."

The mayor believes security can be built in other ways, though, and there are seemingly few restrictions on his community's expansion. "In the next five years, we'll build neighborhoods between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim and you won't even know you're leaving Jerusalem," he says. These neighborhoods, along with the barrier, form what Israel calls the "Jerusalem Envelope."

Another 2,000 units planned for the settlement's eastern edge will extend its reach toward the West Bank city of Jericho.

For Kashriel, the impetus to build on the West Bank side of Jerusalem amounts to a case of "us or them." "If Maale Adumim wasn't built 23 years ago, there would be one big belt of Palestinian towns around the east of Jerusalem," he says.

While the barrier and Israeli housing regulations are converging to squeeze Palestinians out of Jerusalem, the Maale Adumim expansion project - named "E1" and deemed a top priority by the Defense Ministry - will effectively block any future Palestinian state from attaining easy access to Jerusalem, says Jeff Halper, coordinator for ICAHD.

"Jerusalem is being transformed from a city into a region that cuts the West Bank into north and south islands," he says. "E1 is the key to dividing and controlling the West Bank."

Seideman likens Israeli policy in and around East Jerusalem to Russian Matryoshka dolls. "It's about containment, within containment, within containment," he says of the barrier, the settlements, the E1 plan and the roads that ring East Jerusalem. "Every time the Palestinians turn around they bump into something. You think you're finished with one doll and you get another."

The image of imprisonment resonates bleakly for Jamal Dirawi. The border police no longer rob him of sleep - a court appeal put a temporary stop to the raids - but anxiety keeps him awake now.

"We have the advantage of our families and houses, but we're becoming prisoners on our own land," he says. He's sitting under a leafy almond tree in his front yard surveying the village's golden-green hills. He used to tell visitors proudly of an Israeli journalist's description of Nu'man as "Eden." Now it is becoming something altogether different.

The water and electricity haven't been shut off yet, but the army confiscated 36 acres of land this month and began the final barrier section around his village last month. A political consultant for the Palestinian Authority, Dirawi sounds increasingly worn out. "It's a matter of days before life shuts down here, they're squeezing us out of this place," he says. "We don't know yet if they're going to build us a gate to get in and out."

His 6-year-old daughter wobbles by on her bike and training wheels. He worries about what to say on the day the barrier cuts her off from her school in a neighboring village. It's easier to find words for the adults around him. "We're going to stay," he says. "We're not leaving." He says it again, perhaps to convince himself as much as his listeners, and then adds an afterthought. "We have no place to go."

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