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Israel's concrete barrier splits W. Bank families

Written by: Staff
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HIZMA, West Bank, Apr 19: Raed Khatib lives less than a hundred metres from his sister Nihad, but in the past two weeks he has not seen her once. Their houses are now separated by a high concrete barrier.

Nihad's home, half-way up a hill on the outskirts of Hizma, a town straddling Arab East Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is one of five houses split off from the rest of the community of about 6,000 people.

Residents knew the barrier -- which when completed will consist of more than 600 km of razor-topped steel fences and concrete walls -- was coming, but there was little they could do about it.

''We had a week's warning. In that time we went and found a lawyer and paid him 6,000 dollars ,'' said Khaled Hameeda, a relative of Nihad's and one of 50 people from related families almost completely cut off from friends and relatives down the hill.

''The lawyer tried, but they (the Israeli government) got permission to go ahead with the wall anyway.'' Israel says the barrier, which snakes in and around the West Bank, is a defence needed to stop suicide bombings. Since construction began in 2002, Palestinian suicide attacks have declined.

Palestinians say the barrier, due to be completed this year or early in 2007, denies them the viable state they want in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, captured by Israel in the 1967 West Asia war.

They see it as a land grab that pre-judges final borders which acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has vowed to impose in the absence of peace talks, seen as unlikely to take place since the Hamas militant group took over the Palestinian government in March.

Pulling back the curtain of his sitting room window, Hameeda gestures towards the 9-metre (almost 30-foot) barrier, protected by a trench and a two-metre steel fence, that slice through his garden and cast shadows over his house just a few metres away.

''We used to have great views towards the Dead Sea. We would invite people from town up here for coffee in the evenings, but they can't make it now,'' he said.

DIVIDING LINE

he complaints of Hizma's residents are among many from Palestinians affected by the barrier. Farmers, for example, say they have been cut off from their fields and there were riots at an Arab school near Jerusalem last year when the barrier was built through the playground.

Hizma shows how the construction threatens to separate not only Israelis from Palestinians, but Palestinians from themselves, dividing neighbours, relatives and communities, potentially with long-term, even permanent, consequences.

In the weeks ahead, the Israeli government has said it will seal small gaps that still exist in parts of the barrier around Hizma. Israel's final borders are expected largely to follow the barrier's course.

The World Court ruled in 2004 that the construction was illegal because it cut into territory captured in 1967. Israel's Supreme Court rejected that ruling, although it has ordered parts of the steel and concrete barricade to be re-routed. The United Nations, which closely monitors issues surrounding the barrier, says that by October last year nearly 75 percent of it was built on West Bank land which Palestinians want for a state. A little over 25 percent followed the border that existed before the 1967 war, it said.

The Israeli government acknowledges the barrier has provoked anger, but points out complaints can be heard by the Supreme Court, which has handed down judgments on both sides.

''The route of the barrier is designed to provide a maximum amount of protection to the Israeli population and a minimum mount of disturbance to the Palestinians,'' said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

''Any complaints can be taken up with the Supreme Court.'' For now, the gaps that remain around Hizma allow the few cut off from the rest to reach shops and schools in town by walking 15 or 20 minutes to an unmanned crossing point.

However, in the weeks ahead -- the timing depends on the Israeli government -- the gaps will be closed, officials say.

''This is a prison,'' said Nihad, looking down to where her brother works at a filling station in central Hizma -- a place she used to be able to see but which is now blocked by concrete.

She points out that the nearest neighbours on her side of the barrier are members of a Jewish settlement up the hill.

IDEOLOGICALLY DISTANT

One of her sons says he was briefly detained by Israeli soldiers recently for approaching the settlement, but he says he was just trying to get home.

It's unlikely those Jewish residents will be relocated as part of Olmert's plan to consolidate West Bank settlements since their homes are now part of greater Jerusalem, meaning they may be life-long, if ideologically distant, neighbours.

Nihad's grandchildren are not happy. When the barrier is sealed they will not be able to get to school or go where their friends play soccer. Nihad does not know where the children will be educated once the border is finalised.

''If they had put the wall further up the hill, on the other side of our house, then it would have been better because we could be with the rest of the town,'' said Nassim, 12.

''Now if my friends want to talk to me, they'll have to call me up,'' he said, although there appeared to be no phone in their home.

Hameeda is trying to look on the bright side.

''Maybe the Israelis will decide to change the route of the wall,'' he said, although he did not seem to hold out much hope given his lawyer's failure to win the original case.

The Israeli human rights group B'tselem says only one case calling for a re-routing of the barrier around Jerusalem has so far been successfully argued by Palestinians.

''It's a political issue, it can be discussed,'' Hameeda said.

He also hopes that, because he is now essentially part of Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967, the Israeli government will give him a pass allowing him to enter the city, something he has never had until now.

A pass might open up better job opportunities and access to social services. But he doesn't have his hopes up.

REUTERS

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