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At barrier, real life is rerouted

When Yousif Khataib's grandfather opened a gas station in 1956, it sat on one of the busiest highways in Jerusalem. Now Khataib is lucky to see 20 customers a day.

When Qassem Sourchi enrolled at Al-Quds University, it took him five minutes to walk the few hundred yards from home to campus. Now he must drive 25 miles.

And when Wafa Ayyad needed groceries, she, too, had only a short walk to a store. Now she must make a treacherous two-hour hike through a steep, rocky ravine.

This is life in the shadow of the wall.

It has been almost four years since Israel began building a 459-mile barricade of fences, trenches and huge concrete walls to protect its citizens from Palestinian terrorists. The barrier is less than half finished, but from an Israeli standpoint it already is serving its purpose. Attacks launched from completed areas have dropped as much as 90 percent, and life for most Israelis has returned to something near normal.

"The antiterrorist fence is an act of self-defense that saves lives," Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs says on its Web site.

For Palestinians, the barrier is a very different story.

It separates farmers from their fields and families from their relatives. It keeps thousands of Christian Palestinians from their schools and churches. At one checkpoint near Jerusalem, it forces the sick, the pregnant, the elderly to climb a pile of jagged rubble and squeeze through a narrow gap.

"Is there any place in the world you see this?" asks Ayyad, a young mother, gesturing at the solid gray mass of concrete that runs for miles behind her house. "This is the democracy of Israel."

Palestinians have had little say about the route of the barricade, which in several places veers sharply from the Green Line, the approximate border between Arab and Jewish lands before Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast War. The barrier, many Palestinians fear, could become a permanent border encroaching on land they want for a future state.

Concern grew last week when acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced the $2.2-billion barricade will swing even farther into the West Bank to encircle three large Jewish settlements. With the radical group Hamas now in control of the Palestinian government, completing the barrier by the end of next year is among Israel's top priorities.

"We are going toward separation from the Palestinians," Olmert said. "We are going toward determining a permanent border for the state of Israel."

Palestinians hope the barrier - like the Berlin Wall - may one day tumble. Few expect that to happen any time soon.

"Israel wants it as a fact and a border," says Abed Sourchi, a driver who lives on the Israeli side while most of his family is confined to the Palestinian side.

"As long as Israel exists, the wall will exist."

"Barely surviving'

As he sits in his gas station, Yousif Khataib looks at his rusting pumps and remembers how good business used to be.

"This was the liveliest junction in Jerusalem," he says. Cars streamed past on their way to Jordan to the east and the Israeli resort of Eilat to the south.

In 2002, at the height of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel began erecting its barricade. The once-busy road now stops at a concrete wall 20 feet high and spray-painted with graffiti: Apartheid wall equals Zionist terrorists.

Khataib's gas station is on the Israeli side; most of his former customers are on the Palestinian side. Though he could throw a ball to them, it is a 20-mile drive by car.

"We're barely surviving," says Khataib, who once worked as an engineer but now runs the business with a younger brother. He does his own bookkeeping and often sleeps in the station at night to guard it "because we can't afford to pay salaries."

The Khataibs are Muslim, but they are friends with Hassan Ikermawi, a Christian who owns the equally struggling grocery next door.

Ikermawi complains about the steep taxes - almost $2,000 a year - he must pay Jerusalem's municipal government even though "my business is dead." But he wants to stay on the Israeli side so he has easy access to top medical care and to Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.

It is a dilemma facing thousands of Palestinian Christians.

In Bethany, a largely Christian town where Jesus is said to have raised Lazarus from the dead, residents awoke Jan. 26 to see bulldozers rumbling along the edge of the Passionist Fathers monastery.

Work on the wall had stopped for months while the Vatican successfully challenged the route, which would have taken some church property. But construction resumed the day after Hamas swept the Palestinian parliamentary elections. When this stretch of wall is finished - six feet from their bedroom windows - residents of a church-owned apartment house will be on the Palestinian side, a 20-mile drive from Jerusalem instead of the current 10-minute walk.

