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Where the road is the barrier

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - The neighborhood that is called A-Ram is home to about 70,000 Palestinians, but much about the neighborhood and the residents' freedom of movement is about to change.

Workers in A-Ram are rebuilding the road that connects Jerusalem with the West Bank city of Ramallah and preparing the ground for erecting a concrete wall down the center, as the next stage of the barrier between Israelis and Palestinians.

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The west side of the road will be considered part of Israel; the east side, part of the West Bank. Passage between the two will be difficult at best. So owners of businesses here have to choose: They will be able to rely on customers from one side of the wall or the other, but not both.

A gas station manager on the Israeli side says he has to close. The owner of a furniture store already has moved his business from the Palestinian side to the other. The owner of a grocery store is contemplating leaving the neighborhood and moving closer to central Jerusalem.

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"It's a difficult decision," said Nadim Freij, whose family has run grocery stores since before Israel became a state in 1948. "I want to stay with the West Bank Palestinians. These are my people. But I can't make a living here anymore. What can I do but go?"

He is 60 years old with a clump of white hair, and he is ready to give up. "Today, no customers," he said, looking around at his well-stocked store, the only one in the area that sells liquor. "Yesterday, no customers. This week, no customers. It is for my sons. I am finished."

The barrier fence and wall being built by Israel has divided Palestinian villages, cut off farmers from their land and children from their schools. Israel maintains that the barrier is intended to prevent suicide bombers from reaching Israeli cities. About 125 miles of the estimated 430-mile barrier have been completed, including 18-foot-high walls separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem and Jerusalem from Abu Dis.

About a dozen suicide bombers have entered Jerusalem through the A-Ram checkpoint in the past three years, according to Capt. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army spokesman.

"This is a gateway from Jerusalem to the north," Dallal said. "There is no perfect way to draw a line in a built-up area. This is the most reasonable way. It's along the municipal border of Jerusalem. It's in a road. It doesn't take up anyone's land. If you don't build it here, you don't build it."

Israel's Defense Ministry is to officially unveil the A-Ram project today, including plans to modernize the checkpoint at Qalandiya, south of Ramallah, which will become the main crossing point between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem.

The main street here used to be crowded, lined by small stores and produce stalls sandwiched between two checkpoints - one to the south at the entrance to Jerusalem, the other about four miles to the north at the entrance to Ramallah.

Now, the street is a sometimes chaotic construction zone where Israeli police guard surveyors, backhoe operators and dump truck drivers.

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Many of the workers are Palestinians, including Hamad Abdullah, a 21-year-old who lives in the West Bank city of Nablus and whose presence here is technically illegal. He sought out the shade of a gas pump when he ate his lunch, a few feet from two Israeli border police officers who were there to protect him.

Abdullah earns about $25 a day to do what he describes as the "dirty work" of the Israelis. The irony of being guarded by Israelis was not lost on him. "If the Palestinian Authority would pay me half, I would sit home and do nothing," he said, adding that he is supporting his out-of-work parents and five younger siblings.

"I feel bad for what I am doing," he said. "I feel ashamed. The people around here call me a collaborator for helping the Israelis. But this wall will get built whether I help or not, so what can I do? There is no other work."

Abdullah was eating lunch at the Kawasmi gas station, a fixture in this neighborhood for 44 years. It is on what will become the Jerusalem side of the wall, but the new road will service only a few dozen houses and offices. The main traffic will be on the other side, where all the houses of A-Ram are.

"We don't have any clue what will happen," said Ratep Kawasmi, the station manager. "The Israelis are trying to isolate us, put us in a prison. I'm 42 years old now. What will I do? Where will I go?"

Freij, the grocery store owner, is about a mile up the street. His rent is paid through the rest of the year, and his landlord is unwilling to give him a refund. So Freij is stuck in A-Ram until January.

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"I will see what happens," he said.


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