Israel's new barrier cuts old ties

An 87-mile-long West Bank barrier has directly affected more than 200,000 Palestinians. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Palestinians trapped on the Israeli side of the West Bank barrier.]

It's no dream house, the cinderblock hut Sharif Omar now calls home, but he won't leave it anytime soon.

When the West Bank farmer and his wife married 36 years ago, they moved in with his brother. Mr. Omar promised one day to build her a house of her own. This year, he finished it, moved the family in and promptly left for this squat shed in his olive groves, not far from 31 other families camping on their own farms.

It's an exodus born of determination. Israel's separation barrier slices through Jayyus, neatly severing the town from its fields. Israel has taken local land in the past and farmers here worry the barrier's path is the first step toward the loss of their livelihood. They aim to hold on.

Jayyus is just one of 65 towns and cities caught in the barrier's winding path. Still a fraction of its eventual length, the barrier is dividing communities, disrupting access to hospitals and schools and dislocating the ties between people, their land, and scarce water supplies.

Israel has defended its creation of the barrier as a security measure, saying its formidable presence is needed to stop would-be suicide bombers. It denies that its construction has been motivated by an interest in controlling the borders of any future Palestinian state, as critics charge. It cites instead the 817 Israelis killed by Palestinian attacks since the beginning of the intifada.

But even as international groups begin studying the barrier's long-term effects, its chokehold on the northern West Bank economy is already clear. "Overall, it is feared that the Wall will isolate, fragment and, in some cases, impoverish those affected by its construction," says a recent report overseen by international donors including the US Government, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. "The wall may severely constrain the delivery of basic social services and commercial exchange - and certainly will do so ... if movement through the Wall is seriously hampered."

Workers finished the barrier's first phase in July, leaving behind a dusty 87-mile scar along the northern West Bank. In its wake, Israeli, Palestinian and international groups have been assessing the impact.

• More than 200,000 Palestinians are trapped on the Israeli side of the barrier or it cuts through their town, as in Jayyus.

• In the first phase of construction, barrier workers demolished 85 commercial buildings, destroyed at least 19 miles of water networks and uprooted 102,320 trees, 60,000 of which Israel replanted.

• Eighty-five percent of the land lost under the barrier's footprint came from Palestinian landowners, 15 percent from Israelis.

• Jayyus is just one of 51 villages isolated from most of their land. Twenty-five report no access to their land.

• The barrier's detours into the West Bank take almost 30,500 acres of land onto the Israeli side - nearly 2 percent of the West Bank.

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with President George Bush in June, he said Israel would make every effort ensure that the fence does not encroach on Palestinian villages.

Yet the numbers above, from Israel's Defense Ministry, the Seamline Administration, which is building the barrier, and the Palestinian Environmental NGO Network, convey only minimally the challenges ahead for local people.

To get a sense of the barrier's impact, you have to think in terms of movement - the key to a healthy economy. In these small towns, people must travel to reach markets, schools, hospitals and jobs.

In the barrier's tight embrace, getting from A to B within the West Bank will be much harder for many people.

The economic impact is already apparent in a city like Qalqilya, a regional hub and home to the area hospital. Some 3,000 people have left since the barrier encircled the city, reducing it to one entrance, the UN says. Six hundred businesses have closed, their drawn turquoise shutters colorfully signaling the city's decline.

Six miles south, the barrier threatens to weaken the links between the village of Azzun Atmay and nearby hamlets.

Azzun Atmay has the well-tended tidiness of a prosperous community, though haphazard stacks of uprooted trees, victims of the barrier's progress, suggest the town's upheaval.

Unlike Qalqilya, no terror attack has emanated from the village of 1,500 that sits two miles from the Green Line dividing Israel from the West Bank.

Yet, like the larger city, Azzun Atmay is one of 15 communities on the barrier's Palestinian side cut off from the rest of the West Bank by extended fencing or a "depth barrier" - a trench up to 150 meters long, stuffed with razorwire.

"Nearby villages send students here for school, they come for the [health] clinic, they go through here to get to their fields," says Mayor Abdel Karim Ayyub Ahmed, who found the army's land seizure orders for the barrier nailed to utility poles.

