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Hardships Of Wall Weigh On Many

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 9, 2009 · Visitors to the "little town of Bethlehem" now have to pass through a checkpoint in Israel's barrier, under construction since 2002 in response to Palestinian suicide bombings.

Along the Palestinian side of the wall, spray painted graffiti reads "welcome to prison" and "ghetto." Many Bethlehem residents say the wall has devastated their city.

I want the good old days to come back. I want people to visit me and me to visit them. I want ... to live with dignity. This is not a life.

- Adnan Jahdoh, a resident of Aida refugee camp

One man, Adnan Jahdoh, says his life has changed dramatically. On one particular day, he sits on a wooden stool in his apartment in the Aida refugee camp smoking cigarettes intently -- like it's his job. It's early afternoon on a Tuesday and he's still in his pajamas. Short and stout with close-cropped hair, he's pulled his blue and white stripped pajama bottoms up so high over his paunch he looks vaguely elfin.

He slips on a blue bathrobe while a small color TV buzzes next to a couch with sagging cushions. At 55, Jahdoh says he is too young to just sit around home smoking -- brooding -- and watching Arabic soap operas. But that's exactly what he does most days.

"Sometimes I stay inside my house for two weeks cooped up," he says. "Where shall I go? I don't really leave except for cigarettes. I don't work anymore. There's nowhere to go," he says.

Adnan Jahdoh
(above) Adnan Jahdoh lives in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The 55-year-old is unemployed with no job prospects in sight and nine children to feed. (David Gilkey/NPR)

His wife, Sabah, cooks lunch in their small kitchen. Pictures of his father, grandfather and other family members adorn the apartment's faded white and yellow walls. The pictures bring back bittersweet memories. Since Israel put up the big wall between Bethlehem and nearby Jerusalem, Jahdoh says, he lost his job at a car showroom in Jerusalem and also lost access to the farmland his family has worked since the early 1960s. He used to grow figs, dates and olives at the farm -- on the other side of the wall on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

"After the wall was built my brothers managed to get a permit to farm their land but I was not able to," Jahdoh says. "I've applied several times, but I'm denied. First time, second time, third time, they've rejected it always!"

We live today in an open prison. Why shouldn't I be allowed to go freely to Jerusalem, to pray, to stroll through Damascus gate, to buy sweets and come home to my family refreshed?"

- Adnan Jahdoh, a resident of Aida refugee camp

Jahdoh's not sure why; the Israelis, he says, don't give a reason. The only time he is allowed into Jerusalem, just five miles away, is during the holy month of Ramadan to pray at the Dome of the Rock, Islam's third-holiest site.

"My wife, Sabah, often gets rejected for permits as well," he says. "The Israelis said she's too young, under 55. They only want old people. Maybe they prefer us to be dead before arriving in Jerusalem!"

Jahdoh has nine children -- two sons and seven daughters. All but his youngest, 14-year-old Rula, now live outside the house. They help support him, as best they can, but he says he relies on the United Nations' relief agency UNRWA. He gets about 100 shekels, or $20 a month, from the U.N. along with some oil and flour and other basic food items.

Jahdoh's family fled the village of Malha in West Jerusalem during the 1948 war when Israel was established. His grandfather was a mukhtar, a village elder, in Malha and helped build the school there. Today, there's a mall near what used to be his home village. Jahdoh hasn't been there in years.

"I believe my land will always be mine regardless of what is built on it, who confiscates it, and what they do to it," he says. "The land is still there and it will always be mine. Just like 1948 Palestine -- whatever they do with historic Palestine, it will always be ours."

Retired Army Col. Danny Tirza
Retired Army Col. Danny Tirza looks eastward from Jerusalem toward the security wall. While serving under former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he designed the route of the wall. (David Gilkey/NPR)
The Israeli security wall follows a hillside in east Jerusalem
The Israeli security wall follows a hillside in east Jerusalem. Behind it, in the distance, lies the Jordan Valley. (David Gilkey/NPR)

The wall here doesn't just cut the city off from Jerusalem; it also winds through parts of the town to separate Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish holy site, from the rest of Bethlehem.

"We live today in an open prison. Why shouldn't I be allowed to go freely to Jerusalem, to pray, to stroll through Damascus gate, to buy sweets and come home to my family refreshed?" he asks.

