How Sharon's giant fence broke down the barriers of suspicion

For the first time, hundreds of Israelis have united with Palestinians in protest to save an Arab village from being cut off by the West Bank security barrier. Donald Macintyre reports from Beit Surik
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The Independent Online

On the face of it, Shay Shohami is an unlikely dissident. For 12 years he was one of Israel's most distinguished public servants, the head of the country's civil aviation administration.

Yet he has now found himself locked in a struggle with the authorities over an issue on which he believes passionately that his Palestinian neighbours are right and Ariel Sharon's government profoundly wrong.

To understand why, you first have to look out from the picture window in his ample living room across the tranquil valley towards this Palestinian village, straggling along a ridge in the Judaean hills north-west of Jerusalem. As Mr Shohami looks out across the terraced olive groves, vineyards and fruit orchards, he has every reason to enjoy the view. Or would do if it were not for his anger at the threat that villagers will be be cut off from the land they have lovingly cultivated for generations by the famous separation barrier the Israeli government is building here in the West Bank.

As at other points in its winding 450-mile route, the barrier turns sharply in from the 1967 "green line" into Arab territory, so that a 2,000-acre slice of Palestinian agricultural land ends up on the Israeli side of what amounts to a new physical border.

The Palestinians in Beit Surik are complaining bitterly that their way of life, along with the subsistence and modest saleable surplus the land provides, will be destroyed by a barrier that is scheduled to run within a few dozen metres of their houses, potentially enclosing Beit Surik and seven neighbouring villages, denying the inhabitants access not only to the land itself, but to eight freshwater springs, the municipal rubbish dump and the urban West Bank hub of nearby Ramallah.

The dispute about the route of the wall is one of many. What makes this one different is that several hundred of the villagers' nearest Jewish neighbours, residents like Mr Shohami of the upmarket and largely secular Israeli neighbourhood of Mevassaret Zion, are backing the Palestinian campaign against the army's plans for the barrier. In a climate in which relations between Arabs and Jews have steadily deteriorated on most fronts during three and half years of the intifada, this is a first. At a time of sharply increased tension in Gaza and elsewhere after last Sunday's suicide bomb, even the slenderest bond between Palestinian and Jewish neighbours is remarkable. Most of the Palestinians' Israeli supporters are in favour of the barrier itself but want it moved to their side of the valley, much closer to the green line, leaving the Palestinians enjoying free access to their groves and orchards. Several dozen joined Palestinians in a peaceful demonstration three weeks ago in Beit Surik. And after three Palestinians were killed in violent clashes with troops and police in a subsequent demonstration in the neighbouring village of Biddu, 30 Mevassaret residents put their names to a joint action with the Palestinians against the route filed with the Israeli High Court on Wednesday. And now 400 local Israelis have signed a petition calling "in the name of the good neighbourly relationship which has prevailed between us and the neighbouring village of Beit Surik for a generation" for a new route which "will not divide the village from its land".

The High Court extended a delay on the building of the fence near Beit Surik and ordered the army to produce an answer to the residents' case that an alternative route would secure the area just as well without causing such harm to the Palestinians' way of life.

Mr Shohami, one of the 30 Israeli High Court petitioners, says the barrier as planned will destroy the economy of Beit Surik and the nearby villages. Many of the Beit Surik villagers who work or have worked on construction in Mevassaret - including building Mr Shohami's house - will be unable to get there, he says. "But the main source of income is agriculture and if agriculture is cut off the village is sentenced to death."

He adds: "Since we have been here we have had very good relations with the village. So far as I know no terrorist acts have been perpetrated from there, not in the first intifada, nor in the second. This is a matter of humanity; they are human beings like us. We know how this will hurt them.

"If their livelihoods are going to be destroyed we have to do something. We can't just sit here and accept an atrocity by our government."

Although he, too, is reluctantly in favour of the barrier, Mr Shohami is an Israeli dove, one of the founders of Peace Now. But he points out that residents against the planned route embrace a wide spectrum, from several former senior military officers to the well-known Israeli writer David Grossman. Moreover, the residents secured an affidavit for the hearing arguing for a radically different route - much more favourable to the Palestinians - from a panel of security experts including the former army general Dani Rothschild, the former air force chief Amos Lapidton and the former national police chief Asaf Chefetz.

Which points to a second, harder headed and equally important argument which appeals to more hawkish residents who nevertheless favour a radical change to the route. "A just neighbourhood is a secure neighbourhood. If the solution is not just it will not bring security," says Mr Shohami.

Without access to Mevassaret and with no agriculture, he asks: "What are they [the Palestinians] supposed to do? Maybe they will turn to terror. The fence as planned will not secure the area - it may bring about terror." The residents of Beit Surik have warmly welcomed support from their Israeli neighbours. "This shows a big gap between Israeli people and their government," says Mohammed Bedwan, a spokesman for the residents' committee. "These are people who know their neighbours. The Israeli government says it is a matter of security but for us it is a matter of survival."

Mohammed Yusef, a Beit Surik farmer, says that the current route would deprive his family of 50 of 400 olive trees, 500 palm trees and 200 vines which, beside what they consume themselves, bring in around £5,000 a year.

And Jamla Mustafa, who works an olive grove with her husband, says: "This way we don't need to work in Israel, we can look after ourselves. If they put the wall right here and take our land we will be in a prison cell."

Mr Shohami does not set much store by suggestions that a gate in the barrier would allow access for Palestinians to their land and perhaps even to Mevassaret. Experience from elsewhere on the barrier, he says, suggests that such a gate might be opened by the army for an hour each morning and afternoon if at all. He makes no claim to represent a majority of Mevassaret's 25,000 residents. Although most of the 400 signatures were gathered in a mere two or three hours on a single afternoon in the neighbourhood's main shopping mall, he accepts that many residents disagree with him. Sipping coffee in the mall this week, Steven Katz, a 35-year-old dentist, said: "I agree with the route of the fence and no, I don't think it will cause more resentment among the Palestinians than there is already." Of Mr Shohami and his fellow campaigners he says: "I think they are compassionate people but they are unrealistic. Elsewhere the fence has stopped a lot of things that were coming in." Yet a casual straw poll also showed some surprising support. Two young women who work at the mall, Ortel Halag and her friend Rikky Salim, both 26, signed the petition. Ms Halag supports Ariel Sharon but adds: "I don't think the Arabs are bad people. They should be allowed to keep some property, olives and stuff."

Enclosing them, she suggests, will not lead to peace and for her, that is all-important. Several of her friends have emigrated to the US or Australia because "this is not a normal life. It's crazy". For example, she adds: "I used to believe in settlements but now I don't think they're doing good for Palestinians or for us."

Israeli support for the villagers has certainly prompted the army to sit up and take notice. The decision that Judge Aharon Barak makes after the hearing could set an important precedent.

The scene from Beit Surik is every bit as idyllic as it is from Mr Shohami's window; it takes a moment to realise that the specks of white in the middle distance are the first almond blossoms of spring.

The outcome of this dispute will determine whether they continue to represent for the Palestinian villagers more than a painful view of what used to be; seen through a "security" fence that separates them from what they believe so passionately is their heritage.

THE WORLD'S DIVIDING LINES

Mexico

It has been 10 years since the United States decided to get tough - or tougher, anyway - on patrolling its border with Mexico. Operation Gatekeeper entailed the construction of a fence that runs the last 14 miles from the mountains just east of San Diego to the shores of the Pacific. San Diego politicians love the fence, so much so, in fact, that in the wake of the 11 September attacks they have lobbied to have it reinforced by two additional fences, at an extra cost of $58m (£31.5m) - about $4mper mile.

Belfast

Built in 1969, the first peace line in west Belfast was originally established as a temporary measure to keep troubled Protestant and Catholic communities in the Shankill and Falls Roads apart. Several more sprung up at various flashpoints in the city. Even since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, many have been expanded and strengthened. Fifteen new walls have either been constructed or reinforced. So peace walls are hardly confined to far-off places.

India

A dividing fence is under construction along the Line of Control, the de facto international border in the disputed Himalayan state of Kashmir. On completion it will stretch for 480 miles, and is intended to stop insurgents and Muslim separatists from infiltrating into Indian-administered Jammu Kashmir. The border with Bangladesh is even more porous, and Delhi wants to prevent insurgents and arms smugglers from entering Indian territory by this back door. By 2007, the entire 3,000-mile frontier will be fenced off, except for rivers, say officials.

Thailand

Thailand and Malaysia share a 300-mile border, and for nearly a decade a Malaysian-built concrete wall has blocked off 12 miles of the most troublesome zone. This is the most visible crackdown against an illicit trade of narcotics, weapons and people trafficking. After unrest in Thailand's three Muslim-dominated border provinces resulted in more than 50 deaths this year, the country's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, stopped blaming local bandits and pointed the finger at cross-border Islamist separatists.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is building a barrier along its porous border with Yemen as part of a plan for an electronic surveillance system along the length of the kingdom's frontiers - land, air and sea, to stop infiltrators. The project, involving fencing and electronic detection equipment, has been in the planning stages for several years. It is expected to cost up to $8.57bn (£4.58bn). Yemen has submitted an official complaint about the fence.

Korea

The Demilitarised Zone fence runs for 155 miles along the border between the communist North and South Korea and is the world's most heavily fortified border. The two Koreas remain technically at war and observe an armed truce. Nearly two million soldiers are facing each other across the border, including 37,000 US troops stationed on the South Korean side.

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