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Frontline World

ISRAEL, Tracing Borders, February 2003
West Bank: Building the Wall

photo of first phase of wall being built in the northern West Bank.

The first phase of the wall is being built in the northern West Bank.
Umm al-Fahm, Israel: Walling Themselves Out

My trip begins where the Seam Line Project is under construction -- outside the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm in Israel, near the Palestinian West Bank town of Anin. Once, all this was contiguous territory in British-controlled Palestine. After 1948, the westerly Umm al-Fahm became part of Israel, and the surrounding areas to the east, part of Jordan. Here, in the early stages of construction, the new barrier is a modest pack of concrete and steel girders bisecting an empty few lanes of cleared, rocky, chalky road.

See a map of the actual Seam LineAt the fence outside Umm al-Fahm, as at so many frontier areas around Israel, the air tastes of dust: late-summer desert under construction. Most of the 40 workers toiling in the dry, dull heat are West Bank residents; very few have permits to enter Israel. No problem, they joke -- if the border police show up, they can hop across the half-constructed wall to the West Bank. The barrier they are building will, when finished, separate them from their jobs. Worker Adnan Auib shrugs. "You have to make a living," he says.

"It won't work," says Arya Kolzski, the project manager for Ramgil, the Israeli contractor in charge of the 10 miles of fencing here. "You close one hole, you open another hole." In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Israel guarded its borders to keep thousands of Palestinian refugees, some armed and fighting, from "infiltrating" to return to their homes. Now each day at 7 a.m., Kolzski says, he sees the grandchildren of those refugees crossing the hills into Israel to look for work. "The border guards come, but the people hide behind trees. You cannot keep enough soldiers here to stop them. They run -- with luggage, children, bombs."

Men in Bartaa show their different ID cards.

Men in Bartaa show their different ID cards. Palestinian residents of the village have orange IDs and Israeli Arab residents have blue ones.
Kolzski feels sorry that his wall will someday wall out his workers. "It's not a good feeling. We want peace, not a wall. We want to be together. They want to live, to work for food. I understand that."

Israeli Arabs: Caught Between the Lines

Jameela Jabereen, the sister of my friend Yousef, has offered to show me around her part of the Seam Line Project near Umm al-Fahm. Jameela is a member of Israel's 20 percent minority of Arabs, Palestinians who were assigned Israeli citizenship because in 1948 their land became part of the state of Israel and they remained.

Jameela, a lawyer, is used to talking her way out of trouble in Hebrew with the soldiers who frequently stop Arab Israelis to check their identification. Yet, married and the mother of two girls, she's nervous about approaching the wall to the West Bank -- five minutes from her house, but an alien place. "It could be dangerous," she says. She isn't happy when Israeli soldiers outside Umm al-Fahm interrogate her and record her details. She is nervous at a Seam Line Israeli military base, where passing armored personnel carriers exhale a soot-black exhaust and soldiers reach for their M-16s first and talk second. She knows that the wall area has itself been the object of attacks: A Palestinian blew himself up near the construction site at Salem, and Palestinian gunmen opened fire on border policemen guarding construction near Megiddo Junction.
Jameela Jabareen

Jameela Jabareen, an Arab Israeli lawyer with two daughters.

Minutes away from this front line, Jameela shuffles the paperwork of separation as she argues cases of Palestinians with identity card problems. Often her work takes her to the border of the strange city of Bartaa, a few miles outside Umm al-Fahm, where the new Seam Line barrier will soon encircle people's lives entirely.


Watch a West Bank boy crossing the gully -- the border between the Israeli and Palestinian sides of Bartaa.

Almost all residents of Bartaa, population about 6,000, belong to the same clan, and most everyone has the same last name -- Kabha. But during the war in 1948, Jewish forces only claimed half the town for Israel, leaving the rest under the jurisdiction of Jordan. I've heard tales of weddings and funerals in split villages conducted through a megaphone so both sides of the family could attend. But in Bartaa, the banks of the gully -- the unmarked border between the West Bank and Israel -- are so close that a megaphone was never necessary. People on either side of the border just talked, though soldier patrols kept them from crossing. These days, Israeli soldiers mount checkpoints outside the Israeli side of the village to check identification cards. Through marriage, brothers and sisters from the same family are liable to have different cards; only the Israeli siblings are allowed to exit west into Israel.

As the Seam Line Project snakes through this area, it will be built not along the former border, but outside both halves of Bartaa, enclosing the entire town. Some 3,200 Palestinian residents will be caught between a new barrier separating them from the West Bank and an Israel they are not allowed to enter because they are still considered West Bank residents.
The road where the fence will be built outside                       Umm al Fahm.

The road where the fence will be built outside Umm al Fahm.

The Israeli government promises to create exit systems for people to reach their farmlands in the West Bank, but few details have been released. Farmers granted such access will have to cross a 55-yard-wide militarized area to tend their crops. Jameela, her husband and daughters, and I eat lamb and chicken kabob in a restaurant at the entry to Umm al-Fahm. Jameela tells the story of an 18-year-old boy from Umm al-Fahm who phoned police to report his suspicions of a man sitting next to him at a bus stop whom he feared might be carrying a bomb. The man detonated the bomb and injured the boy. Police initially assumed the injured Arab youth was the bomber's accomplice and tied his legs to the rails on his hospital bed for five days before they decided that he was not a terrorist, but a hero. Jameela's daughters fall asleep and don't hear the sadness and bitterness in their mother's voice as she talks of other piguim, the Hebrew word for suicide bomb attacks. Arin leans into her father, Marcel slides down, across the next chair, her mouth open against the hard seat. Over their heads, the parents talk about the girls' citizenship and nation, not knowing who their children will become.

Next: On the Lebanese Frontier