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Nearly 20 years on, Israeli barrier in the occupied West Bank shapes Palestinian lives

Nearly two decades after Israel built the barrier in Qaffin during a Palestinian uprising, it has become a seemingly permanent fixture even as Israel encourages its citizens to settle on both sides.

A section of Israel’s separation barrier divides the Israeli settlement of Modi’in Illit (right) and the West Bank village of Nilin, west of Ramallah.
A section of Israel’s separation barrier divides the Israeli settlement of Modi’in Illit (right) and the West Bank village of Nilin, west of Ramallah.
Nasser Nasser / AP

QAFFIN, West Bank — Three days a week, Palestinian farmers in the occupied West Bank village of Qaffin line up at a yellow gate and show military permits to soldiers so that they can tend their crops on the other side of Israel’s separation barrier.

The farmers say that, because of increasingly tough Israeli restrictions, they no longer can live off their land, which is suffering without proper cultivation. The olive groves just beyond the gate are scorched from a recent fire — firefighters also need permission to enter.

Nearly two decades after Israel sparked controversy worldwide by building the barrier during a Palestinian uprising, it has become a seemingly permanent fixture — even as Israel encourages its citizens to settle on both sides.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians navigate its checkpoints every morning as they line up in terminals to enter Israel for jobs in construction and agriculture. Farmers in Qaffin and dozens of other villages need permits to access their own property.

Israel says the barrier helped stop a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks by Palestinians who slipped into the country during the 2000-2005 uprising and is still needed to prevent deadly violence.

Eighty-five percent of the still-unfinished barrier is inside the occupied West Bank, carving off nearly 10% of its territory.

The Palestinians view it as an illegal land grab, and the International Court of Justice in 2004 said the barrier was “contrary to international law.”

In Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the barrier is a towering concrete wall several yards high crowned with barbed wire and cameras. In rural areas, it largely consists of barbed-wire fencing and closed military roads.

Along Israel’s main north-south highway, it’s concealed by earthworks and landscaping, so drivers get no more than a passing glance at the reality of military rule.

Palestinians in Qaffin say the wall has lopped off 1,100 acres of their farmland, all of it inside the West Bank.

Ibrahim Ammar says he used to grow crops including watermelon and corn but now is limited to olives and almonds because they require less attention. Even during the annual olive harvest, which began last month, he can enter his land only three days a week and must apply for permits to bring family members along to help.

“My father, my grandfather, they were totally dependent on the land,” he said. “Now, I can’t provide for myself and my children.”

He drives a taxi to supplement his income. Other villagers work menial jobs inside Israel and its West Bank settlements. One resident, frustrated by the restrictions, grows vegetables on the roof of his home.

“Three days is not enough to serve the land,” said Taysir Harashe, who was mayor of the village when the barrier was built. “The land is getting worse and worse.”

The United Nations estimates that 150 Palestinian communities are in a similar situation and that 11,000 Palestinians live in the so-called Seam Zone inside the West Bank but west of the barrier, requiring Israeli permits just to stay in their homes.

HaMoked, an Israeli rights group that helps Palestinians secure permits, says the farmers’ situation is worsening. It says data obtained from the military shows 73% of applications for permits were denied last year, up from 29% in 2014, with fewer than 3% denied for security reasons.

In 2014, Israel stopped granting permits to relatives unless they are listed as agricultural workers on larger plots. In 2017, the military began dividing larger holdings among the members of extended families and ruled that anything smaller than 3,500 square feet was agriculturally unsustainable. Owners of so-called “tiny plots” are denied permits.

“There’s no security justification,” said Jessica Montell, the director of HaMoked, which is challenging the regulation before Israel’s Supreme Court. “They’ve decided you own a plot of land that they think is too small to warrant cultivation.”

Asked about the restrictions, the military said its forces aim to “ensure a smooth fabric of life for all sides.”

Israel has always said the barrier wasn’t intended to delineate a permanent border, and some supporters said at the time that, by reducing violence, it would aid the peace process.

“The fence was built according to the needs of security only,” said Netzah Mashiah, a retired Israeli colonel who oversaw construction of the barrier until 2008. “We understood while building it that it might be a border in the far future... but this was not the goal of this fence.”

Israelis and Palestinians live on both sides, and Israel is building settlements and settlement infrastructure east of the barrier.

There have been no substantive peace talks in more than a decade, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and other territories Israel seized in the 1967 war.