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On the Fence from Kalkilya It May Seem Like a Cage, but in Kfar Saba the Fence is a Life-saver

February 19, 2004
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On one side there is no escaping the wall: hulking, concrete and towering almost 28 feet into the sky.

Where it’s not a wall, the barrier is a mesh fence topped with barbed wire and cameras, looping around the entire Palestinian city of Kalkilya.

Just across the boundary and only a little over a mile away, in the Israeli city of Kfar Saba, the barrier is welcomed.

But has anyone in Kfar Saba actually seen the barrier? Shrugs, shakes of the head — no.

Kalkilya is surrounded on all sides by what Israel calls the separation fence, a barrier the government says it must build to protect its citizens from suicide bombers, snipers and other Palestinian terrorists.

Residents of Kalkilya say it has turned their city into a ghetto.

But Kfar Saba residents are solidly behind the wall.

“I think we need it. It’s for our security,” says Dafna Subai, walking down Kfar Saba’s main shopping street with her family. “If the worst is that they have to live behind a wall and the worst for us is that we are blown up, then I say let them live behind a wall for now.”

The differing views of the security fence are coming to a head as Israel and the Palestinians prepare for a Feb. 23 hearing on the barrier’s legality at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

Palestinians argue that the fence is a land grab, taking territory they want for a future state. Israel claims the fence is necessary for security — and is perhaps the least invasive step the Jewish state can take after three years of Palestinian terrorism have left nearly 1,000 Israelis dead and thousands more wounded.

In most places the fence hews roughly to the Green Line, the armistice line from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, which served as a de facto boundary until the 1967 Six-Day War. But parts of the fence are projected to bow into the West Bank, causing tension between Israel and its main ally, the United States.

The fence also is altering the delicate fabric of life that has emerged between Israelis and Palestinians over nearly four decades.

According to the Israeli army spokesman’s office, five suicide bombers from Kalkilya have carried out attacks in Israel. Among them was the bomber who exploded himself outside Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium disco in June 2001, killing 21 young Israelis.

Last year, a sniper circumvented the wall by crawling through a drainage pipe, shooting at an Israeli car traveling on the nearby Trans-Israel Highway and killing a baby girl.

A portion of the concrete barrier that is now part of the greater fence project was built in late 2001 to protect Israeli vehicles on the Trans-Israel Highway from snipers in Kalkilya. Several road workers had been fired upon during the highway’s construction.

The decision to build the wall almost 28 feet high was calculated to ensure that buses would not be hit by sniper fire, says Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman.

The main problem in Kalkilya is that it is adjacent to the Trans-Israel Highway, “and therefore Israel had no choice but to build a concrete wall, which is very different from most of the rest of the fence,” says Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“It’s also important to recall that throughout the world you have acoustic walls next to a highway, and they don’t look much different” than the wall near Kalkilya, he adds.

In Kalkilya, the fence looms large as both a physical and a practical nuisance. Opposition to it is unanimous and locals dismiss Israel’s security argument, saying attacks will continue with or without the barrier.

“Peace has to come from within. Peace cannot be established through fences and walls,” says Abdullah Shreem, a Kalkilya farmer who is among those whose land is located on the Israeli side of the fence. “If a tiger is kept in a closed room, you can imagine how it will act when it is out of its cage. This apartheid wall only shows Israel thinks of us as animals — another reason for Palestinians to resist.”

Before the Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000, the residents of Kfar Saba, a palm tree-lined suburb of Tel Aviv, thronged to neighboring Kalkilya on weekends for humus lunches, bargain shopping and cheap automobile repair.

But those days are barely a memory at the Israeli military checkpoint where, until the fence was built, soldiers guarded the only way into and out of the Kalkilya.

Now the checkpoint is dominated by cement blocs topped with sandbags. A nearby watchtower is draped in camouflage netting, and army trucks and jeeps whiz in and out.

In an effort to improve the quality of life in Kalkilya, the Israeli army downgraded its presence at the checkpoint in recent weeks.

Soldiers now visit only sporadically and Palestinians pass the checkpoint freely in donkey carts, trucks and on foot.

Jessica Montrell, who heads the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, says that by opening up the entrance to Kalkilya, Israel is disproving its own argument about security risks.

“I think it only strengthens the argument that most of the suffering of the Palestinian population is needless and not necessarily for security,” she says.

With a population of 40,000, Kalkilya serves as a center for surrounding Palestinian towns and villages. It has the main hospital in the area, and many of the teachers for area schools live in Kalkilya.

Many of the Palestinians in Kalkilya work as shopkeepers or in agriculture. Unemployment has soared, partly because of Israeli limits on the number of Palestinian workers allowed into Israel since the intifada began.

Kalkilya is a Palestinian hub for citrus fruit, boasting vast groves of orange and lemon trees, as Kfar Saba did before its rapid development in recent decades. Nicknamed the “City of Orange Gold,” Kalkilya’s fortunes have suffered because of intifada violence, which has limited the transport of produce to Israel and abroad.

In August 2002, Israel’s Cabinet approved the first stage of the security fence, including the area around Kalkilya near Israel’s narrow waist. The plans made Kalkilya and neighboring Palestinian villages of Habla and Ras Atiya into enclaves enclosed by the fence.

According to B’Tselem, the decision to enclose the three Palestinian towns was made in part to appease pressure from nearby Jewish towns in the West Bank to be included on the Israeli side of the fence.

Although Habla, for example, is only 218 yards from Kalkilya, the fence construction means that residents of one area will have to drive about seven miles to reach the other.