Because of suicide bombings, is the Israeli reply. The massive wall at the entrance to Jesus' birthplace was built after suicide attackers killed several hundred Israelis during the second intifada. In early 2004, two bombings a few weeks apart in nearby Jerusalem killed 19 Israelis. The Palestinian attackers, one a policeman, were both from Bethlehem.

"The goal of terror is not to kill people; the goal of terror is to frighten the other side," says Danny Tirza, a retired army colonel. Tirza was former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's point person on the West Bank barrier. He designed its route.

"In 2002, I was afraid to send my daughter to school on a public bus," he says. "There [were] 17 public buses that were blown inside Jerusalem by terror attacks. People were afraid to sit in a cafe, to go to a movie, go wherever inside Jerusalem. Today the West Bank is closed -- you can come from the West Bank to Israel only by check post. And the terror is left behind."

Back in Bethlehem's Aida refugee camp, Jahdoh says he sees things only getting worse -- and views the wall here as the prime mover behind his own downward drift. He looks at life here before the barrier with an air of nostalgia and sadness.

"I want the good old days to come back," he says. "I want people to visit me and me to visit them. I want ... to live with dignity. This is not a life."

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Barrier Protests Predictably Become Violent

Every Friday, in what has become a predictably dangerous bit of choreography, the neighboring West Bank villages of Bil'in and Nil'in are the scene of demonstrations against Israel's West Bank barrier

What begin as peaceful protests, complete with marching and flag-waving, almost always devolve quickly into violent clashes between Israeli soldiers and a mix of Palestinians, international activists and Israeli leftists.

Some activists throw stones and occasionally hurl gasoline bombs. And the Israeli soldiers almost always respond with heavy barrages of tear gas and rubber-coated bullets

There are frequent protests along the border, most of them where the Israelis occupy land they captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The barrier and its checkpoints are often focal points for demonstrations and rage during times of upheaval, including the recent Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

But only Nil'in and Bil'in have seen sustained, weekly protests. They've been ongoing for more than a year. Villagers here are seething that the route of the fence will separate them from some 400 acres of olive groves and farmland they own but will soon be unable to cultivate.

The regular clashes here recently received international attention when Tristan Anderson, an American peace activist, was struck in the head by an Israeli tear gas canister. The 38-year-old suffered massive damage to the frontal lobe of his brain, as well as an eye. Despite several brain surgeries, Anderson remains in a medically induced coma at a Tel Aviv hospital.

We are horrified and overwhelmed. To shoot peaceful demonstrators is really horrifying to us. What we want to ask is that the Israeli government publicly take full responsibility for the shooting of our son.

-Nancy Anderson, at a recent news conference in Jerusalem. Anderson's son Tristan is in a medically-induced coma at a Tel Aviv hospital after being hit by a high-velocity tear gas grenade

Human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, who is helping the family, said Anderson was hit by a high-velocity tear gas grenade fired at close range. Sfard is calling for an independent investigation of what he believes was excessive use of force.

"This is by no means an isolated event," he said. Sfard called the shooting another example of "a culture of impunity" in the Israeli military.

Michael and Nancy Anderson, Tristan's parents, want the Israeli government to account for the shooting of their son.

"We are horrified and overwhelmed," Nancy Anderson recently told a news conference in Jerusalem. "To shoot peaceful demonstrators is really horrifying to us. What we want to ask is that the Israeli government publicly take full responsibility for the shooting of our son," she said.

Anderson's injury is no aberration; almost every week Palestinians, activists and, occasionally, journalists and Israeli soldiers are injured in the melees. On one recent Friday, resident Kamal Haj Mohammed's son writhed on the ground wounded and bleeding.

"The tear gas canister slammed into his leg," Mohammed said.

Four Palestinians have been killed and dozens wounded in clashes in Nil'in and Bil'in in the past year.

The Israeli military says the injuries sustained by Anderson and others are the regrettable result of "violent rioting."

Israeli Maj. Oz Arad, a commander in the northern part of the West Bank, says soldiers have to protect themselves, that there is "a line on the ground that they [protesters] are not supposed to pass. If they are passing that we have to stop them. Tear gas is one of the options. The routine is very negative over there. I don't think it will end from the IDF side. I think it will end when the protesters understand they cannot achieve anything from the protest," Arad says.

Palestinians such as Kamal Haj Mohammed say they are not about to stop protesting what they view as an illegal land grab.

"In these villages the Israelis have confiscated our farmland, and these demonstrations let people express their feelings against the occupation and the building of this apartheid wall," Mohammed says.

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