Israeli security fence becomes big barrier for some farmers

JAYYOUS, West Bank - The Palestinian farmers living here in a tiny collection of squat homes built on steep, narrow roads of broken asphalt used to be considered wealthy, at least by the standards of their neighbors.

Expansive olive groves stretched out over the hilltops, tomatoes grew large and cucumbers tasted sweet. The 500 families enjoyed the benefits of eight water wells, sunk deep into the hard ground, enough to irrigate the parched soil even as the sun baked it dry in the rainless summer.

But a 215-mile security fence being built by Israel to protect against suicide bombers has cut Jayyous off from all but one of its wells, turning the once succulent fields from bright green to dusty brown.

The wells, though still firmly in the West Bank, are now on the Israeli side of the fence. While the army allows farmers to cross to tend their crops, soldiers along the 95 miles of fence already built refuse to open the gates for tanker trucks, which in the past carried water from the wells to village cisterns.

"Everybody, day and night, comes to see me," said the mayor of Jayyous, Fayez Hassan Salim. "And all they talk about is water."

This is not an isolated case. Israel is seizing hundreds of acres of West Bank land, plowing through fields, cemeteries and homes, and even splitting families to erect the 10-foot-high electronic fence, most of it iron mesh topped by coiled barbed wire and protected by trenches and a buffer zone 65 yards wide. In some stretches, the fence becomes a solid wall of concrete 26 feet high.

Along the way, Palestinians say, essential aquifers are ending up on Israel's side of the barrier.

Abed Rahman Tamimi, the director of a nongovernmental water agency based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, accused Israel of purposely confiscating the natural underground springs that feed lands producing more than half of the West Bank's agricultural products.

"When the wall is complete, the control of the discharge, quantity and quality of Palestinian water will be under their control," Tamimi said, adding that he has urged the Palestinian Authority to cease talks with Israel until construction of the fence stops.

"Israel is creating facts on the ground for future negotiations," he said, accusing Israel of trying to prevent a Palestinian state even as it professes to be building one as part of a U.S.-backed peace plan. "What's the benefit of holding negotiations if the Israeli bulldozers are drawing the maps?"

Israeli officials deny that the project, which is costing hundreds of millions of dollars, is meant to appropriate water reservoirs or land that could someday belong to a Palestinian state. The fence is necessary, they say, to stop attacks against Israeli citizens.

"There are many cases in history in which water has been the cause of wars between mankind," said Rachel Naidek-Ashkenazi, a spokeswoman for Israel's Defense Ministry. "I don't think that is going to be the case here. This is a security fence, not a political fence. There is no problem for the people of Jayyous to cultivate their lands."

Israel began building the barrier in the midst of a deadly campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks by Palestinian militants last year. The first section of 95 miles, with 41 gates, has been completed in the north.

It is far more than a simple fence. Rather, it has taken on the look of a border between warring nations, with its wide buffer zone winding through the rugged wilds of the West Bank like a mighty river carving out a path no matter what lies ahead. While Israeli officials stress that they have in some cases altered the route to avoid orchards and homes, they make it clear that security concerns override all other issues.

The electronic fence, running down the middle of the wide buffer zone, is designed to set off an alarm that alerts police patrols to any touch. A thick metal beam runs along the bottom to prevent cars from crashing through. A road wide enough for a tank runs along either side, and there's a groomed track of sand to detect footprints, along with another row of barbed wire.

In some areas, near the Palestinian cities of Tulkarm and Qalkiliya, where the barrier comes close to Israeli homes, Israel has replaced the mesh fence with 26-foot-high walls made of towering concrete slabs. The two walled sections account for about five miles of the full length of the barrier, which when completed will stretch more than 215 miles.

The fence - which Palestinians have dubbed an "Apartheid Wall" - does not follow the contours of the so-called Green Line, the recognized delineation between the West Bank and Israel, whose final borders remain unresolved and subject to negotiations.

In many places, the fence dips deep into the West Bank to enclose Jewish settlements roughly a dozen miles from the Green Line so that they fall under Israel's protective curtain. Jayyous, for example, is seven miles east of Israel, as marked by the Green Line.