Unemployment here has shot from 16 percent before the conflict began in September 2000, to 70 percent today, largely because residents haven't been able to work in Israel or get to markets. A small, self-contained man, Mr. Ahmed is unsure whether life with one army-controlled entrance will be feasible, whether people will have to leave in order to survive. "How will we work? How will the teachers come? By the logic of security, they can't leave that gate open all the time," he says, referring to farmers who need to access their fields.

"Sometimes it makes me feel like weeping," he adds quietly.

In all these areas, Palestinians' ability to reach their lands, markets, and social services will be key to how well they weather the barrier's impact.

"The more you constrict movement, the more the economy is affected," says Nigel Roberts, World Bank country director for the West Bank and Gaza. "The longer-term impact will be determined by the degree of access Palestinians have through the fence, to what extent they will be able to access their property and actually operate within that area."

The Ministry of Defense says there are 41 passageways - large canary-yellow gates - along the first phase of the wall. Palestinian groups say the number of gates that are actually open is closer to six. The UN says 14 gates are operating along the barrier's first section.

When the gates are open, farmers say they seem to operate on a schedule convenient for soldiers' shifts, not people working in the fields.

Regulations for use of the gates aren't yet clear, but Defense Ministry spokeswoman Rachel Ashkenazi says that for now, only landowners will be permitted to cross through gates. Asked about a farmer like Omar, who employs up to 25 people a day, Ms. Ashkenazi says he will able to apply for permits.

Permits have been very difficult for Palestinians to obtain in the last three years, though, in part because restrictions on their movement mean they can't travel to the places where the permits are issued.

Ultimately, access through gates will depend largely on the security situation. "If there's an alert, if it happens at 7 a.m., no one will be able to pass from one side to the other," says Ashkenazi. "And heaven forbid, if someone uses one of these gates for a terrorist attack, or if they want to get into their land and instead go to Tel Aviv - it will be no longer a gate," she adds.

This is precisely what Jayyus residents fear - closure of the two gates that lead to their land. For this reason, many of the families camping in their fields go back to the village only once a week. Without access to their fields, they worry they will lose them. "I'm here because I have to protect my land," says Omar, gesturing around at his hut, where several farmers are gathering.

The shed is at the four-star end of the hastily built shelters. The typical camp consists of a cloth lean-to spread over a ground cover. Omar, the largest landowner in this town of 3,200, can boast a battered wooden table and bed, a gas burner and a small army of sluggish flies, seemingly stupefied by the heat pooling beneath the asbestos roof.

Omar cajoles his guests into chairs, drops a sweat-stained hat onto the table and serves oversized thimbles of coffee. The men, tense and angry, begin to talk.

When Israel wants to use Palestinian land, its army issues orders for "security reasons," stating that it is "laying its hands on the land" in a particular area. The orders are for three- or five-year terms, but are infinitely renewable and good from their date of signing, regardless of when Palestinians receive them.

In 1990, the army laid its hands on 8 percent of Jayyus's land, according to the Jerusalem-based Land Research Center. The land was used to build the Israeli settlement of Zufin. In 1992, the army claimed more land by the village entrance, transforming it into a smoking garbage dump for nearby Israeli settlements.

Of the 3,250 acres the village has left, 138 acres disappeared under the barrier's footprint while another 2,150 - two-thirds of Jayyus's land - lies on the barrier's other side.

What happens to this wide swath of citrus trees, greenhouses, and tomato plots will depend on farmers' access to gates in the barrier, but also on the unlikely combination of ancient law and modern technology.

During the Ottoman era, the sultan owned all the land in the Palestinian territories. He allowed farmers to plant it and even hand it down from father to son, but they could not legally register the land in their names. If farmers didn't cultivate their fields for three years in a row, the sultan could reclaim them.

Israel has assumed the sultan's place and, using satellite photographs to monitor field cultivation, uses the Ottoman law to claim West Bank land.

Around the northern West Bank, farmers like Omar are convinced Israel will use the barrier to keep them from their lands and eventually seize them. When asked about this, Uzi Dayan, the first director of the barrier project, told Ha'aretz newspaper "the Palestinians' fears are not unfounded."

The Ministry of Defense, however, says the barrier "does not annex territories to the State of Israel, nor will it change the status of the residents in these areas."

For Omar, though, life has already changed. The uncertainty lies in what's ahead. "My choice is to be in the new house without my farm, or at the farm without a house," he says. "Without my land, I am nothing."

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