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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 July, 2004, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
Building 'walls of their prison'

By Barbara Plett
BBC correspondent in Jerusalem

Children play along a section of the barrier in east Jerusalem
Palestinians see the barrier as a threat to their dream of an independent state

Israel's mammoth separation barrier is carving a path through occupied East Jerusalem.

It is dividing Palestinian neighbourhoods, separating workers from their jobs, children from their schools, farmers from their fields.

In some places, reinforced concrete slabs eight metres (26 feet) high cut Palestinians off from the city which has been the centre of their lives for generations.

Israel's high court accepts the government's argument that the barrier is needed to defend Israeli citizens from Palestinian attacks.

But this week, the judges ruled that parts of the route had to be changed because it was causing severe injury to local populations and violating their rights under international law.

Moreover, most of the people actually building the barrier are Palestinian.

'Feeding our children'

The workers are not very talkative.

When Israel is looking for labour to build the new fence, it is looking for cheap labour... so they look around and find they can have very cheap labour on the Palestinian side
Arie Arnon
Israeli economist
Their bosses have told them not to speak to the press. Guards hired to prevent sabotage also keep journalists away.

But, eventually, I find some labourers who will answer my questions.

They are sitting on the sandy soil of a Jerusalem hill top in the shade of their mechanical digger, having lunch.

"No-one's happy about this," says one. "We're doing this to feed our children.

"We worked for a company for four years, but we were fired and lost our pension. This is the only job we can find at the moment."

Just down the road, an ominous silence hangs over a once bustling intersection.

Hassan Eker Mawi struggles to keep his shop running in the shadow of the barrier. He has lost 90% of his business since it went up and he is angry with those building it.

"This wall is coming between Palestinian and Palestinian," he says.

"The men who work on the wall are making hate between brothers."

But he softens his tone when asked whether he can understand that the workers have to support their families.

"Sometimes people do something they don't believe in because their situation forces them to," he acknowledges.

Economic pressure

There is an unprecedented economic crisis in the occupied territories after nearly four years of conflict.

Guide to the route and structure of the West Bank barrier

Two-thirds of Palestinians have dropped below the poverty line. They live on two dollars a day or less.

The main reason is Israel's closure policy. It not only blocks Palestinians from work inside Israel, it also isolates Palestinian communities from each other with roadblocks and checkpoints.

The Israeli government says this, too, is necessary to stop suicide bombers.

According to the Israeli economist, Arie Arnon, there is also another objective.

"Israelis will not admit it," he says, "but it was part of the pressure put on the Palestinians in order to convince them to stop the uprising".

"It was based on a very stupid but well-known idea that by putting economic pressure on the population, the population will somehow convince those who instigate the violence to stop it," he says.

"[This is] not understanding that the violence is the outcome of a consensus on the Palestinian side - to use violence in order to change the political situation."

This severe economic hardship deepens well-established labour patterns.

"When Israel is looking for labour to build the new fence, it is looking for cheap labour," says Mr Arnon.

"So they look around and find they can have very cheap labour on the Palestinian side, so they use it."

"In this sense it is nothing new or novel. It may be more extreme now, because now they are building the walls of their prison, the walls for the new siege, which is ironic."

Struggle for survival

Palestinians are protesting against the barrier not only because it makes their life more difficult, but because it is confiscating more and more of their land.

"If I don't work - who's going to feed my children?
Palestinian labourer
Most of it is being built on territory Israel occupied in 1967, rather than along the internationally recognised boundary between Israel and the West Bank.

But, so far, the localised demonstrations have had little impact.

Neither has a recent ruling by Jerusalem's top Islamic leader, the mufti Akrama Sabri. He forbade Palestinians to work on the wall.

Back at the construction site, such edicts ring hollow.

"Akrama Sabri doesn't know what's going on," says one labourer.

"If I don't work - who's going to feed my children? He has better things to talk about than the source of our income."

Palestinians regard the barrier as the biggest threat to their dream of an independent state.

But after finishing lunch, the workers here go back to building it.

For them at least, the struggle for survival, not freedom, comes first.

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