Jerusalem Arabs Look to God for Answer

July 7, 2008 - 8:14 PM

Jerusalem ( - Arab residents of Abu Dis on the outskirts of Jerusalem are hoping God will come up with a solution for Israel's security fence, which has bisected their community and cut off the livelihoods of many.

Just a few years ago, Abu Dis was touted as the seat of government for a future Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Now it is one of a handful of places where the security barrier is actually a giant wall.

In 17 days, the International Court of Justice in The Hague is scheduled to hear arguments on the legality of the controversial barrier. Palestinians argue that Israel is drawing a de facto border, building the fence on land that the Palestinians want for a future state.

Although, most of the international community has opposed the route of Israel's fence -- which juts into the West Bank to surround Jewish communities -- Israel and some 30 other nations, including the U.S., have submitted arguments against the jurisdiction of the court to hear the case on the grounds that it is a political issue.

Israel says the barrier has become a tangible part of its defense against terrorism, helping to stop dozens of terrorists from entering Israel.

Had the Jerusalem section been completed before last week, Israeli officials said, it might have stopped a 24-year-old Palestinian policeman from coming into Jerusalem where he blew up a bus, killing 11 Israelis.

Manbara Valdi Tzadik, 35, a foreign worker from Ethiopia, was buried in Jerusalem on Friday. Her body was so mangled it took forensic experts more than a day to realize that there had been an eleventh victim.

Abu Dis is next to the Biblical town of Bethany, where tourist buses used to go regularly. Now there are few people on the streets, and businesses have few customers.

What used to be the main Jerusalem-Jericho-Jordan road is now blocked by 30 foot-high slabs of gray concrete that not only cut off the road but have divided the Palestinian residents living in the once-thriving village of Abu Dis.

The wall, spray-painted with slogans in English, including "Welcome to the Abu Dis Ghetto" and "Blessed are the Peacemakers," is part of a security system that is costing Israel more than $1.5 billion.

Munir Khatib, 38, owns a gas station at the corner of the wall. The gas station used to provide for Khatib, his five brothers and their families - some 30 people - but now it is part of a closed military zone, unable to operate.

Khatib used to walk 5-10 minutes to get to work. Now he has to drive an hour to go around and through neighboring villages to even arrive at the gas station.

"We pray to God to make a solution," said Khatib. "It's part of Jerusalem."

Hassan Ekermawi owns the store his father started next to the gas station in 1962. The doors were open but there was no business.

"We've been working to live a good life but now we don't bring [even] one [piece of] bread [home]," he said. "This was the main road to Jordan - Jericho and now they cut the road, cut our houses and families."

Ekermawi charged that Israel was trying to force the Palestinians to flee from Jerusalem. "We can't pay taxes now, can't pay arnona [property tax], maybe they [will] throw us outside," he ventured.

Ekermawi said he had relatives who left in 1948 during Israel's war of Independence. "But I don't make the same mistake. I will stay in my home. I will never leave," he said.

Israel says the fence is a temporary barrier and can be taken down at any time. Land for its construction has been leased from the owners for three years, with the option to extend the lease if need be.

"No land has been expropriated," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled. The owners have all been offered compensation for the use of the land, he said. "Usually they are scared to take what Israel offers them."

Khatib said no one had offered him compensation.

What baffles Khatib and Ekermawi the most, they said, is that the fence is dividing Palestinians from Palestinians rather than Palestinians from Israelis.

An Israeli military source could not say why the barrier specifically cuts through the middle of Abu Dis.

According to the Defense Ministry website, "The route of the security fence is derived from topography, population density and threat assessment of each terrain compartment."

At first glance, the wall in Abu Dis seems to be in an arbitrary location. It may end up blocking the only entrance of one house when it is completed.

But on the other side of the wall sits what was known as the Palestinian parliament building.

During better times in the peace process, Abu Dis was suggested by some as the fulfillment of a Jerusalem capital for a Palestinian state. A large and grand building then under construction in Abu Dis was said to be the future home of the Palestinian parliament.

In the spring of 2,000, about six months before the outbreak of the intifadah, then- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was in the process of handing over Abu Dis to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. But an outbreak of violence put a stop to the land transfer.

Khatib said that when Palestinians spoke of Jerusalem as their capital, they had envisioned the entire city being separated, with a much larger chunk of it in Palestinian hands.

"No one can understand this because it divides Palestinians and Palestinians. No one can understand this wall," Khatib said.

"The solution will be from God. They [the Israelis] destroyed our business but they can't destroy our will, our life," he said.

When asked where he would rather live -- in Israel or a future Palestinian state -- he replied, "On the line.""

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