The Middle East:

Commentary and Analysis

Kibbutzniks protest Israeli "Berlin Wall"

Kibbutzniks Offer Land to Palestinians in a Rare Protest Over Israel's 'Berlin Wall'

by Justin Huggler in the West Bank

Published on Sunday, October 13, 2002 in the lndependent/UK

Under the hot sun, a metal railing snakes its way incongruously through the hills. On one side are olive groves. On the other, huge banana plantations rear up. This is the Green Line, the 1967 border between Israel and the occupied West Bank and the setting for a very unusual meeting between Palestinian farmers and Israelis from a nearby kibbutz.

The Palestinians are not allowed to cross the railing into Israel, the Israelis are not supposed to cross it into the West Bank, but they meet here to talk together across the barrier. The olive groves belong to Palestinians from the village of Kafin, the banana plantations to Israelis from Kibbutz Metser. Although they have been neighbors for half a century, few could remember ever meeting like this before.

The reason for this extraordinary gathering is that the Israeli government is planning to build a wall to separate them completely. Not a metal railing like the small section here, which was begun a few years ago to stop cars crossing, but a full Berlin-style concrete wall that will carve its way through the hills, complete with pillboxes and Israeli snipers to shoot anyone who tries to cross it. The official reason is to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers crossing into Israel.

The wall will not run along the path of the Green Line, however. Here it will be some 400 to 800 yards east, cutting off the Palestinian farmers completely from their land for most of them, their only source of income.

But the Israeli government has run up against an unexpected source of opposition the people of Kibbutz Metser. There are few more potent symbols of Israel than the kibbutzim, the communes of Jewish families which encapsulated the spirit of the young country in its early days.

"We think if a wall has to be built here it should be built on the Green Line," said Dov Avital, a leader from the kibbutz. Dressed in the scruffy gray T-shirt and work trousers of a no-nonsense kibbutznik, he stood side by side with the neatly groomed Palestinian Mayor of Kafin, who was wearing a tie despite the intense heat.

"If land has to be destroyed, we offer our own land," Mr Avital went on. "If a wide strip of land has to be uprooted, we say it should be shared equally between both sides." In the distance the Israeli army had already begun cutting down Palestinian olive trees to make way for the wall.

The facts are stark. The planned course of the wall will cut off 80 per cent of the farming land from the village of Kafin. Most of the village's 10,000 people will lose all their income. There are supposedly plans to issue permits for Palestinian farmers to cross. But according to the Mayor of Kafin, the nearest gate in the wall will involve a six-mile detour. And there are no guarantees they will all get permits.

Kafin is not an isolated case. Throughout the West Bank, the wall will be a disaster for Palestinians. Long sections of it will not follow the Green Line, but will cut swathes out of Palestinian territory, permanently cutting off thousands of farmers from their land. Some Palestinian villages will be stranded on the Israeli side of the wall, but the villagers will not be allowed into Israel proper.

Some observers believe the reason for not putting the wall on the Green Line is that Ariel Sharon's government fears that could make it into a de facto border for a future Palestinian state.

"My father's land used to be over there, on the other side of the Green Line," said Ibrahiam Suleiman, one of the Palestinian farmers. "Now they are taking away what was left after 1948 [when the Palestinians were cut off from their land in the new state of Israel]." He has six children to support and no means of income other than his olive trees.

One of the Israelis from the kibbutz, Yohanan Margalit, was translating for Mr Suleiman, who spoke no English. We asked the Palestinian farmer what he would do. Mr Margalit, the translator, was visibly shocked at his answer. "He says all that is left for him is to die," he translated. "If they take your land from you, what else can you do?"

The Israeli shrugged. "I feel a little powerless to do anything about this," he said. "You can speak to your government, but they don't listen."

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