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On the Fence Jerusalem Fence Poses Problems of Logistics — and Humanitarianism

February 20, 2004
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Palestinian schoolboys scramble onto cement blocks and climb on the 26-foot-high slabs of concrete forming the towering wall that is blocking off Jerusalem from the West Bank.

From their perch, the boys can see both sides of the wall that runs along Shaya Street, the previously invisible municipal boundary between Jerusalem and the West Bank village of Abu Dis.

As in other neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, where nearly all of the city’s Arabs live, the barrier cuts through the city and its suburbs — separating relatives, cutting off workers from their jobs and students from their schools, and separating those on the Palestinian side from hospitals, municipal services and cemeteries in Israel.

Israeli political and military officials say the wall in Jerusalem, like the hundreds of miles of barrier being built to separate the rest of Israel from the West Bank, is a temporary measure to block Palestinian terrorists.

The two sides’ differing views of the fence are coming to a head as a Feb. 23 hearing on the barrier’s legality approaches at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Israel has said it will not make arguments in the trial, as The Hague has no jurisdiction in the matter.

Palestinians argue that the fence is an illegal land grab, taking ground they claim as their own and that they want for a future state — including Jerusalem, which they hope one day will become their capital.

Israel claims that the fence is a necessary security precaution — saying it is perhaps the least invasive measure the Jewish state can take after three years of Palestinian terrorism have left more than 1,000 Israelis dead and thousands more wounded.

In most places hewing 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 — the fence is altering the delicate fabric of life that has grown up between Israelis and Palestinians here over nearly four decades.

The ramifications of such a physical divide are seen most starkly in Jerusalem, the only part of the barrier route that slices through a major urban area.

Elsewhere along the boundary with the West Bank, the barrier is comprised mostly of a hi-tech network of wire fence, ditches and patrol roads. In urban areas like Abu Dis, which merges into Jerusalem, such a setup would involve confiscating additional land and further disrupting everyday life, so large walls are being constructed instead.

As Israeli authorities build along the Jerusalem municipal boundary established in 1967 — when several eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods were seized and annexed as part of the city — the barrier divides Palestinian neighborhoods. Jewish neighborhoods on the eastern side of the city are included on the Israeli side of the wall.

More than half of Jerusalem’s Palestinian population lives inside the municipal boundaries — some 200,000 people.

Critics of the fence ask why Palestinians beyond the city limits are considered a security threat when those inside the city apparently are not.

Security officials say the government decided to build the fence along the city’s municipal boundaries — and those Arabs living inside city limits are legal residents of Israel.

Still, they hope to prevent terrorists from using eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods on the West Bank side of the city as launching pads for attacks — as has occurred in the past. The barrier, they say, will control the flow of people from the West Bank into Jerusalem by channeling all traffic to checkpoints, as a regular border crossing does.

For decades, the security officials emphasize, Palestinians enjoyed unfettered freedom of movement, and the current change has been brought about only by the terrorism of the intifada.

Palestinians say the Jerusalem portion of the fence is a political attempt to solidify Israeli control of the city. The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Before construction began on the Jerusalem portion of the barrier, the municipal borders were invisible, not affecting the daily lives of residents on either side in a significant way.

Now, however, a line will be drawn between those living in the city and those living in its Palestinian suburbs, for whom the city is the center of their economic and social lives.

“The wall will result in the most dramatic changes to the Jerusalem boundaries and its people since 1967,” said a December 2003 report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Palestinians say the wall creates maddening practical obstacles.

“All of our people are angry about this. I cannot visit my family there,” said Ahmed Sabek, a taxi van driver, gesturing to the West Bank side of the wall, “and they cannot visit us here.”

But Moshe Karmi, a retired diamond polisher was born in Jerusalem and fought there in the wars of 1948 and 1967, said Palestinians have left Israel with no choice.

“I’m for the fence. It’s for our security,” Karmi said. “We want to live and they are trying to kill us. We also have a right to live here.” Military officials stress that for now, the wall is the only answer.

“The establishment of the fence is part of the army’s battle against Palestinian terror,” Capt. Gil Limon, a member of the Israel Defense Forces’ legal staff in the West Bank, told an overflow audience at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies during a recent public debate on the Jerusalem portion of the fence. “It’s part of our self-defense.”

In the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, which regularly came under gunfire from the neighboring Palestinian village of Beit Jala in the early months of the intifada, Shlomi Mizrahi said he welcomes the fence.

Two bullets punctured windows in his apartment, which faces Beit Jala in the valley below.

“There is not much choice,” he said of the fence. “It’s about security.”

But he said he doubts that the wire fence route running between Gilo and Beit Jala will prevent further shooting attacks on his neighborhood.

“Whoever wants to shoot at us will still be able to do so,” he said.

Mizrahi, a 27-year-old clerk for the Jerusalem municipality, said he has reservations about how the fence will disrupt the flow of life in eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Abu Dis.

