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VIDEO: No Man's Land
Palestinian workers wait by a checkpoint in one of Israel's "seam zones" -- areas abutting the imposing security barrier that divides Israel and the West Bank. (David Gilkey/NPR)

Waiting To Cross No Man's Land

By Eric Westervelt

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Most every Palestinian in the West Bank says the biggest obstacles to a better economic life are the hundreds of military roadblocks and barriers that separate the West Bank from Israel. Israel's wall and fence project has dramatically reduced suicide bombings and other attacks inside the country. But the barrier, which will stretch some 450 miles when completed, also has had a severely negative effect on the lives of ordinary Palestinians. NPR's Eric Westervelt and David Gilkey traveled the length of the barrier to explore how it has affected the lives of people on both sides.

April 6, 2009 · In the West Bank Palestinian village of Habla, agricultural day laborers queue up in the dark outside gate No. 1393. There are cigarettes and blank stares as many huddle around small fires of twigs and dried grass to ward off the predawn chill.

The ability to put a bomb is much harder when you've got a wall. This was the situation we were forced to do. That was the only thing that stopped the bombing here.

- Dr. Zvi Sacks, ER doctor and former Israeli army combat medic

One worker clutches a Makita tile cutter and his lunch. Another carries his tools -- small pruning shears -- in a small sack. They're looking, and waiting, to leave a kind of no man's land for work on the other side of Israel's barrier.

The gatekeepers, young Israeli Defense Forces soldiers, stand on the other side of the barbed wire fence, clutching their U.S.-made M-16 rifles. For the Palestinian workers, there's tea and waiting, more twigs to burn and waiting. The soldiers will open the gate when they feel like it, laborer Yassin Abdul Abid says indignantly.

"This is a slow death. We [are] here two hours at morning and two hours at evening. We [are] still here. Two hours, every day. A slow death," he says.

The laborers start arriving before 5 a.m. for a chance to enter a "seam zone" -- land between Israel proper and the barrier -- and to find work in the West Bank and in Israel. The barrier, now 70 percent complete, is a mix of metal, electronic and barbed wire fencing, and trenches; between 5 percent and 8 percent of the barrier is made up of 24-foot-high concrete slabs.

A Palestinian farm worker
(above)A Palestinian farm worker smokes a cigarette while waiting for his turn to cross through an Israeli checkpoint. Many Palestinians live on the opposite side of the barrier from where they work. (David Gilkey/NPR)

Hassan Shrem is a 46-year-old born and raised in the nearby town of Qalqilya. He manages a plant, flower and tree nursery his father started here 50 years ago -- a nursery that is now partly cut off from both the West Bank and from Israel.

After the Israelis constructed the wall and the fence, Shrem says, half of the nursery fell inside Qalqilya while the other half fell inside the closed military zone.

I have to live as they want, not as I want. They are controlling our lives.

- Hassan Shrem, 46-year-old Palestinian and manager of a family-owned nursery business

Shortly after 7 a.m., the Israeli soldiers unlock the padlock and the tall electronic gate begins to slide open.

Thus begins the daily humiliating routine, Shrem says, of body and bag searches, of inspecting the IDs and paperwork of every worker. It's all about the pass-permit. The military controls when a worker can enter and when he can leave. Shrem is one of the lucky ones: He and his employees have valid permits that allow them to leave and enter the "seam zone" to work.

"If I don't have another pass-permit to the main checkpoint, I can't cross to my nursery. I have to live as they want, not as I want. They are controlling our lives," he says.

Shrem's nursery today is a shadow of what it once was. He and his father used to have 50 workers on the payroll. Today, he has four.

Dr. Zvi Sacks
Dr. Zvi Sacks is a former Israeli combat medic and an emergency room doctor. He lives in the Israeli town of Netanya, which was struck 15 times by suicide bombings and other attacks during the second intifada, or uprising. (David Gilkey/NPR)

Permits and IDs, checkpoints and gates, Shrem says, this is our main business now. He blames Israel's barrier for sucking the economic life out of his nursery. Business is down 80 percent, he says, since the fence and wall went up around his land starting in 2002. The military confiscated some of his land, he says, and destroyed part of the nursery to make way for the wall.

"When they started this wall, they said, 'Don't worry, this is for security reason, there are going to be many gates. But now every day, they ask for a new paper and a new paper, a new paper. So we feel they want us to leave. But we can't. This is our work, this is our job," he says.

Israeli officials say the Qalqilya area served as a main passageway for Palestinian suicide bombers during the second intifada, or uprising. In 2002, Palestinian suicide attacks across Israel peaked at 60, with many of the attackers coming from this northern part of the West Bank. Many Israelis credit the barrier with saving hundreds of lives.

An Israeli woman
An Israeli woman stands near a crowded shopping mall in Netanya. Once the target of suicide attacks, it's now a peaceful seaside destination. (David Gilkey/NPR)

The Israeli seaside city of Netanya is less than 10 miles from the West Bank. Today, the city of 177,000 is calm and peaceful: Outdoor cafes and restaurants are busy; shoppers stroll along sun-filled pedestrian walkways downtown.

It's a huge turnaround for a city that was wracked by fear and struck 15 times by suicide bombers and other attacks during the second intifada. The worst was March 27, 2002, during a Passover Seder at the beachside Park Hotel. A Hamas member slipped past security, walked into a packed dining hall and detonated a suitcase filled with plastic explosives. Thirty people were killed and more than 100 wounded, 20 seriously.

The attack during one of Judaism's holiest nights stunned Dr. Zvi Sacks. The former Israeli army combat medic was on duty that night, running the emergency medicine department at Netanya's Laniado hospital.

"I have seen a lot in my life. I've seen a lot in wars, seen a lot in my medical experience. But the types of wounds I saw coming from the Park Hotel -- very, very bad," he recalls.

I have seen a lot in my life. I've seen a lot in wars, seen a lot in my medical experience. But the types of wounds I saw coming from the Park Hotel -- very, very bad.

- Dr. Zvi Sacks

They are talking about a Palestinian state. Where? Where in West Bank? Qalqilya separated alone. Nablus alone. Jenin alone. Ghettos. We have to gather the pieces of West Bank and then give them a Palestinian state? How?

- Hassan Shrem

"I don't want to go into it very much. For me, it was shock, first of all because it was in my city, and second, because I knew a lot of the people there. My friends were there, and family of my friends outside of Netanya that were sitting there. And it shocked me."

What became known as the Passover massacre shocked much of the nation as well. Afterward, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the call-up of 20,000 Israeli reservists and two days later launched Operation Defensive Shield, a military reoccupation of West Bank towns and cities. The Netanya bombing also catalyzed Sharon's plans to speed up construction of Israel's wall.

Since the barrier went up, suicide bombings and other attacks across Israel are down 90 percent, according to the Israeli government. One reason is that the second intifada faded. As well, Israeli troops continue to conduct regular raids and arrests inside the West Bank. But Sacks says the barrier is the main reason.

"The extremes on the two sides are the same. Nothing has changed. But it is much harder for them to try and do it today like it was before," he says. "The ability to put a bomb is much harder when you've got a wall. This was the situation we were forced to do. That was the only thing that stopped the bombing here."

Back at his nursery, Hassan Shrem says he wants his seven kids to continue their studies and not count on taking over the family business.

"There may be nothing left for them soon," he says, darkly. "We're just waiting for the Israelis to take the remaining land. ... Waiting, like we wait at the gate."

Israel's barrier and checkpoint system has chopped up the West Bank, Shrem says, into isolated, gated ghettos.

"They are talking about a Palestinian state. Where? Where in West Bank?" Shrem asks. "Qalqilya separated alone. Nablus alone. Jenin alone. Ghettos. We have to gather the pieces of West Bank and then give them a Palestinian state? How?"

"This fence is not forever. It can't be," Shrem says, but he doesn't seem convinced.

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