Walled Off: Sharon’s fence turns villages into prisons

Az-Zawieh, West Bank – The soldier, automatic rifle slung over his shoulder like a kid’s backpack, approached the car and announced, “This is a closed military area.” Whenever the Israeli army wants to exclude prying eyes from some corner of its occupied territories, an officer declares a “closed military area.” The incantation permits the army to conceal some of the activities that might, to the untrained eye, conflict with the country’s self-image as a liberal democracy: the seizure of land from its owners, demolition of family houses, mass arrests, and confinement of whole populations to their towns and villages.

I was in a car on which the letters “TV” were painted to protect us, if the armor didn’t, from the Israeli crossfire that has killed more than a dozen journalists in the last four years. My producer demanded to see the soldier’s written orders. The young soldier, who spoke politely and in fluent English, said there were no written orders. My producer called the Israeli Defense Forces spokeswoman, who confirmed that Az-Zawieh was, as of that morning, closed. No one was allowed in or out.

Like everyone else stopped on the road, we turned around. Later, some women from the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS), do-gooders from Europe and America who often put themselves between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians, showed us another way in. We parked outside another village, carried our camera equipment over an earth barricade, and hired a taxi on the other side. It was a 20-minute drive into Az-Zawieh, where a few hundred people – Palestinians, Israelis, and foreigners – were gathering in the village’s tiny square. They held banners and balloons. As the morning grew hotter, children passed out popsicles. A few people admitted they were afraid. The day before, when villagers made a similar procession to their olive groves, Israeli troops fired rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and tear gas. “Use an onion wrapped in a handkerchief,” one Israeli woman with experience of tear gas advised.

The purpose of the demonstration was to protest the construction of Israel’s West Bank security wall through their fields. The farmers were losing land to the Wall itself and more to the free-fire zone on either side. Most would end up on the wrong side of the Wall and, undoubtedly, their land would become the property of Israeli settlements. But that was not the worst of it. Once the Wall was complete, it would form a circle around Az-Zawieh and its neighbor villages, Deir Ballout and Rafat. Only one entrance, guarded by Israeli troops, would provide access to the residents of the three villages. The giant wall would sever them from the rest of the West Bank. Even the original ghetto, in Venice, had four gates. But what the Israelis are building is not really a ghetto. It is a prison whose inmates will be free to escape, provided they do not return.

The Wall, uglier than its demolished counterpart in Berlin, does not run straight. Nor does it follow the contours of the Green Line between Israel and the territory it conquered in 1967. Instead, it makes inroads into the West Bank and never touches Israel itself. All the land that is lost-about 20 percent of the West Bank-is being taken from Palestinians. The unlikely route will absorb Israeli settlements into Israel and deny Palestinian farmers their soil and, thus, their livelihoods. Danny Rubinstein, one of Israel’s many first-rate journalists, wrote in Ha’aretz of the designers who had to “perform juggling tricks that boggle the imagination” in order to run the concrete slab of separation over hill and dale, through villages and towns, knocking down houses and trees in its path, all in defiance of geography and law. Within the Wall will rise many smaller walls and fences to control movement more ferociously than South Africa’s hated pass laws did. “These fences,” Rubinstein writes, “the second phase of the separation fence project, will create five large islands in which the Palestinian populace will concentrate in quasi-ghettos.” These five pockets plus the Gaza Strip are the land on which George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Ariel Sharon are inviting Palestinians to construct “a viable state.” No viable state came emerge from this state of madness.

The day before we came to Az-Zawieh, there had been violence. “A small group of villagers,” a report from the IWPS stated, “including many women, made their way through the clouds of dust and smoke to where the bulldozers were working. Some women managed to sit down in front of the bulldozers and were later forcefully removed by soldiers.” Az-Zawieh’s mayor told us that local clinics treated more than 70 people for rubber-bullet and tear-gas injuries. We filmed the mayor leading a procession of peaceniks and peasants from the village to the olive grove. A 100-yard-wide strip of uprooted trees and combed earth cut the grove in two, the cleared land where the Wall will go. The bulldozers, however, were gone. So too were the soldiers. It seemed there were too many journalists and Israelis there for the army to bother with a confrontation. Boys tied a Palestinian flag to a pole, and many cheered.

After listening to a few speeches, the people of Az-Zawieh went back to their houses. The Israelis returned to Israel, and we retrieved our car for the drive back to Jerusalem. A few days later, the newspapers reported that the people of Az-Zawieh marched again to their fields. The army drove them back. The Israeli High Court ruled that the government should rethink the route of the Wall to reduce the suffering of the occupied people, but it was unclear whether this would affect Az-Zawieh. Soon, whatever the exact route, the Wall will be up. Slowly, Az-Zawieh will die.

Both the International Court of Justice in the Hague and the Israeli High Court recently made findings against the government on the positioning of the Wall. The World Court accepted Israel’s claim that it could build a wall to protect itself from suicide bombers, but it said it had no right to do so on confiscated Palestinian land in the occupied territories. If Sharon’s only concern were security, the country would be just as secure with a Wall that ran along the Green Line. The Israeli justices did not mind a Wall on Palestinian land, but they said Sharon should not make it absolutely impossible for Palestinians to live and recommended minor changes in the route.

The Wall is accelerating what the press here calls “the silent transfer” of Palestinians to other countries in search of work, liberty, or peace. The idea was always “transfer” of the native population to clear the ground for settlers. Now, a Gaza psychiatrist told me, they have lost confidence in themselves. “They say, ‘We are good for nothing,'” he said with sadness. “It’s like people have been swinging between despair and defiance. Now, they realize defiance is only causing despair.” For the last four years, defiance in the form of suicide bombings achieved nothing for the Palestinians and allowed Sharon to build the West Bank Wall that is similar to the one that has ringed the Gaza Strip for years. In Gaza, desperation is so complete that many people come to my psychiatrist friend complaining of self-loathing. They believe they have failed. They see their leaders as feeble and cowardly. More than half of Gaza’s children saw their fathers beaten by Israeli soldiers during the first intifada. No one has authority or can offer protection. Because of the attacks by helicopter gunships on Palestinian refugee camps and towns in Gaza, many Palestinian children wet their beds at night in fear, well into their teens. Now, Gazans have begun doing something that has never before happened in Palestinian society: they are mutilating themselves.

Charles Glass was ABC News’s correspondent in northern Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He covered the Iraqi rebellion in 1991 and is writing a book on the Mideast for HarperCollins.