The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Where day to day living has had its heart cut out

Chris McGreal, The Guardian, 19 January 2004

Abu Dis — Fatina Zen stayed until the end, peering down her street through the lashing rain as towering concrete slabs were slotted into place one by one across the middle of the road. She wondered if her son might suddenly appear on the other side to wave goodbye but he never came.

The 52-year-old grandmother finally left once the latest section of Israel’s “security fence” – recently renamed the “terror prevention fence” to improve its image abroad – had bisected the street as it worms its way through the Jerusalem Arab neighbourhood of Abu Dis.

Except that in Abu Dis it is not a fence but an eight metre-high wall (27ft) that has divided families and torn apart a longstanding community.

“I can’t bear it,” said Mrs Zen, who until a few days ago lived a three minute walk from her two adult children and four grandchildren.

“My son came to visit me two or three times a day. Imagine you live in the same street as your son but you cannot see him because they built a wall.”

Even those expecting the new barrier through Abu Dis, a community of about 11,000 under the Mount of Olives, were surprised at the monster in their midst. It is the same size as the wall surrounding the West Bank city of Qalqilya, but the concrete slabs seem to grow to giant proportions when driven down the middle of a narrow street.

There is no room for cars on one side of the wall, and barely enough for one-way traffic on the other. The sun is permanently blocked out from homes and shops facing the concrete.

The United Nations humanitarian affairs office said that the wall will severely disrupt Palestinians access to schools, hospitals and work.

The Israeli government has persistently argued that the route of the 50 mile long barrier through and around East Jerusalem is determined by security not political considerations.

“The terror built the fence,” said Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, last week. “If not for the terror, maybe we would not have done it at all. But I think it’s very important to know that when it comes to security, there will be no compromises: not now, not in the future. Never!”

But the new wall and fence runs close to the greater Jerusalem boundary the Israelis marked out after seizing the east of the city in the 1967 war, confirming Palestinian suspicions that it is more about borders than security.

Palestinians live on both sides of the wall through Abu Dis.

Critics say that if the intent were to limit Arab access to Jewish areas of Jerusalem, then it would be logical to build the barrier between the Palestinian east of the city and the mostly-Jewish west. But that would be to divide a city that Mr Sharon describes as Israel’s eternal and indivisible capital.

Samir Khatib, 46, owns a row of shops facing the new wall on the Jerusalem side, and a petrol station a few yards down the road. But his home and five children are 200 metres on the West Bank side of the barrier.

“In the Jordanian time, in the British time, if you lived here you lived in Jerusalem. Only with the Israelis is it different.

“They are doing it to create a new border for Jerusalem, a new border for the Jewish state,” he said as he watched the concrete slabs lowered by earth diggers under heavy military guard.

“I have to choose between my family and my business. My children go to school on the other side, but this is where I make my money to send them to school.”

Palestinians with passes to live in Jerusalem will still be able to travel to the other side of the wall via an Israeli army checkpoint.

But it is a journey of about 15 miles to travel a distance that could be covered in a couple of minutes a week ago. And it is not always swift.

Many Palestinians do not have cars. If they make the journey by bus, it is almost certain to be stopped at the checkpoint and its passengers subjected to lengthy identity checks by the army.

“If you have a car, and don’t get stopped, you can do it in half-an-hour,” said Mr Khatib. “But the bus is different. With all the checks, it takes two or three hours.”

Mrs Zen says she would consider moving the other side of the wall, but both she and her husband need regular hospital treatment for heart conditions and cannot get that outside of Jerusalem. Her children need to stay put for their work.

But thousands of Palestinians with permits to live in Jerusalem are moving inside the walls. The cost of renting apartments in Arab areas is rising sharply; no new accommodation is being built because the Israeli government refuses planning permission.

There is an added problem because of Israeli racial laws aimed at limiting the number of Arabs living in Jerusalem. Those Palestinians with permission to live in the city lose residency permits if they leave for more than three months.

The new wall replaces a row of concrete blocks that were placed along the street a few months ago, stopping traffic but otherwise routinely clambered over.

The shorter wall, less than two metres high, has been lifted aside. Graffiti foretells the views likely to decorate the new barrier before long: “Welcome to Abu Dis ghetto” and “Wall … peace? Sharon lies to his own people”.