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VIDEO: Crossing the Checkpoints
An Israeli soldier guards a checkpoint at Qalqilya, one of the major crossing points between the West Bank and Israel. But smaller communities must deal with checkpoints as well, such as the one separating the Palestinian communities of Ras Tira and Ras Atiya. (David Gilkey/NPR)

Palestinian Villages Separated By Barrier

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 7, 2009 · Two close-knit Palestinian villages have been separated by Israel's barrier.

Ras Tira and Ras Atiya used to share schools, medical facilities, shops and more.

I don't consider myself in a seam zone; I don't consider myself in Israel. I consider myself hanging in the air, floating. They neither want to give us a divorce nor do they want to get married to us. We are just ... hanging.

- Ahmed Marabay, a Palestinian blacksmith

A white and blue Israeli flag snaps in the wind alongside the dirt path between the two villages -- a trail Ahmed Marabay used to walk without a second thought.

Officially the Marabay family lives in what's known as a "seam zone" -- the area between Israel's barrier and the green line, Israel's pre-1967-war border. Israel says these buffer zones are necessary to thwart attackers from penetrating into Israel from the West Bank. The problem is that more than 10,000 Palestinians live in villages inside these zones and, according to the United Nations, more than 30,000 will live in seam zones when the barrier is completed.

Palestinians in these areas are now separated from the rest of the West Bank and from Israel proper.

"I don't consider myself in a seam zone; I don't consider myself in Israel," says Marabay. "I consider myself hanging in the air, floating. They neither want to give us a divorce nor do they want to get married to us. We are just ... hanging."

Marabay is a blacksmith. He makes window and door frames and the like. He's 48, thin, with curly salt-and-pepper hair and a gray beard. This day he is transporting a metal door frame, by donkey, by car and by his own brawn. To get just a few hundred yards he has to first cross a checkpoint, protected by well-armed soldiers, barbed wire and a big metal fence and gate.

Bent over, Marabay carries the door precariously on his back through the checkpoint. He keeps his workshop in the adjacent village because there's limited electricity in his home village of Ras Tira.

Ahmed Marabay
(above) Ahmed Marabay is a Palestinian blacksmith whose family resides in Ras Tira. But family members work and attend school in Ras Atiya, which means they must carry special permits to pass through the checkpoint dividing the two towns. (David Gilkey/NPR)

Marabay and his family have learned to live with the checkpoint that separates Ras Tira and Ras Atiya. But they're bitter and resentful.

"They fenced in our land with barbed wire, encircled our land unfairly ... and illegally," says Marabay.

Anybody from both sides can go to the other. They just need to be checked on the checkpoint. But they can go freely.

- Ahmed Marabay, a Palestinian blacksmith

It's not just for work. Residents attending funerals, birthdays, weddings and all kinds of events in the neighboring village have to navigate the fence and checkpoint.

Yaseen Marabay is unemployed. He helps his cousin Ahmed when there's work for him.

"Israel says it's for security," says Yaseen Marabay. "If it's all for security, then why not erect this wall on the 1967 borders? Why are they surrounding the village for so-called security reasons? ... When a person dies in Ras Tira, family members and friends in Ras Atiya need special permits just to come and offer condolences, to pay their respects."

Two of his nieces, 15-year-old Wisaal and 13-year-old Hadeel, walk down a winding paved road that gives way to gravel and the checkpoint they must pass to get to school. Israeli soldiers carrying automatic rifles stand around in the sun, looking bored.

Ahmed Marabay's nieces
Ahmed Marabay's nieces -- 13-year-old Hadeel (left) and 15-year-old Wisaal -- wait to cross a checkpoint as they head to school in the neighboring village of Ras Atiya. (David Gilkey/NPR)
A young Israeli soldier
A young Israeli soldier stands in a shed surrounded by razor wire at the checkpoint between Ras Tira and Ras Atiya. The soldiers use the shed to conduct more extensive searches of people passing through the checkpoint. (David Gilkey/NPR)

"My friends cannot even come to our house for a simple visit if they don't have a permit," Hadeel says. "Nobody can get in without the proper seam zone permits. Sometimes during weddings they allow some people to pass more easily. But most of the time people are not allowed."

Near the gate there's a shed surrounded by fencing and barbed wire. Some of the villagers trying to pass into Ras Atiya are told to enter. The shed is used for hand searches and contains what's called a trace portal machine. You step into it and it scans the entire body for high explosives.

"We sometimes refuse to go into this room," says Wisaal Marabay. "But most days we don't have a choice. ... When I arrive at school after passing this gate I just feel demoralized. I feel depressed ... It's not normal to go through this to get to school."

The Israeli army didn't allow us to talk to any of the soldiers at the checkpoint. They did make Maj. Oz Arad available. He is the Israeli military police commander for a large swath of the northern part of the West Bank including Ras Tira.

"Anybody from both sides can go to the other," Arad says. "They just need to be checked on the checkpoint. But they can go freely."

We tried to ask him why it was necessary to erect the barrier between the two villages. But before he could answer, an Israel Defense Forces media minder, who monitored the interview, interrupted to say questions about the route of the barrier were out of bounds.

In one recent Israeli court case, judges proposed reunifying the villages by changing the route of the barrier. But it would have meant the confiscation of even more Palestinian farmland surrounding the villages, so the residents here gave the court a resounding "no."

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VIDEO: Unsettled in Tene
A cat sits waiting for visitors in the Israeli settlement of Tene. His master is Boaz Lavie, a former Israeli army officer who has lived in the area for over 20 years. But Tene falls on the West Bank side of the separation fence and faces an uncertain future. (David Gilkey/NPR)

Unsettled in Tene

The tiny settlement town of Tene sits inside the West Bank, on the Palestinian side of the security fence. Former Israeli army officer Boaz Lavie settled here with his family some 20 years ago. But since his property is in Palestinian territory, he may have to leave his longtime home. Boaz says he is not overly religious and wouldn't fight an order to move, but hopes the state of Israel would compensate him fairly for giving up his land.

In Ramadin, a nearby Palestinian village, Suliman Al Jamain lives with his 13 children. As construction on the security fence continues, the Palestinian farmer will lose his land -- a turn of events that he views as deeply unfair.

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