Families are torn apart by Israel's fence

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The Independent Online

In the low rolling hills between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley desert, two villages a mile and a half apart, whose histories have long been entwined, have begun to say their farewells. The 3,000 residents of Rumane are not going anywhere. Nor are their friends and relatives who live across the valley in Salem.

In the low rolling hills between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley desert, two villages a mile and a half apart, whose histories have long been entwined, have begun to say their farewells. The 3,000 residents of Rumane are not going anywhere. Nor are their friends and relatives who live across the valley in Salem.

For decades, villagers have flowed back and forth, padding through the olive orchards and along goat tracks, freely crossing the invisible 1967 Green Line between Israel and the West Bank. But not for much longer. Three giant yellow diggers which began tearing up olive trees last week provided confirmation that the two Arab communities are soon to be separated. A giant fence is on its way, plunging both villages into gloom. It is, says Sa'id Abu Bakr, chairman of the district council, a "social and economic tragedy".

The two villages stand facing one another across a wadi on either side of the northernmost tip of the West Bank. Three miles from Salem, which is just inside Israel, is Megiddo Junction where a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up 17 Israelis on a bus on 5 June.

About seven miles from Rumane lies Jenin, the West Bank town which Israel's army has repeatedly invaded, on the grounds that it has been the source of more than 20 suicide bombers. The fence – or, more accurately, the barrier, for it will in places include trenches, razor wire and concrete walls – is being built by Israel to keep out the bombers.

The first stage will run 70 miles inside the West Bank's north-western edge, to Kafr Qasem, but it may eventually run its entire length. Arab land has been confiscated for the purpose. The labourers sealing in the Palestinians are fellow Arabs living in Israel.

Separation will be painful. The two communities are connected by a mesh of family and economic ties. Before the outbreak of the intifada, the Palestinian men of Rumane daily came to the smaller but more prosperous Salem (pop: 1,100), where contractors would hire them to work illegally as labourers on Israel's building sites and farms.

At weekends and Muslim holidays, families from Salem walk across the valley to visit their relatives in Rumane, and vice versa – although it has become dangerous now because of patrolling Israeli troops.

Isam al-Rifai, 15, from Rumane, last week ran the gauntlet. He came to see his older brother, Ra'ed, 34, who married a woman from Salem. "Soon my brother won't be able to walk over and see us, and we won't come to see him. It is very sad. I have told myself that this is perhaps my last chance to visit," he said.

His cousin, Ibtithan, 37, is in a deeper dilemma. She lives in Salem, making 50 shekels (£6.60) a day as a dressmaker. But she comes from Rumane, and is in Israel illegally. She has two brothers and two sisters in Rumane, and two brothers and four sisters in Salem. She has yet to decide whether to go home to Rumane – where much of the village is now unemployed – or to stay.

"The life here is easier," she said, "I can work every day, but in Rumane no one has any money. I would be lucky to sew one dress a month."

We found Abdel Ziyud, 45, preparing to sneak out of Salem and back into the West Bank after a fruitless day searching for work in Israel. He has been crossing through Salem into Israel for 20 years to work illegally. But Israeli employers no longer want to employ West Bank Palestinians; he has worked only eight days in the past five months.

Once the fence arrives, even that small trickle of income will end. "I doubt the fence will work," he said, "Suicide bombers will find a way through. But it will stop me."

When Ariel Sharon's government approved the fence, the US expressed concern. But, after two suicide bombers killed 26 in Jerusalem, the American stance hardened. George Bush's Middle East speech last week made no mention of the barriers, and set out pre-conditions for statehood which many Palestinians see as unrealistic. With little prospect of political progress, more fences are sure to result.

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