The new, higher wall in Abu Dis replaces a lower barrier that was covered with spray-painted messages such as “Welcome to Ghetto Abu Dis” and “Apartheid Wall.”

The lower wall was the first stage of the separation barrier in Abu Dis — which, because of its proximity to Jerusalem, once was considered a possible capital for a future Palestinian state.

A potential parliament building even was picked out, a modern stone building that remains empty.

To date, gaps and open crevices in the low cement wall around Abu Dis have allowed Palestinians to continue moving back and forth. They climb over the concrete blocks, children usually leading the way.

Crates of produce, bundles of money and even babies are handed over the wall.

“After they close the holes, what will students do? Or if you want to go to the hospital?” Sabek said. “This is one country. You are breaking up the country like this.”

Defense officials responsible for carrying out government orders to build the barrier say they’re doing their best to defuse a difficult situation in Jerusalem.

“We tried to stay within Jerusalem territory in order not to get into a political situation,” said retired Col. Dani Tirzah, who is involved in planning the fence route. “We need to do our best to assure freedom of movement.”

Israel Kimche, who is spearheading research into the Jerusalem portion of the fence for the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, said military style planning is not enough when it comes to a city as complex as Jerusalem.

“They study every kilometer very carefully, but they are military men,” Kimche said. “They are looking at it from a security point of view, but they are not experts on humanitarian issues or matters of traffic, employment or infrastructure.

“The situation in Jerusalem is more complicated than in any other place,” he said. “There will be daily problems. It will make daily life much more difficult.”

Tens of thousands of Palestinians will be disconnected from the center of their lives in Jerusalem, Kimche said.

Some Palestinians who live in towns and villages abutting Jerusalem carry Israeli identity cards. That might mean that thousands currently living in the West Bank — including many who moved there because of the housing crunch in eastern Jerusalem — may try to move back to the city for fear of being locked out.

The three main hospitals servicing Palestinians in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas will be much more difficult to access for those living on the West Bank side of the fence. Students who live in Jerusalem but study in West Bank universities also will have trouble reaching their campuses.

Planned changes in the fence route, prompted in part by growing international opposition to how the fence will affect Palestinians’ lives, reportedly will aim to create contiguity between Palestinian villages outside Jerusalem.

“Urban environments pose a very difficult challenge for the construction of the fence,” said Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Gold noted that among plans for adjustments in the Jerusalem area are special permits so some Palestinians can pass more easily into the city and the establishment of medical clinics so Palestinians can get certain services like dialysis without delay.

The Defense Ministry currently is deciding where the entry points into Jerusalem will be for those living on the West Bank side of the city.

Rami Nasrallah, director of the International Peace and Cooperation Center, a Palestinian think tank in eastern Jerusalem, calls the fence the “Israeli fragmentation wall in Jerusalem.”

Nasrallah says the mentality of separation is problematic for the two sides.

“It’s bad for the city, for the whole concept of an open city for both sides and a capital of two states. It’s killing the whole concept, and I’m shocked to see this trend within the Israeli side of building walls,” he said.

“I’m afraid of this mentality of denial, of ‘Let’s build a wall, we don’t want to see or interact with Arabs,’ ” he said. “With this you cannot make peace.”

Channa Pressburger, an Israeli university student in Jerusalem, says she thinks the fence will destroy hopes of developing normal life in the region — and won’t provide security.

“There is a problem and it starts at the root” of the conflict, she said. “The fence won’t help, it will only exacerbate the situation. The problems will only continue.”

Haithem Mukahed lives in Abu Dis but owns a garage on the Jerusalem side of the barrier. On one recent day, he was furious when soldiers wouldn’t let him pass, even though he has an entry permit.

“What do I have a pass for? What kind of country is this that won’t let me in?” he asked, his voice rising. “What do they think, that only they are allowed to live?”

Most Palestinians living in Jerusalem tend to dismiss the security argument for the fence, saying Israel’s best bet for security is not to cut off Palestinians from their livelihoods. They ask why the current network of checkpoints is not enough.

“My life is in Jerusalem,” said Muhamed A’Wissat, 29, standing on a hill in a Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem known as a-Sheikh S’ad. With A’Wissat is a group of fellow unemployed friends who used to work in Israel.

Because of pending fence construction, the road to their suburb was destroyed and vehicles no longer can come in or out. For now, the only way to reach neighboring villages is by foot.

What for A’Wissat once was a journey of a few minutes to Jerusalem now could take as long as an hour, because the only way to reach the city legally is via the West Bank Jewish city of Ma’aleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem.

Yehezkel Lein, a researcher for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, looked out on an Abu Dis courtyard full of concrete slabs lying horizontally on the ground. They soon will be hoisted into place by construction workers on the edge of Abu Dis and added to the growing wall.

“When you try to impose virtual reality into a concrete reality, what you get is a human disaster,” he said.

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