Up to 60,000 acres and 31 wells have been cut off, putting about 500 Palestinian farmers out of work. More than 10,000 people in a dozen Palestinian villages find themselves on the Israeli side of the fence, prohibited from traveling into Israel proper and now in need of permits to visit their West Bank neighbors on the other side of the fence.

The United Nations Development Program concluded in a report released last week that stripping the land for the portions of the fence built thus far has destroyed an additional 200 acres, 10 miles of U.N.-built roads, and 83,000 olive and fruit trees. The report says that 63,000 Palestinians are cut off from their land.

President Bush has criticized the fence on several occasions, describing it as a "problem" while at the same time acknowledging the difficulties involved. After pressure from the White House, Israel temporarily halted plans to extend the fence farther into the West Bank to encompass three large Jewish settlements, which would have essentially split the northern half of the West Bank.

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has warned Israeli officials that the snake-like route of the fence gives the appearance of a political border rather than a security buffer. Administration officials have said they are considering withholding some of the $9 billion in loan guarantees recently approved for Israel.

A group of foreign nationals has been protesting the fence daily, often clashing with Israeli soldiers and police, who last week shot rubber-coated bullets when demonstrators threw stones. Today, another large march is planned in Qalkiliya. Palestinian children in the city near Jayyous are to paint pictures on the concrete wall depicting life before the barrier.

Israeli army officials vigorously defend the fence, setting up a comprehensive Internet site to explain the project and asserting that the fence is designed "to save lives, not to annex territory." The Web site states that the land used for the fence was "seized for military purposes" but still belongs to the owners.

"The course of the route reflects a balance between operational and humanitarian concerns, as well as ecological considerations," it states. "Every effort has been made to minimize the infringement on the daily life of the Palestinian population."

The Web site states that contractors have replanted 60,000 olive trees and that "special attention has been paid to water reservoirs, wells and pipes." Naidek-Ashkenazi said that rusted pipes linking wells to Palestinian villages on the other side of the fence were dug up and replaced with newer pipes.

That does not help the residents of Jayyous, who said they never had water pipes. Instead, trucks went to the wells to draw water and fill up cisterns used for drinking water and crops. Now, the only motorized equipment the army allows to cross the fence are tractors.

"Our agriculture has been totally destroyed," Salim, the mayor, said as he stood on the roof of his house high on a hilltop. From there, he can look down at the fence, his own olive groves on the other side and small buildings covering the wells that he now fears are lost forever.

"They've stolen our land and our water," he said. The village government is out of money, he said, unable to pay mounting bills for diesel fuel needed to run the generators that provide electricity.

From his roof, Salim can hear the daily pounding of jackhammers and watch convoys of dump trucks escorted by army jeeps removing piles of rock and sand. He didn't know until September, he said, that the fence would cut through his land. A shepherd found a small note nailed to a tree deep in an olive grove, warning in broken Arabic that the mayor's land had been confiscated.

With the help of a human rights group in Jerusalem, Salim protested to Israeli courts, but the judges sided with the state's security concerns. The next month, Salim watched quietly as bulldozers plowed through a wide swatch of his grove. A month ago, the fence went up.

Salim, 57, worked for years in the Persian Gulf as a vocational teacher, leaving his wife and seven children behind in Jayyous. He returned five years ago and poured his savings into buying more than 100 acres of olive trees. Now, all he has left are the stumps of what Israeli construction crews cut down, he said, with 80 percent of his remaining fields on the other side of the fence.

"My heart was broken," he said. "I worked all my life to get this, and now I have lost it."

Salim and the village farmers complain that the soldiers open the gates only sporadically and sometimes humiliate them during identification checks.

Last week, Salim said, border police officers confiscated one man's ID card and strung it around the neck of one of the man's sheep before sending the animal running. The sheep returned, card still intact, hours later.

"This isn't security," the mayor said. "This is hatred."

Naidek-Ashkenazi said that the gates in the fence provide the balance necessary to maintain Israeli security and Palestinian livelihood.

"Of course, if they use the gates to get terrorists in," she said, "they will no longer be considered agricultural gates. I think all of them know it."

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