There is a gate between Kalkilya and Habla for farmers to use, but residents say it is opened only sporadically. Construction reportedly is underway on an underground passage between Kalkilya and Habla to ease the fence’s impact on Palestinians.

Farmers like Shreem who have land beyond the Kalkilya fence must receive special permits to visit their property. Shreem also has land in Habla, and he pulls out a green, folded document from the Israeli army stating that he is a farmer with produce in the area and has permission to travel there.

But for the past three days he has not been able to go to Habla, he says, because the army closed the Kalkilya exit for what he heard were security reasons.

Shreem surveys the flock of Damascus sheep that, in pre-intifada days, he would export to Israel and the Persian Gulf states for a hefty profit. He also has rows of cedar, kumquat and olive-tree saplings bordering his greenhouses.

Shreem’s property rests along the edges of the concrete wall that stretches for 1.8 miles on the western side of the city.

He says army officials told him he can no longer use the six acres closest to the fence. If he does not remove them, he says he was told, the army will demolish the greenhouses because they are too close to the wall.

Israeli officials did not relate specifically to Shreem’s claim, but Israel has said it will compensate Palestinians whose property is destroyed or expropriated because of the fence project. Some Palestinians have sought and received compensation, while others have resisted, Israeli officials say.

Shreem, for example, has refused to request compensation because receiving it would mean signing away his right to the land.

“That is something I will never do,” he says.

In Kfar Saba, a city of about 80,000 where the first Jewish settlers planted citrus groves and harvested almonds and peanuts, most residents today work in hi-tech or commerce. Many commute to jobs in nearby Tel Aviv.

About 10 percent of the city’s population consists of immigrants from the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia. It’s a homey city with ice cream shops and a city hall of white stucco and dark wood that dates back over 100 years, when it was a Turkish inn.

Residents are fond of their city, praising the culture and good schools.

Kfar Saba has not been attacked as much as other Israeli cities that border the West Bank, such as Netanya or Jerusalem.

But intifada violence indeed has reached Kfar Saba’s streets. On March 17, 2002, a Palestinian gunman opened fire across from a Kfar Saba high school, critically wounding an 18-year-old student and wounding 16 others.

On Nov. 4, 2002, a suicide bomber came to the city’s main mall but was stymied by a security guard who asked to check his bag. The bomber detonated his explosives, killing himself and the guard.

Miri Horvitz, a cosmetics saleswoman at the mall, was there the day of the attack.

“If the fence brings us quiet than I think it’s the best thing,” she says. “I feel freer now, more relaxed.”

Horvitz becomes subdued when she talks about the aftermath of the mall attack. “I was scared to leave the house for a long time,” she says.

Her daughter Hila, 24, shared her mother’s fear of attacks. Only now, after a two-year hiatus, has Hila returned to riding city buses. She also is in favor of the fence.

“I saw the fence on television,” she says at the trendy boutique where she and her mother are shopping. “It’s not a ghetto; it’s a security fence. I don’t think it’s as drastic as people say, suggesting it’s a ghetto and we are the Nazis.”

At the open-air mall where the attack took place, there are balconies and a stone plaza with fountains where children roll with in-line skates, skateboard and ride bicycles. Trampolines are set up and children in harnesses strapped to bungee chords jump up and down.

“We feel more secure, although we know it doesn’t totally take away the risk,” says Ruhama Sarussi, a teacher at the mall with her two sons, both on in-line skates. “We don’t want to put anyone in a ghetto, including them, but when will they let us feel secure so we don’t have to fear them?”

Inside the mall, Shlomo Shabo, a salesman at the electronics store a few feet from where the suicide bomber exploded, recalls the attack — the flesh that clung to his shirt, the thick, choking smoke and the crashing sound as television sets and appliances exploded.

“People are ripped into pieces because of these bombers. I saw it right here,” Shabo says. The Palestinians “are paying the price for those wreaking havoc here. If there was no terrorism, there would be total freedom.”

But the only long-term solution, Shabo said, is not a fence but a peace agreement.

In the Kalkilya neighborhood that faces the concrete wall, Nuhaila A’Wainat, a Palestinian homemaker and mother of five sons sits in her spacious new home. It has high ceilings, a staircase with wooden railings, stone pillars and overstuffed red velvet couches. But she laments the view.

“My dream was to have a house like this. This is what we worked for all our lives,” she says.

A’Wainat has a smooth oval face and her hair is covered by a beige scarf. She and her husband, a wealthy automobile parts salesman, built the house with money saved during several years of work in Kuwait.

They moved in 18 months ago, and enjoyed being so close to Kfar Saba.

“I enjoyed seeing the lights,” she says. “It is Israel, but it is Palestine to me.”

Now, however, she can hardly bring herself to look at the wall, which is some 15 yards from her house.

Her family feels alienated, she says, because relatives and friends fear visiting a home so close to the wall. Soldiers patrol along the wall, and people fear being shot accidentally.

“We are constantly on edge,” she says. “Every little noise or movement makes us worry.”

She places the blame entirely on Israel, however, rather than on Palestinians whose attacks precipitated the construction.

In Kfar Saba, the closest neighborhood to Kalkilya is on the city’s far eastern side. It consists mostly of immigrants who live in apartment blocks where the paint peels off the walls and gardens lie untended.

Their view is of white squat houses on Kalkilya’s sloping hillside. A verdant green field separates the two cities. From here, the wall can’t be seen.

Hussia, an immigrant from Moldova, wears a flowered house-dress as she walks her small dog. The Arabs do not want peace, she says, and only a fence that climbs to the heavens would be high enough.

As for the security fence, she says, “Where is it? I have not seen it.”

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