Working together despite fence between them

BY J. ZEL LURIE

When the Israel-Jordanian armistice conference in 1949 at Rhodes fixed boundaries, half of the lands of the Arab village of Qaffin fell into Israel. On this land the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair founded a kibbutz called Metzer, Hebrew for boundary.

Relations between Arabs in Qaffin and the leftist Jews in Metzer across Israel’s frontier were good, relates Isabel Kershner in Barrier (Palgrave/Macmillan), the story of the wall and fence now being built. When the Army laid out a fence between Qaffin and Metzer, it was not on the Green Line, the boundary that had been fixed on a map in green ink in Rhodes. The Army said it needed yardage for a patrol road and a dirt embankment so it delved farther into Qaffin lands, separating the Arab homes from their olive groves and fields.

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The kibbbutzniks from Metzer and the Palestinians from Qaffin staged a joint demonstration against the fence. But this idyll ended on June 10, 2002, when a 19-year-old Muslim from Tulkarim crept under the flimsy kibbutz perimeter fence and killed five, including a mother and two toddlers. Then he walked home to Tulkarim. It took the Army 11 months, Kershner writes, to find and kill him.

The fence was erected as planned soon after the massacre in Metzer. For three years, the Arab farmers have watched from the other side of the fence as their olive grove became filled with debris.

The farmers in Metzer have not forgotten their Palestinian neighbors, who were once a pleasant quarter hour walk across the fields. It’s not just because they are doves; it’s self interest, Dov Avital, the mazkir, manager of Metzer, recently told Reuters.

“If our neighbors don’t have a life. We won’t be able to have peace,” Avital said.

Doron Lieber, 52, led a delegation from Metzer to clean up the debris that had collected in three years on the 250 acres of Qassim land on the other side of the fence. Qassim Mayor Tsair Harashi joined in the celebration. He said that it was the first time in three years that he had received permission to cross through the fence.

He said conditions in his village were deplorable. “We have lost half our land and our income. Workers who used to work in construction in Israel are unemployed.”

Lieber has a plan to help Qassim and Metzer revive their friendship and economic viability. He will get an NGO to build a greenhouse on Qassim land on the Metzer side of the fence. The greenhouse will grow vegetables and spices for export to Europe.

He will still need permits for the Qassim farmers to come through the fence. “We will turn the world upside down to get the permits,” Lieber told Reuters.

A few more words about Kershner’s remarkable book. She engages the reader in her tour of the 450-mile barrier that will eventually cost more than $2 billion. We see all its complexities, the walls in the cities and the fences, with computerized sensors, elsewhere. The language is colorful. The Jewish builders and the Arabs, whose land is being taken, are whole human beings, expressing their feelings in telling phrases.

“They stole my sunsets,” exclaimed a land owner in Qalqilya who used to sit on his porch and watch the sun set. Now he faces a wall.

“They took away the sea,” said the villagers of Qibya, made famous by Arik Sharon’s retaliatory strike in 1953, which inadvertently killed scores of women and children.

Among the moving stories she tells of the victims of suicide bombers and their families, one stands out. Her cousin, Ruthie Gillis, is the widow of a gifted Hadassah hematologist, Dr. Shmuel Gillis, who was ambushed on his way home from Ein Karim to his home in Karnei Tzur, north of Hebron.

When the route was fixed by the Israel cabinet, Ruthie’s home in Karnei Tzur was not included on the Israel side. Ruthie doesn’t care. The fence, she says, will be “the departure point for the next war.” Sooner or later, she predicts, mortars and rockets will be flying over the fence.

Ruthie’s prediction is a fact on the Gaza border where a fence was built some years ago. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been flying rockets over the fence. Most of them have been aimed at Sderot, where schools were closed one day last week in fear of rockets. The day before a rocket went through the roof of a house and landed on the bed of a boy who had just left for school.

Unless the rockets are stopped there is bound to be a fatality.

I will close with my personal reaction to the fence around East Jerusalem. Three years ago I first saw the shocking wall, 10-meters high, smack across the old road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Up the hill there was a gate with Palestinian pedestrians streaming through. It was a Friday morning and there were transit buses waiting to take them to the Al-Aqsa mosque.

“Why are you spending money to separate Arabs from Arabs?” I asked my guide. “Don’t ask me,” she replied.

Last week, the Council of Peace and Security, which is made up of retired generals and intelligence officers, asked the same question.

“A fence with Palestinians living on both sides is not a security fence,” said the council.

Obviously, it never was. Not in East Jerusalem. Kershner relates that the designer of the fence felt that he could not exclude residents of Jerusalem, holders of blue identity cards. Three years later, Ehud Olmert is beginning to talk about excluding them.