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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 April, 2003, 00:20 GMT 01:20 UK
Wall fears grip West Bank

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online

Their village's name may mean "Safe home" in Arabic, but the inhabitants of Beit Amin, about 10 kilometres south of Qalqilya in the West Bank, feel anything but safe at the moment.

"Last year the Israelis came with maps and told us they were confiscating land to build a security barrier to stop suicide bombings," says Shakir, a Beit Amin farmer, as he surveys the devastated orchards around him.

"They said we could appeal against the confiscation - but there's a saying that goes: 'How can you have justice when the judge is not fair?'"

The Israeli Government began construction of the wall in June 2002 in an attempt to halt the succession of suicide attacks by Palestinian militants inside Israel.

Israeli excavations near Izbat Salman south of Qalqilya
A massive building project is under way

A month ago the bulldozers and diggers arrived, uprooting dozens of olive and almond trees and cutting a 25-metre gash through the valley that separates Beit Amin from the Jewish settlement of Shareh Tikva.

"They told us if we tried to reclaim the trees, they would call the police," Shakir says, adding that an established olive tree can fetch up to $1,000 on the Israeli black market.

The excavations now separate much of Beit Amin's land from the people who cultivate it - and there are rumours that the security barrier may be moved even nearer to the village, with more trees and land lost.

Apparently, Jewish settlers have complained that the ugly construction has been placed "too close" to their elegant white-washed villas - properties built illegally on occupied land in the eyes of international law.

Massive project

Work is proceeding along a 100km stretch of the security fence - known to Palestinians simply as "the Wall" - around the north-western portion of the West Bank.

It is a massive project, with an estimated 250 heavy plant vehicles shifting huge quantities of earth along the line which at times snakes deep into the West Bank to buffer settlements like Shareh Tikva.

Beit Amin residents survey the devastated olive orchards
Beit Amin residents survey the devastated olive orchards

About four km of barrier have been erected so far, at a cost of $2m per km, including an eight-metre high concrete section - complete with massive watchtowers - around Qalqilya.

"Israel has chosen a clever time to press ahead with this project," says Jamal Juma, who runs the Apartheid Wall Campaign (AWC) from his small office in Ramallah.

"While everyone is thinking about war in Iraq, Israel is working like crazy, with hundreds of men and machines laying the foundations, and every few weeks changes being made in the plan in favour of the settlers over the indigenous Palestinian population."

The project gives a clue to hardline Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's thinking when he talks of giving up settlements in the West Bank for the sake of peace with the Palestinians.

It is unlikely that would include places on the Israeli side of the security fence like Shareh Tikva - which happen to be built on some of the best West Bank land and whose presence blights the lives of Palestinians in the surrounding villages.

'Stranglehold'

The Palestinian town of Qalqilya lies at the sharp end of the fence/wall project - facing a kind of stranglehold, Palestinians say, that will sever its links with outlying villages and strip it of its heritage as the West Bank's "fruit basket".


The barrier coils around Qalqilya's 40,000 residents, reaching some seven kilometres into occupied land to take in the Jewish settlements of Zofin and Alfe Menashe to the north and south.

Qalqilya itself will only be reached through a single Israeli army checkpoint. People in the network of villages around it - Beit Amin included - will have to travel up to 40 km to buy and sell goods in Qalqilya's markets, if the checkpoint remains open.

The area sits on the Western Aquifer Basin - the second largest fresh water resource in the region - and nearly 20 wells will be embraced by Israel's new "security zone" around Qalqilya.

Furthermore, six villages will be stranded between the fence and the Green Line. One of them - Ras Tireh - is visible from the olive orchards of Beit Amin.

The neat, red-roofed settlement of Alfe Menashe is also visible, and below them both the red-brown line of excavations which could seal Ras Tireh's fate.

"Over there, they are expecting transfer," says one Beit Amin resident darkly. He uses the euphemism for the wholesale transfer of the Palestinian population favoured by some members of Ariel Sharon's Israeli cabinet.

Settlers plan

While horrifying many Palestinians, the security fence has proved popular among Israelis.

Ras Tireh
Ras Tireh - with the security fence being built on its outskirts
Project manager Netsach Meshach insists his work has nothing to do with Israel's territorial ambitions, and everything to do with the 750 Israeli lives - 150 of them Jewish settlers - lost to Palestinian militant attacks in the past two years.

"We are just building a security fence and we are doing our best to do it only for security reasons, to prevent terror going from Palestinian land into Israel," he told BBC News Online.

He denies allegations that olive trees have been misappropriated, and points out that Israel is building some 30 agricultural gates in the wall, supposed to allow Palestinian farmers access to land on the Israeli side of the fence.

Initially, the main Jewish voices raised against the fence came from the settler movement and the ultra-right wing, who are generally hostile to anything that might limit Israeli sovereignty in what they hold to be the biblical land of their ancestors.

But recently the settlers have come round to the idea - after the body representing them proposed an expanded wall that would place many more settlements, and another 100,000 Palestinians, between the fence and the Green Line.

There is also talk of an Eastern Wall that would seal off the Palestinian areas from the other side, enclosing the West Bank populations in the discontinuous cantons - a concept Palestinian leaders are thought to have rejected during the 2000 peace talks at Camp David.

"I am very concerned for the future," says Jamal Juma. "Israel is laying down a one-sided solution to the conflict with a plan that will make Palestinians lose any faith they had in negotiation and legitimacy - and then you can't blame them for using other means to obtain their rights."

Mr Juma says: "If only the Israelis had taken the decision to make the Wall along the Green Line, and abandoned the settlements built illegally on occupied land.

"Then we, the Palestinians, would probably have offered to help them build it."


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Netsach Meshach
"We are doing our best to prevent terror going from Palestinian land into Israel"



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