Israeli wall isolates Palestinian communities

Social life and traditions in Palestinian towns have been badly ruptured by Israel’s 450km separation barrier.

'Bir Nabala is ... like a small prison,' says local leader Tawfiq Al Nabali [Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

Bir Nabala, occupied Palestinian territories – Shops are shuttered, and their signs are slowly rusting. Most apartment windows are broken, while those that remain in their frames are covered in dust. A single mechanic’s garage is operating, though cars seldom drive through the area.

This neighbourhood once housed approximately 250 Palestinian families and dozens of bustling shops and businesses. Today, the streets of Bir Nabala are empty.

“Bir Nabala is destroyed. It’s like a small prison,” says local council leader Tawfiq Al Nabali, standing in front of Israel’s grey, eight-metre-high separation barrier, and rows of empty apartment blocks.

Covered in graffiti and topped with barbed wire, the Israeli wall snakes around Bir Nabala, cutting off the once economically vibrant West Bank town from East Jerusalem, and making travel to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority government, much more difficult.

“They want to make our lives very hard and make us suffer in order to make us leave our lands,” Al Nabali said from the local municipal offices, located just off the sole access road leading to and from Bir Nabala.

“The [Israeli] settlers are free to go anywhere, while we need permits to move. We can’t reach Jerusalem. I don’t like to go [to Jerusalem] anymore because I feel very sad.”

Severe economic impact

Now in its tenth year of construction, Israel’s separation barrier stretches almost 450km. In some places, it cuts deep into the occupied West Bank, excluding Palestinian communities and annexing land around illegal Israeli settlements.

When finished, Palestinian human rights group Al Haq estimates that 85 percent of the wall will have been built inside the West Bank and will annex an additional 530 square kilometres – equivalent to the area of the US city of Chicago – of Palestinian land into de facto Israeli territory.

“The Barrier has also cut off land and resources needed for Palestinian land and development, resulting in the curtailment of agricultural practice and the undermined [sic] of rural livelihoods.”

– UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Israel justifies the wall as a necessary measure to deter Palestinian violence and attacks against Israeli civilians. “The design, construction and operation of the security fence aim to balance the imperative to protect innocent lives from terror with the day-to-day needs of the local Israeli and Palestinian population,” officials in the Israeli Ministry of Defence told Al Jazeera by e-mail.

Ministry officials explained that “terror has been reduced by over 90 percent” since the barrier was built. “To quote the American poet Robert Frost; good fences make good neighbours. If there were no security threats, there would be no need for fences,” the Ministry said.

While the wall has been physically moved in certain areas as a result of legal petitions against its route, Israeli leaders have repeatedly stated that the barrier will eventually constitute a border and have alluded to its permanent nature.

“One does not have to be a genius to see that the fence will have implications for the future border. This is not the reason for its establishment, but it could have political implications,” said Tzipi Livni in 2005, in her role as Israeli Justice Minister.

Today, as construction continues into its tenth year, dozens of Palestinian communities suffering in the wall’s shadow have been irreversibly damaged.

“The separation barrier almost completely destroyed the ties between business owners in the town and the other cities of the West Bank and Israel, as well as the connections to Bir Nabala enjoyed by East Jerusalem residents,” Israeli human rights group B’Tselem found in a recent report titled “Arrested Development”.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories (UN-OCHA) had a similar analysis: “The barrier has also cut off land and resources needed for Palestinian land and development, resulting in the curtailment of agricultural practice and the undermined [sic] of rural livelihoods throughout the West Bank,” read a 2011 report.

“Free movement and access, as well as the ability to plan and develop communities, are vital to sustain livelihoods, reduce dependence on humanitarian assistance, and enable economic recovery.”

The Ministry of Defence said the Israeli government has tried to minimise the wall’s potential negative impact on the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.

“The Ministry of Defence works with the local population and the courts in order to limit the negative impact of the security fence on both the Israeli and the Palestinian civilian population. The matrix of civilian bonds and ties (economic, educational, medical, etc.) between Palestinian villages and cities has been thoroughly examined throughout the lengthy planning process,” the Ministry said.

Changing Palestinian culture

But, ten years after construction began, the wall has had consequences on more than just the economy. Palestinian social structures and traditions have also been affected.

“It’s a kind of shadow,” said Dr Bihan Waimari, head of the psychology department at Birzeit University near Ramallah. “It’s a reminder that the future is uncertain, and that the occupation is ongoing. Today there could be a checkpoint, and tomorrow not. But the wall is not easy to move. It’s fixed.”

Waimari said that, in separating Palestinian towns and villages from each other, the wall altered Palestinian society’s close-knit family structure. “People are unable to visit relatives on the other side of the wall. It had a very big impact on the psychology of Palestinians. Social life stopped,” she said.

The town of Al Ram – once a northeastern neighbourhood of Jerusalem, now sitting on the West Bank side of the wall – is a prime example of this phenomenon.

Al Maqdese director Moaz Zatari in his office in Al Ram
[Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/ Al Jazeera] 

Originally, most residents of Al Ram held Jerusalem residency cards. To retain their rights in Jerusalem, Palestinians must prove that their “centre of life” is in the holy city. Fearing they would be stripped of their IDs, many families moved to the Jerusalem side of the wall shortly after construction began, leaving their homes in Al Ram.

“The wall here came to isolate the city from Jerusalem itself: at the economic level, at the real estate level, and for employment,” explained Moaz Zatari, the general manager of Al Maqdese for Society Development, a Palestinian human rights group based in Al Ram, from his office overlooking the wall.

Zatari said that today, 70 percent of the city’s 60,000 residents are not originally from Al Ram. The new residents come from other West Bank cities such as Hebron, Jenin and Nablus, and even from the Gaza Strip. This mix of people – many of whom were expelled from their hometowns for social reasons or for committing crimes, according to Zatari – has created major problems.

“It has [become] a main area for drug dealing. There have been also some areas of prostitution. The people don’t care how it looks; there is no pride in the city because the people are not from here,” Zatari said.

“It became a dormitory town. In the last elections, most people living here couldn’t vote here because their official residence wasn’t in Al Ram.”

Remaining steadfast

In 2004, John Dugard, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, compared Israel’s permit system – which severely restricts Palestinian freedom of movement – to South African “pass laws” under apartheid.

“These [South African] pass laws were administered in a humiliating manner, but uniformly. Israel’s laws governing freedom of movement are likewise administered in a humiliating manner, but they are characterised by arbitrariness and caprice,” Dugard wrote at the time.

That same year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) released an advisory opinion that Israel’s separation barrier was illegal under international law. The court stated that Israel must cease building the wall, dismantle existing sections and offer compensation for damages incurred by its construction.

While the ICJ ruling isn’t binding, human rights groups have reiterated the court’s demands, and urged the international community to hold Israel accountable.

“If Israel wishes to build a physical obstacle between Israel and the West Bank, as a rule it must do so along the Green Line or within the sovereign territory of Israel. Even in that case, Israel must avoid building in such a way as to divide and isolate Palestinian communities,” the B’Tselem report concluded.

For Bir Nabala council leader Tawfiq Al Nabali, a father of 12 and grandfather of almost 100, the ongoing challenges posed by the wall will never force his family or his neighbors to abandon their town.

“We feel injustice,” the 78-year-old said. “But [the people] will live in Bir Nabala. They will not leave. This is their home.”

Source: Al Jazeera