Several families already have moved to the city, willing to pay higher rent rather than face long commutes and hassles at Israeli checkpoints. The rest may soon follow.

"As Christians, we can't be away from Jerusalem," says one resident, whose husband teaches at a Catholic school there. "I want a Christian culture for my children."

Like many Palestinians who often go to Israeli-controlled areas, the woman asked not to be identified for fear of Israeli harassment. She and hundreds of others now avoid the checkpoint between Bethany and Jerusalem by walking through the grounds of the Passionist monastery, which straddles the border between the two.

When the Bethany part of the wall is finished, though, that shortcut will disappear. The monastery will be on the Israeli side, along with an orphanage run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.

The wall has caused problems for the orphanage, which cares for 38 Palestinian children. To keep good relations with local residents, the orphanage, like the monastery, allows Palestinians to cross its grounds so they don't have to deal with Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint.

But the heavy foot traffic has brought "more violence, theft and criminality," says Sister Josephina, one of four nuns who run the orphanage. "It's a very insecure place. We have drug addicts, we have stolen cars. They have broken into the money of the pilgrims."

To help support the orphanage, the sisters rent out rooms to Christian groups visiting the Holy Land. In 2000, there were four or five groups every month. In the five years since, there has been a grand total of six.

"If we didn't have support from Europe," Sister Josephina says, "we'd go hungry."

Serious consequences

According to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, the security barrier will negatively affect almost 500,000 Palestinians, including more than 30,000 caught on the Israeli side.

Among them are 20 households in what is a virtual no-man's land between Jerusalem and the Palestinian town of Abu Dis.

"It's like we're in quarantine, isolated from everyone," says Sourchi, the college student.

He and scores of relatives live on a craggy ridge on the Israeli side, their houses accessible only by a single dirt road. Since the wall was erected nearby, the road has become part of a closed security zone off limits to everything but Israeli military vehicles and the residents' own cars.

School buses can no longer reach the area, forcing children as young as 5 to make their way down a rugged hillside to get to the bus.

Garbage trucks have stopped coming, so residents burn what they can and discard the rest in unsightly heaps of bottles and cans. Ambulance and taxi services are also nonexistent.

Although Abu Dis is only a few hundred yards away, getting to stores and Al-Quds University now requires an hourlong walk or a 25-mile drive. That's because Sourchi and other motorists have to take a circuitous route that skirts the Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim, home to 30,000 people and one of the West Bank areas Israel plans to keep.

In a recent report, the European Union said extending the barricade to include the settlement would divide the West Bank in two and cut off Arab areas of Jerusalem from the major Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem.

"This will have serious economic, social and humanitarian consequences for the Palestinians," the report warned.

The Sourchis already know that. They are part of a prominent Palestinian clan, but they rarely see family members living on the other side of the wall.

"I had a wedding for my son in August, and no West Bank relatives could attend," says Abed Sourchi, who drives a tour bus for an Israeli company. "It's not making a division between Israelis and Palestinians, but between Palestinians and Palestinians."

Sourchi doesn't deny terror attacks have decreased since the wall went up, but he thinks the money could be better spent. Bring together young men from both sides to talk about their problems and their dreams for the future, he suggests. Or revise textbooks to delete negative stereotypes of Jews and Arabs.

"We need to change the new generation," he says.

For now, Sourchi feels he has the worst of both worlds. Israel's barricade is dividing his family. And his car and bus windows have been broken many times - by rock-throwing Palestinian kids who assume there are Israelis on the other side of the wall.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at


This map shows the portion of Israel's separation barrier near Jerusalem as of July 2005. Some sections have been built or are under construction; other sections await approval.

Green line

(1949 Armistice Line)

Barrier route


If the barrier encircles the Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim, thousands of Palestinians will be on the Israeli side.


When the barrier is finished here, many Christians will be on the Palestinian side.

Sources: Israeli Ministry of Defense; U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs