MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In Israel, the formation of a new right-wing coalition has diminished prospects for peace with the Palestinians. The new conservative government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has emphasized economic incentives for Palestinians, not negotiations on a two-state solution. But most every Palestinian in the West Bank says there remains a very real barrier to a better economic life. That barrier is Israel's wall and fence project, and it separates the West Bank from Israel.
NORRIS: Stretching more than 450 miles when fully completed, the barrier has dramatically reduced suicide bombings and other attacks inside Israel. But it's taken a terrible economic toll on the lives of many ordinary Palestinians.
This week, NPR's Eric Westervelt is traveling along the barrier to explore how it affects people on both sides.
ERIC WESTERVELT: In the West Bank Palestinian village of Habla, agricultural day laborers queue up in the dark outside gate Number 1393. There are cigarettes and blank stares as many huddle around small fires of twigs and dried grass to ward off the predawn chill. One worker clutches a Makita tile cutter and his lunch. Another carries his tools: small pruning shears in a sack. They're looking and waiting to enter a kind of no-man's land for work on the other side of Israel's barrier.
The gatekeepers, young Israel defense force 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. They'll open the gate when they feel like it, laborer Yassin Abdul Abid says indignantly.
Mr. YASSIN ABDUL ABID: A slow death. We here two hours morning and two hours at evening. We still here two hours, every day. Slow death.
WESTERVELT: The laborers start arriving before 5 a.m. for a chance to enter a seam zone, land between Israel proper and the barrier, to find work in the West Bank and in Israel. The barrier, now nearly 70 percent complete, is a mix of metal, electronic and barbed-wire fencing, trenches - and between 5 and 7 percent of it is made up of giant slabs of concrete nearly 30 feet high.
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.
Mr. HASSAN SHREM (Nursery Owner): After they construct the wall and the fence, half of my nursery inside Qalqilya, half of it inside the military zone, the closed military zone.
WESTERVELT: A little after 7 a.m., the Israeli soldiers unlock the padlock, and the tall, electronic gate begins to slide open.
(Soundbite of a screeching gate)
WESTERVELT: 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 Israeli 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.
Mr. SHREM: 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.
WESTERVELT: 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. Permits and IDs, checkpoints and gates, he 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.
Mr. SHREM: When they started the wall, they said, don't worry, this is for security reason. But now, every day, they ask for a new paper, a new paper, a new paper. So we feel that they want us to leave. But we can't. This is our work. This is our job.
WESTERVELT: The 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, many of the attackers coming from this northern part of the West Bank. Many Israelis credit the barrier with saving hundreds of lives.
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 during the second intifada, was wracked by fear and struck 15 times by suicide bombers and other attacks. The worst was March 27, 2002, during a Passover seder at the beachside Park Hotel. A Hamas member slipped past security and walked into a packed dining hall, and detonated a suitcase filled with explosives. Thirty people were killed and more than 100 were 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 main hospital.
Dr. ZVI SACKS (Physician): Now, I have seen a lot in my life. I've seen a lot in wars. I've seen a lot in my medical experience. But the types of wounds I saw coming from the Park Hotel, very, very bad. I don't go into it too much. For me, it was shock, first of all, because it was in my city. Secondly, I knew a lot of the people there. A lot of my friends were there, families of my friends outside of Netanya, which were sitting there. And it shocked me. Of course, it shocked me.
WESTERVELT: What became known as the Passover massacre shocked much of the nation as well. Afterwards, 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 and other attacks across Israel are down 90 percent, according to the Israeli defense ministry. One reason is the second intifada faded, and Israeli troops continue to conduct regular raids and arrests inside the West Bank.
But Dr. Sacks says the barrier is the main reason.
Dr. SACKS: Because there's no other reasons. The extremes on the two side, you know, are the same. Nothing has changed. But it's much harder for them to try and do it today. The ability to put a bomb is much harder when you've got the wall than it was before. That's the situation we were forced to do. That was the only thing that stopped the bombing here.
WESTERVELT: Back at his nursery, Hassan Shrem says he wants his seven kids to continue their studies, and not to 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, he says, like we wait at the gate. Israel's barrier and checkpoint system has chopped up the West Bank, he says, into isolated, gated ghettos.
Mr. SHREM: They are talking about 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?
WESTERVELT: This fence is not forever. It can't be, Shrem says, but he doesn't seem convinced.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, in the West Bank.
BLOCK: Tomorrow, Eric reports on two close-knit Palestinian villages separated by the barrier. That's part two of our week-long series, Israel's Wall.
And at npr.org, you can find a map of the barrier, and video showing what life is like at an Israeli checkpoint.
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