Overnight, a Towering Divide Rises in Jerusalem


New York Times

Published: January 12, 2004

JERUSALEM, Jan. 11 — With a towering concrete slab lowered almost tenderly into a ragged street, Israel began drawing a hard line around Jerusalem on Sunday, walling it off from Abu Dis, an Arab village joined to the city for generations.

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can look like the stalest of stalemates, a furious standoff that defies measurement and maybe even change. But in this crowded neighborhood of east Jerusalem, the city's Arab section, there was something monumental, even defining, about the 30-foot slab descending from the twilight, just after a muezzin called the sunset prayer over the crane's roar.

Israel has begun work on other sections of the Jerusalem barrier, which it says is a necessary bulwark against suicide bombers. But it has not built in such a busy area or so close to Jerusalem's center and holy sites.

Bent with age, bundled in a shawl and white head scarf, Nadieh Shihabi, 90, picked her way past the growing barrier, crossing to her house on the Abu Dis side.

"I want to stay in my home," she said, wiping at tears.

Her daughter-in-law, Rada Shihabi, 53, replied, "You cannot." She would have to stay in Jerusalem with her family rather than risk separation, she said.

"Come and see your house for the last time," Rada Shihabi said gently.

Nadieh Shihabi said she had lost another house, in what is now a Jewish section of Jerusalem, in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

There were no camera crews and no demonstrators to witness as the mostly Arab construction crew showed up and began its task, under heavy military guard. The Israeli plans were announced some time ago, but no date was set publicly. The Palestinian leadership appeared caught flat-footed as construction began.

The prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, who lives in Abu Dis a couple of blocks from the construction site, was in another West Bank village, Qalqiliya, which is enclosed by the West Bank barrier. There, he attacked the "racist separation wall."

Israel says the new barricade is not a permanent, political border but a reversible security measure.

"I know that people are talking about the fence," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Sunday. "You know who built the fence? Terror built the fence."

Speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem, he continued, "If not for the terror, maybe we wouldn't have done it."

Mr. Sharon was referring to the entire barrier of concrete, ditches, fencing and barbed wire that Israel is building against West Bank Palestinians. Just Sunday, Mr. Sharon said, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in the West Bank after he spotted an Israeli patrol. No one but the bomber was killed or hurt. Mr. Sharon said the man had been headed for central Israel.

The longer West Bank barrier is to be joined to the one being built around Jerusalem, a roughly 21-mile stretch that will consume some West Bank land along the city's eastern outskirts. Planners have said only some segments will be solid concrete.

They also say they will include gates, but Palestinians say they fear that those gates will seldom be open, or that they will not be able to get the permits they will need to pass.

On the slope of the Mount of Olives, Abu Dis sits partly within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, and negotiators once saw it as the possible capital of a Palestinian state.

The idea was that Abu Dis could do politically what it had already done socially and commercially: smudge the line between Jerusalem and the West Bank.

But distinctions are getting sharper here, not blurrier. As he often does, Mr. Sharon referred to Jerusalem on Sunday as "the eternal, united, and undivided capital of the Jewish people."

The new wall will actually divide Abu Dis, keeping part of it on the Jerusalem side, separating neighbors and relatives who live just blocks or even a street apart.

Months ago, Israel built another wall against Abu Dis. But it is only six or eight feet high, and every day thousands of Palestinians climb over it or squeeze between its slabs. Taxis idle on either side, as children with backpacks, men wearing suits or carrying tool boxes, and elderly people make their way from Abu Dis, which has counted on Jerusalem for basic services like health care.

Bassam Zagari, 38, said that after the first wall was built, he stopped sending his son Ali from his home in Abu Dis to a special school in Jerusalem. Mr. Zagari was no longer getting enough business at his vegetable stand to afford the fees, he said, and because Ali, now 14, cannot hear or speak, Mr. Zagari was afraid he would not stop if he were called by an Israeli patrol.

Mr. Zagari's business has limped along thanks to commerce over the existing wall. "This will destroy us," he said of the new one. "Jerusalem gave life to the town."

With its base planted in a trench and its slabs slotted together, the wall going up on Sunday rose more than 25 feet above the ground and seemed certain to repel climbers.

"Look at the height of that thing," murmured one of the construction workers, a 42-year-old Israeli Arab, as the first slab went up. "What's the difference between a house here, and a house there?" he asked, indicating the facing sides of the street, the opposite sides of the barrier.

Much as Palestinian workers built many Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Arab citizens of Israel were building this section of wall even as they opposed its construction.

The 42-year-old man, who asked not to be identified, said that if he did not do the job, someone else would. "What we are doing is wrong," he said. "It's breaking my heart. But what can we do?"

As the construction workers unloaded a crane, it bowed a telephone wire strung in the path of the new wall, between what was being defined as strictly Jerusalem and strictly West Bank.

The Arab man climbed on top of a bulldozer. With a small pair of clippers, he cut the line.