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Fence Leads to Heart of a Great Divide

Times Staff Writer

From his front door, Hani Amer once took in a view of rolling, rock-crusted hills and the stately minarets that poke above mosques of nearby Palestinian villages like exclamation points.

Now the Palestinian farmer stares at a world transformed by the barrier Israel has been erecting against much of the West Bank. In this spot and others, the serpentine divider cuts miles into territory claimed by Palestinians for a future state -- one reason it is being challenged in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The court will open hearings Monday.

The wall’s arrival in this farming region a few months ago already has altered life so deeply that the Amers and hundreds of other Palestinian families wonder how they will endure Israel’s bid to fence off land they view as their own. Along the barrier’s path and elsewhere across the West Bank, the project has produced confusion and outrage among Palestinians, along with a growing resignation that it may be here to stay.

Some residents have been left on the Palestinian side, cut off from olive groves to the west that have sustained their families for generations. Others have been left in a kind of no man’s land on the Israeli side, and can’t get their children to school or visit relatives in Palestinian communities across the fence.

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The Amer family inhabits a category of its own: unable to go in either direction with ease.

The barrier has left the Amers’ little stucco-and-brick house -- sitting at the edge of the village, next to a Jewish settlement -- completely encircled. Wire fences now surround the home on three sides. On the fourth, a concrete wall, looms so high that the morning sun reaches the home hours late. And slicing through the frontyard is a road that allows Israeli soldiers to patrol the barrier as it unfurls across the sloping countryside.

“It’s like I live alone in the world, like somebody in jail,” the 46-year-old Amer said as he sat in his abbreviated yard on a recent afternoon.

He said that Israel offered him an unspecified amount of money last year to cede the property for the construction project but that he refused to move his family out. In the end, the project went ahead.

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The Israelis left a small gate so the family could walk between the home and the rest of Masha, a town of 1,800. But the Amers say they are barred from bringing Palestinians onto their property. During a recent Muslim feast, they sneaked in a handful of family members and kept everybody indoors.

It used to be a short drive to reach the 50-acre farm where Amer’s family raises vegetables. He now must travel a roundabout route, then gain the permission of Israeli soldiers guarding a distant gate. He wonders how long he will be allowed to travel to the property.

The Hague court is to issue to the U.N. General Assembly a nonbinding opinion on the barrier, a planned 452-mile system that is to be made up mostly of wire fencing, but bolstered by concrete walls, trenches, patrol roads and surveillance cameras. The project, which Israel says it needs to keep out suicide bombers and weapons smugglers, is about one-fourth complete.

Palestinian leaders were not publicly discussing their planned courtroom arguments on the eve of the hearing. But objections to the barrier among Palestinians and many in the international community are well established.

Critics say the divider has in effect led to the annexation of farmers’ land and violates the rights of thousands of residents daily by curtailing passage on lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War. Many Palestinians fear that Israel is trying to create a de facto border for a Palestinian state -- one that will be so objectionable to them that it will prove an insurmountable impediment to a two-state solution to the conflict.

A United Nations report in November said the fence would expropriate 14% of the West Bank, separating 400,000 Palestinians from jobs, crops, schools and hospitals. Palestinian officials go even further, arguing that the barrier, if built according to the most expansive outlines, will result in the expropriation of nearly 45% of the West Bank.

As many as 13,000 Palestinians are caught between the fence and Israel proper and need permits to remain there, work and travel, the Palestinian Authority says.

Besides the workaday difficulties, Palestinian officials see a broader threat. Officials say the barrier’s twisting route will eventually annex so much land that Palestinians will have only a collection of unconnected enclaves with which to try to fashion a future state. Any fence erected by Israel should stick to the Green Line, the boundary that existed before the 1967 war, critics say.

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“If Israel says this is about security, we understand that. It doesn’t explain why the wall is being built where it’s being built, and how it’s being built,” said Michael Tarazi, a legal advisor to the Palestinian peace negotiating team. “The real strategy behind the wall is to take as much land as possible while maximizing the number of Palestinians on the other side. It’s a land grab.”

In Masha, at the end of a rutted country road about a 90-minute drive north of Jerusalem, the worries are more parochial. To residents, the barrier represents a potentially disabling blow to an economy weakened by violence and crackdowns since the start of the Palestinian uprising in 2000.

Locals remember a time not long ago when the village was a busy market for Israelis from Tel Aviv and elsewhere. On Saturdays, the main road -- once a key West Bank artery -- pulsed with customers seeking bargains on stone tiles, furniture and housewares. Restaurants bustled and Palestinian merchants trooped from Nablus and Hebron to sell wares on the crowded roadside.

Although the Israelis blocked the road with an earthen berm after the outbreak of violence more than three years ago, Israeli shoppers still had managed to find their way to Masha. The fence has stopped that. Today the street is lifeless.

What remains is a row of abandoned metal sheds, a service station with no cars to fix and a cafe with hardly anyone to serve. Store signs in Hebrew seem relics of a forgotten age. Residents said the Israeli military planned to knock down the sheds closest to the fence by the end of the month.

A group of men gathered at the cafe last week and ticked off the ways the wall had upended their lives. For one farmer, it blocked access to his family’s olive grove. For two other workers, it made their tile deliveries around the region next to impossible. Most of Masha’s land is now on the Israeli side of the barrier.

To a man, the outlook was as gray as the concrete wall nearby.

“Where can we go? What can we do?” asked the garage owner, Mohammed Amer, 50, a distant relative of Hani Amer. “Look at us here, sitting here waiting for some kind of miracle from heaven to save us.”

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Israel has said it will find ways to reduce the hardships on Palestinians and today began removing a five-mile section of fence that loops along the east side of the town of Baqa al Sharqiya, severing it from the rest of the West Bank about 25 miles north of Masha, according to the Israeli Defense Ministry.

Ministry spokeswoman Rachel Niedak-Ashkenazi said that portion was built before the completion of the main barrier west of town and was no longer needed to prevent Palestinian residents there from reaching Israel. She said the move was not tied to the court hearing.

The Israeli government has not said where else the path may change. For now, Palestinian leaders hope that the international court hearings will yield a condemnation of the wall, and a moral victory, at least. But along the fence, faith in a distant tribunal is limited.

Hani Amer says he is proud of himself for staying on the property where he’s lived for 30 years. No sum of money would make him budge, he said. Although Amer says he brooks no sympathy for the bombers Israel says it is trying to keep out, he vows to fight the Israelis and their wall. “Everything they’re doing against me makes me a better person,” he said.

He acknowledged that the odds of bringing the wall down were slim, but he rested his dwindling hopes far away from courtrooms and petitions and politicians.

“Only God,” he said, “will give it a chance to fall.”


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