Friday, March 20, 2009

A Village Divided

This past week I meet Abdallah Zahayka. We were waiting along side the road in a remote part of the West Bank south and east of Bethlehem where there is a checkpoint that we monitor for the UN. This particular checkpoint serves no security purpose. It is nowhere near Israel or any of the settlements in the West Bank for that matter. Its sole purpose is to disrupt commerce between the north and south within the West Bank. We gather statistics regarding delays and inspections. Abdallah noticed our vests, stopped his car, hopped out and introduced himself in perfect English.

This is a difficult place for us to get to because of where it is. As the crow flies it is not far at all from Jerusalem, and the nearby village of Sawahra is a historical part of Jerusalem, but it takes us over an hour to go the 40 or so miles from the approved checkpoint to here. Abdallah lives in what is now called East Sawahra. His English is so good because until recently he worked for the US Consulate in the commercial branch helping develop business relatioships between US and West Bank companies. His uncle who also lived in Sawahra worked for the US State Department for 39 years.
Sawahra is just west of Al Quds University and like the university, and the town of Abu Dis, on the other side of the university, it lies just outside the wall that was built to keep them out of Jerusalem. In the case of Sawahra……only half of them out, which has presented an unimaginable hardship on the people of this village. The wall, which is actually an electrified fence in this hilly region, divides Sawahra almost in half. Today 5,000 residents of Sawahra live on the Jerusalem side of the fence, now known as West Sawahra and 7,000 people live on the West Bank side in East Sawahra.
The village of Sawahra was built by the 11 families of the Sawahra Bedouin tribe over 100 years ago when they abandoned their nomadic life in favor of the community they now live in near Jerusalem. The original 11 families are still here on both sides of a small valley with homes and businesses occupying hilltops and flat areas along the hillsides. Every family has literally been divided by the wall. Abdallah lives on the West Bank side but his two brothers and a sister live on the Jerusalem side. He is not allowed on the Jerusalem side unless he applies for a special permit. He needs such a permit to visit his family.

When the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem were redrawn by the Israelis in 1967 they were casually drawn through the middle of this community because of the valley they share but the fence does not even follow this municipal boundary. As I have explained before, Palestinians have one of two different ID’s that define their ability to move freely. Those who live inside the municipal border and pay taxes to the city have “Jerusalem ID’s” which allows them to travel to and from Jerusalem. The rest have "West Bank ID’s" which restrict their movement to the West Bank, and now only outside of the wall which takes much of the West Bank for Israel. Like other areas near Jerusalem, many of the families in East Sawahra have Jerusalem ID’s and their cars have yellow Israeli plates allowing them to drive in Israel, but they live on the West Bank side of the wall.

Israel’s clear policy is to force as many Palestinians as possible to the West Bank side of the wall in many creative ways such as canceling the Jerusalem ID of anyone who marries someone with a West Bank ID forcing them to live in the West Bank. One of the most blatant of these measures is simply walling them out. Tens of thousands of Palestinians with Jerusalem ID’s having jobs, schools, family, churches, etc. in Jerusalem, now find themselves having to spend hours each day at checkpoints to have their ID’s checked, their pockets emptied, articles x-rayed, and their fingerprints analyzed, just to go to work in the morning. Nowhere is that anymore obvious than here in Sawahra. They have their own private checkpoint that school children and workers pass through daily on foot as they have now been restricted from driving through even if they have Israeli plates. Those that want to drive need to take the forty mile drive trip we take through Abu Dis and Bethany to a different checkpoint. They are not even allowed to pass through the driving checkpoint we monitor in their town (on land owned by Abdallah) because that checkpoint is only for cars with green Palestinian plates.

Only those people with their names on a list are allowed to even walk through the Sawahra checkpoint. A large and successful dairy products company is located in East Sawahra. Most of their employees, and the owners, live on the Jerusalem side of the fence which causes them many problems. The employees must find transportation to this remote gate and then get picked up on the West Bank side and transported to the factory every day. In other places where towns have been divided like this, Israel has without any advance notice just closed the gate permanently. This happened since I have been here in the community of Ram north of Jerusalem. One Wednesday morning the gate used by the residents of Ram, most of whom have Jerusalem ID’s and work in Jerusalem, found the gate converted to a “ Closed Military Area” which is IDF code for “because we can”. All of those people must now travel to Ramallah and cross at the Qalandiya checkpoint which we also monitor, making the lines even longer then the typical 1 to 1 ½ hours in the mornings. They still however must pay their taxes to the municipality of Jerusalem. The residents of Sawahra are convinced this is their fate as well.

While this movement restriction is obviously demeaning and onerous there is one particular aspect that is particularly upsetting to the families here. It involves funerals. The cemetery where all of the villagers have been laid to rest since the founding of the village is on the Jerusalem side of the fence. When someone dies the Israeli army limits funeral attendees passing through the checkpoint to 50 people over the age of 45. Arab culture is very family oriented and their large extended families are very close. In almost every case, grieving family members are stopped at the gate and prevented from attending even their closest family member’s funeral. Abdallah’s uncle, who worked for the US State Department, died late last year of a massive heart attack literally as he was stepping through the gate at the checkpoint one morning. Abdallah was not allowed to attend his funeral. He was forced to stand and contemplate his uncle’s life at the place where he died…….the checkpoint.

60 Minutes - Is Peace Out of Reach?