Divide and destroy
Israel's separation wall is creating a new kind of humanitarian crisis for the Palestinians who live in its shadow. Christian Aid's Alex Klaushofer witnesses the devastation of communities
Thursday November 13, 2003
Over the past few months, the barrier that Israel is building to cut itself off from the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank has come to symbolise the divide between the two peoples at the heart of the Middle East crisis.
Cutting into Palestinian lands by up to six kilometres, the barrier takes different forms along its length - here an imposing concrete construction, there a steel fence and a tangle of barbed wire.
But whatever the barrier's form, its impact on the communities it dominates is devastating. In the farming villages of the northern West Bank, what was once a self-sufficient way of life is dying out because farmers cannot access their land.
The fertile valley that supported most of Jayyous's 3,500 people with yields from olive groves and citrus orchards is now locked behind the barrier, accessible to some only through gates administered by the Israeli army.
A few farmers are just managing to cling onto their land, forced to accept the permit system imposed by the Israeli authorities to get through the gate. Yet even with permits they must queue for the gate openings at the beginning and end of each day.
Sometimes the soldiers refuse to open the gate at all. In September it was closed for 20 days during the Israeli holiday season. At other times the soldiers just do not allow farmers through.
To combat this problem, a new population of farmer-campers has sprung up behind the gate, living away from their families in sheds and tents rather than risk being refused access to their land by the soldiers. They risk arrest as they are not meant to stay on their land overnight.
They are the lucky ones. Jayyous resident Faheema Saleem has 11 children and a disabled husband. Her family is now one of the poorest in the village because most of their land was confiscated and destroyed by Israeli construction workers who cleared it to make way for the barrier.
"All our land is behind the wall," she says. "We had two greenhouses, two acres of irrigated land, a big orchard of olives and open grazing land of up to 25 acres. Now we have this" - she gestures to a small garden plot in front of her house - "and 13 olive trees."
To keep the family afloat, Faheema receives food parcels of basics such as lentils and flour as part of a new programme run by the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee, an organisation supported by Christian Aid.
"We have a new humanitarian problem in the village and we now have a large number of families who are totally dependent," says Marian Shamasanah, the food programme co-ordinator and assistant head of the Jayyous women's club.
"I have been 14 years in this club. We never thought about humanitarian support until this year. In normal times it's not socially accepted to take food. Normally, we hold classes in first aid, family planning and handicrafts, but we are not involved in a humanitarian programme like this."
A few miles over the hills, the people of Jbarra are also turning to humanitarian aid as a direct result of the barrier. Most of the greenhouses in this farming hamlet of 350 people lie empty and its one road is lined with dying fruit trees as landowners outside the gate have been denied access to water their crops.
But Jbarra's odd status as one of 15 villages caught between the barrier and the Green Line that separates Israel from the West Bank has created further deprivations. In October the Israeli authorities declared the area a closed military zone and tried to issue its inhabitants with permits to access their land on the other side of the wall. Jbarra residents rejected the permits. For them it was a matter of principle. In response the Israeli army has refused to let them leave their village.
As a result, people have been unable to get to their jobs and businesses in the neighbouring towns and villages, or to the markets where they sell their produce.
Access to healthcare is also a problem. Ennas Awad tried to take her month-old baby to the doctor in Tulkarem but was denied access. "I told the soldiers the baby was ill, but they didn't believe me," she says. "They said: 'Everyone who wants to go to Tulkarem says their son or daughter is ill. But we will not allow you to pass. You are a liar.'"
Temporary relief has come in the form of a mobile clinic run by the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees - another local charity supported by Christian Aid. The clinic was hastily assembled in someone's house and announced over the mosque Tannoy by the sheik. But Azam Mahmoud, one of the doctors in the clinic, is clear about the limitations of this one-off healthcare solution. "To resolve the problem in Jbarra, you must start a permanent clinic with doctors and medicines in the village," he said.
Malnutrition is already affecting villagers' health, he says. "I saw a pregnant woman who has very rough skin. It is a deficiency of vitamin A. I told her to eat egg and milk. She said: 'In Jbarra there is no egg, no milk.' It is difficult to believe this is the situation of a village in the 21st century."
The new dependency emerging in the communities destroyed by the barrier is yet another example of how the poverty afflicting the Palestinians is a human creation. Here aid is not just part of the solution, it's a symptom of the underlying problem.
As William Bell, Christian Aid's advocacy officer for Israel and the Palestinians told the parliamentary international development committee: "This is a political problem created by the occupation of the Palestinian territories. A political solution is needed to tackle this ongoing humanitarian crisis."
· Alex Klaushofer is the Middle East communications manager at Christian Aid.