Closure of Occupied Lands Deepens Palestinian Anger
All Abdul Nabi Natsheh wanted to do was go to his bank down the road in Jerusalem. But the gray-haired Palestinian teacher found his way blocked this week by Israeli troops guarding their frontier.
“You are forbidden,” a young soldier told Natsheh, dressed in a tweed coat and tie and urgently fingering his yellow worry beads. Natsheh’s legal work permit for Jerusalem was unfolded but waved away.
“Everyone from the West Bank is forbidden,” the soldier said.
Four months after Israel eased restrictions on Palestinians crossing from Israel’s occupied territories into the parts of Israel where tens of thousands of Palestinians work, bank, shop and live, the doors are shut again.
The crackdown is designed to protect Israel’s 5.3 million citizens from Palestinians bent on revenge for last week’s massacre in a West Bank mosque.
And, in fact, daily clashes between rock-throwing Palestinians and police have resulted in the shooting deaths of a dozen protesters this week.
But the Israeli action once again clearly maps the frontiers of what Israel considers its sovereign territory.
More importantly, it raises questions about the future of that porous, embattled border if Mideast peace negotiators decide to make the West Bank part of an autonomous Palestine.
Will the 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip put up their own checkpoints to scrutinize the papers of the 130,000 Jewish settlers who live there? And what about Jewish visitors? Will they be turned away on the whim of Palestinian soldiers, as Israeli soldiers turned away Natsheh?
Certainly, the Jewish settlers themselves have plenty of anxiety about their ability under a Palestinian government to survive in their communities, which dot the West Bank.
Typical is the plea of Rechela Shalit, 45, who lives with her husband in Shiloh, a Jewish settlement up the road from here, and who now carries a gun on her trips to Jerusalem.
“Let them have the fertile fields. With a good heart, I will give it to them,” Shalit said. “But just let us live on these hills peacefully.”
But at the border post at A-Ram, overlooked by an army tower and operated by half a dozen soldiers, the daily experience of Palestinians trying to go to work or do errands in Israel is not breeding good feelings.
“I have a permit, but they turn me back. This is the worst injustice,” said Natsheh, who teaches at a college in Jerusalem.
A mild-mannered 49-year-old, he would seem an unlikely threat to Israeli security. His treatment, especially the refusal of the authorities to recognize his legal permit to travel to Jerusalem, angers him.
“You can see with your own eyes. The Jews get to go through, and us, they turn back,” he said. “It’s racism is all it is.”
All across Israel, scores of the checkpoints are cracking down on Palestinians seeking entry.
Cars with blue license plates, indicating West Bank registrations, and people with identity documents in red plastic folders, identifying Palestinians, spend hours in line, while the yellow-plated cars of Israeli residents are waved through.
“It’s all part of the daily harassment of Palestinians,” said a U.N. official who was on hand at one checkpoint to help get U.N. workers into Jerusalem. Several U.N. buses have been turned away at other checkpoints, despite the presence of U.N. officials.
“It’s just another thing in Arab people’s lives to keep them under thumb,” he added.
One of the busiest of those points of entry is A-Ram, on the main road leading to Jerusalem from the north.
Some Palestinians evade the roadblock entirely, walking quietly through the rock-strewn gully less than 100 yards away. If they get caught, and some do, they are assessed a 450-shekel fine, or about $150, which they must pay at the Jerusalem post office--if they gain entry to the city.
Sihad Kaisba, a 49-year-old father of 12, was trying to get to Jerusalem, hoping to obtain some day work and cash his last paycheck, for about $170, so he could feed his family. He weighed that need against the risk of a fine and decided to try to walk around the checkpoint.
“It’s terrible if I get caught, but what choice do I have?” he asked before walking quietly, and successfully, around the border guards.
Years ago, after a series of stabbings and attacks on Israelis by Palestinians, the government first sealed off the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The grip on the territories was eased, finger by finger, first for doctors, teachers and students and, later, for construction workers and others with passes from an employer in Israel.
Before the crackdown this week, more than 50,000 Palestinian workers were crossing the border each day. That has slowed to a trickle.
A three-day strike by West Bank Palestinians was followed by a curfew imposed by the government.
Fatma Mahmoud Jaba, a 50-year-old from the West Bank who works as a maid in a Jewish house in Jerusalem, was turned away at one checkpoint. But she tried her luck at A-Ram, where she and other women in the colorful thobe dresses of the Palestinians were being allowed through without a check.
“This is not good,” Jaba said. “I’m dying inside. Nobody in the world is helping us. Why don’t the Americans do something?”
Natsheh, who has seven children at home, said he is too old to try to circumvent the roadblock.
“I’ll just keep coming here and try to get across,” he said, trudging home with his Arabic-language textbooks under one arm. “Tomorrow, the next day and the day after, until they let me in.”
But, he added, “one day, if there is peace, I will have my full rights.”