‘It’s no longer a problem’: Israel’s increasingly porous barrier in the West Bank | Israel
It’s 6 a.m. and the espresso machine of an unusual new business is humming.
Owner Mohammed set up his breakfast kiosk near the West Bank town of Shuweika three weeks ago, and so far business has been good: hundreds of people pass their walk every day to get going to work, picking up bread, cucumbers and tomatoes as well as coffee and cigarettes.
Two years ago, Palestinians entering this 200-meter-wide part of the militarized ‘seam zone’ between Israel’s West Bank separation barrier and the 1949 armistice line were reportedly fired upon by Israeli soldiers . They are always patrolling a few meters away. But on a bright March morning, a steady stream of commuters passed by Mohammed’s new outfit and climbed a nearby hole in the fence, with the majority on their way to illegal construction, cleaning and farming work in the communities. Israelis on the other side. .
“It’s no longer a problem,” said the 30-year-old. “I’m just happy to find a good job. For years I made money in more dangerous ways.
“I can make $100 a day working there,” said a wavy-haired young man who wouldn’t give his name because he was crossing illegally. “Of course I will.”
Israel began work on the controversial West Bank separation wall 20 years ago to stem Palestinian terror attacks during the Second Intifada, but the reality of the multibillion-dollar project today is more fluid than it seems. it seems.
Despite the walls and fences, Palestinians have always managed to enter Israel. Although there is no data, residents of the West Bank have started crossing in increasing numbers in recent years in search of better-paying work. Previously, this involved playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) – but since the pandemic hit, the situation appears to have eased.
Dror Etkes documents illegal Israeli construction in the occupied Palestinian territories for his NGO Kerem Navot and spends most of his time driving around the West Bank in a dented Chinese car. He estimates that there are now hundreds of breaches in the barrier, which an unknown number of people use every day. The IDF might occasionally dig a new trench to stop vehicles, he said, but did not move to repair the fences.
“The Israeli public sold this wall as a necessary security measure. From what I understand, there has been a change in policy and the soldiers are now supposed to turn a blind eye to the arrival of the Palestinians,” he said.
“Israel knows it needs to relieve economic pressure in the West Bank and it benefits from cheaper labor. Which begs the question: if [the wall] is just an arbitrary construct, why is it here?
To date, only around 65% of the barrier’s planned route has been completed: construction has long been stalled due to a combination of internal politics, legal battles and international criticism. The majority of the barrier that has been built so far is inside the West Bank, rather than in Israel or on the armistice line.
To protect illegal Israeli settlements, some sections reach up to 22 km deep into Palestinian territory, dividing communities and leaving farmers dependent on Israeli permits to access their own land. Much of the sewing area is abandoned, littered with rubbish and used for unloading flies.
In densely populated places like Jerusalem, the barrier takes the form of an eight-meter-high concrete wall topped with concertina wire and cameras. In more rural areas, however, it is often made up of military patrol roads sandwiched between parallel metal fences, sometimes supplemented by barbed wire, trenches and sand strips to track footprints.
After meeting Mohammed, the Guardian visited five more points along a 22-mile (35 km) stretch of the barrier crossing the upper left corner of the West Bank. Holes had been drilled in the fences there to facilitate access to the Triangle, a cluster of predominantly Arab-Israeli towns and villages abutting the Green Line.
All of the gaps were large enough for adults to pass through comfortably; incongruously, some were next to locked doors, or near checkpoints and visible cameras. Some people said they had valid permits, but chose to use the breaches in the fence because it was quicker and easier than queuing at official terminals, where soldiers can interrogate them and to frisk.
In a statement, the IDF said, “Damaging the security fence to create passages that allow unguarded infiltration into Israeli territory is a security threat and a clear violation of the law.
“IDF soldiers are stationed on the other side of the security fence in accordance with the assessment of the situation. Troops use a variety of means in accordance with the rules of engagement.
Neither the Israeli Defense Ministry, which is responsible for maintaining the separation barrier, nor the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat), which implements Israeli government policy in the areas of the West Bank under its control, did not respond to questions from the Guardian. .
In the sewing area near Khirbat al-Aqaba, an elderly couple in an old corolla were waiting to meet their son, who came from the other side to pick up sacks of vegetables for the restaurant where he legally works. In the Arab town of Baqa, which was split in two after the establishment of Israel, a middle-aged woman dressed in her finery made her way through a hole in the fence and across a stream muddy road crossed by pallets of wooden goods to visit his sister, who lives on the Israeli side.
And near Umm al-Fahm, a break in the fence down the hill from what appeared to be an improvised checkpoint, manned by a group of local men not responsible for the security of Israeli citizens, was big enough for cars. Tire tracks in the sand suggested it was used for this purpose.
Very few people dare to cross when they can see an IDF patrol nearby, and there are always dangers. In May 2020, soldiers ambushed workers trying to cross near Faroun, shooting eight people in the legs.
But the ease with which people now use breaches in the fence – and the carefree attitude displayed by most – is a striking change. An old man trying to get from one side of Baqa to the other even fought back with an IDF patrol unit. Rather than make an arrest, they told him to bring his papers to the official checkpoint.
Until at least 2019, there were fewer gaps and crossings were usually organized by paid repairmen: those entering Israel had to cross dangerous sections, climb walls, under barbed wire and through drainage systems. , all under cover of darkness.
Unemployment in the West Bank has hovered around 25% for several years and wages are well below those in Israel. Once they arrived, many workers stayed in Israel for a week or more, avoiding the police or anyone who might report them, until they had earned enough to risk making the return trip. Even working without rights in sometimes dangerous conditions, the risk was worth it.
The pandemic has also reduced the ability of service and construction workers from Asia and Eastern Europe to come to Israel, so Israeli businesses’ appetite for cheaper Palestinian labor has increased despite the risk of raids, stop work orders and fines for employers who are caught.
Such a flow of people always poses an undeniable security challenge. Some of the illegal workers operating the crossing questioned whether the Israeli surveillance technology was sophisticated enough to monitor persons of interest from afar, or whether some of the Palestinian vendors, makeshift parking attendants and taxi drivers who now servicing the breaches are Shin Bet informants. , Israel’s internal security service.
For now, most seem happy to take advantage of the economic opportunities created by the increasingly porous barrier. On a windy plateau above Zemer, a local council in Israel created from the merger of four Palestinian villages, Mohammed Bakir, his son and several legal West Bank employees were using bulldozers to level the land near their home in the sewing area, hoping to cultivate the land.
After the Gilboa prison breakout last September, all crossing terminals were closed and its workers were unable to enter Israel for several days while authorities searched for the six escapees. The family know the status quo could change and they may have to scrap the project, but think it’s still worth a try.
From the top of the muddy plain, white blossoms of almond and hawthorn could be seen drifting over the trash and rubbish beside the fence below. The barrier snaked from left to right, a strange gray snake slicing the landscape before and after.