Palestinian economy chokes from stranglehold of West Bank barrier

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The Independent Online

A 1,500sq-metre showroom can look awfully empty without a single customer. Said al Jinini, one of 15 employees in the Ghazali furniture business, has not made a single sale for more than a fortnight. He feels like he is on the run from the separation barrier on which the International Court of Justice in The Hague will finally pronounce today.

The company used to own five stores. First, it shut the one in Abu Dis, the suburb of Jerusalem cut in two by the 8.5m slabs of concrete which pepper the 458-mile route of the barrier. Then, as construction proceeded apace, it shut a store in Bethany and two on the Ramallah-Jerusalem highway, where the barrier is planned to run straight down the middle of the road, amputating this West Bank suburb from Israeli territory. Soon, the store where Mr al Jinini works will be closed. Then only one shop in East Jerusalem will remain.

"I don't know whether we are escaping from the wall or being chased by it," says Mr al Jinini.

It was the freedom of movement between Arab East Jerusalem and the metropolitan West Bank that kept many businesses along the Ramallah-Jerusalem highway viable.

"Without the West Bank, East Jerusalem is nothing," says Abdullah Ghazali, the firm's boss. He faces having to close his factory on the Atarot industrial estate - on the Israeli side of the barrier - which employs 42 workers from the West Bank.

In 2002, Mr Ghazali's business made a healthy $300,000. In 2003 he made a loss of $17,000. He is now thinking of moving it to Egypt or Turkey.

And Mr Ghazali's plight is far from unique. Shaer Abu Rajab's furniture store is across the main road. Once the barrier is built, however, it will only be reachable by the same route that many tens of thousand of Palestinians will have to use to cross between the West Bank and Jerusalem, through a terminal at Kalundia, to reach work, hospitals or, in the case of up to 10,000 children, their schools. This could add several hours to the journey.

An editorial in the Israeli daily Haaretz last week said: "The entire life structure of the region's Arabs might disintegrate." Until the judgment is made, there is nothing for Mr Abu Rajab to do. "I read my newspaper and the business sleeps" he says.

Running directly through the territory on the Palestinian side of the "green line" that formed the border between Israel and Jordan until the Six-Day War, this section of the route is one of the most important that today's judgment will consider. It is for this reason that a high profile group of activists, led by the Arab-Israeli Knesset member Azmi Bishara, are conducting a hunger strike in protest against the barrier.

The court was asked by the UN - despite strong US and EU reservations - to adjudicate on the international legality of building sections of the barrier in Palestinian territory. Both Israelis and Palestinians now expect the court to lean towards the Palestinians. If so, whether it is more than a moral victory will depend partly on the quality of the judgment.

It may reinforce the Israeli Supreme's Court ruling last week that the Israeli Army had to take into account the humanitarian impact on Palestinians in deciding the route. But Israeli intelligence figures show that terrorist attacks in the northern West Bank, where the barrier is now entrenched, have reduced from 46 in 2003 to zero in the first six months of 2004. This forms a strong argument that would-be suicide bombers are being caught.

Israel will also point out that last week's judgment did not challenge the idea that security was the reason for the barrier. According to Mr Ghazali, however, as he prepares to lay off two thirds of his workers, the barrier "is strangling the economy to the disadvantage of Arabs and also of Jews. The man who is eating well and feeling good is not a terrorist, but the man who is starving turns to terrorism".