Middle East


This week, the Israeli military began removing a wall - but not just any wall. Israel says it's the first time it is removing a protective structure from a neighborhood that was directly targeted by Palestinian militants.

The wall protected the Jewish settlement of Gilo, on the southeast edge of Jerusalem, against attacks from the nearby Palestinian village of Beit Jala. And the reason for its removal, according to Israel, is a much-improved security situation. But Palestinians say the move is self-serving and superficial.

Sheera Frenkel reports from Jerusalem.

SHEERA FRENKEL: The clanging of metal chains lifting concrete slabs into the air and onto military trucks doesn't seem to bother too many of the residents at Ha Inafa Street(ph).

For nearly a decade, this 10-foot-high, 1.2-mile-long wall was a stark reminder that this neighborhood was the target of some of the earliest attacks of the second intifada.

But Israeli security officials say that tensions have now subsided between the Palestinian village of Beit Jala and Gilo. The Israeli settlement was built on land seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Israel now considers it a suburb of Jerusalem.

During the second Palestinian uprising in the year 2000, Gilo was the target of regular sniper fire, and occasional mortar attacks, from Palestinian militants across a ravine in nearby Beit Jala. But the Palestinian security forces that now operate in Beit Jala have received high praise, from Israel and from American officials, for restoring order there. The IDF largely credits their work for the decision to remove the Gilo wall.

Rami Cohen, a 53-year-old resident of Gilo, says his car was hit by bullets during one of the shooting attacks. Still, he thinks the wall should have come down years ago.

Mr. RAMI COHEN: (Through translator) I don't think this is something that really helped. It always just separated us from our problems. Not just this wall, but the whole other wall is a really bad move by Israel.

FRENKEL: He's referring to the much larger separation barrier that winds in and around the occupied West Bank.

Some Israelis, who protested the original Gilo wall, are now discussing ways in which they can use its removal to strengthen their campaign against the separation barrier.

But most Palestinians are not as hopeful. Ghassan Khatib is a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority. Speaking by phone from his home in Ramallah, he shrugs off any claim that dismantling the Gilo wall could herald bigger things.

Mr. GHASSAN KHATIB (Spokesman, Palestinian Authority): I dont think that there is any significance in this step. Now, they say that they removed it because they feel that things are more secure. If this is correct, then they should have better-removed some of the barriers that are making our lives terrible -like some of the checkpoints, or some of the wall.

FRENKEL: Some residents of Gilo seem apprehensive about the decision to remove the wall, which has long been the focus of their community. Tourists came to photograph it, and artists held contests to determine who would decorate the concrete slabs.

Mordechai Sechavia is one of the original founders of Gilo 35 years ago. He gestures across the ravine toward Beit Jala, pointing out places where Palestinian gunmen took up positions years ago. He argues that the wall should not be removed.

Mr. MORDECHAI SECHAVIA: (Through translator) It could be that the violence will just come back again. There is no way of knowing. They could take it down and tomorrow, the shooting will start again.

FRENKEL: The IDF soldiers removing the wall are working quickly. They expect to have it completely dismantled within two weeks. Still, they aren't taking any chances. As they hoist the concrete slabs onto the back of a flatbed truck, they number the pieces. That way, they say, it will be easy to put back together again.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem.

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