Betwixt, between, bewildered
It used to take five minutes by car for members of the Zawahara family to get to Beit Sahur. Then it was 15 minutes on foot. And then the electronic fence was installed.
It used to be, up until seven years ago, that the name was apt: the Umm al-Assafir neighborhood, the neighborhood of the "Mother of the Birds." The birds were seen and heard all over the broad, stony expanse between Beit Sahur and the Mar Elias Monastery. For several years now, the bird song has been replaced by the din of bulldozers, and then the sounds of shooting, and then again the bulldozers and the tractors. Now the name has remained and the birds have gone, says Hussein Zawahara, who lives there. His brother-in-law Ahmed even worked for a while on one of those tractors, a tractor belonging to an Israeli company that scratched and dug into the earth of the area in order to stretch the separation fence known as the "Jerusalem envelope" south of the capital. The fence - actually three fences, one of them of coiled barbed wire, with a security road in between - closes in on Beit Sahur.
"Ahmed worked because he had to earn a living after months of not finding work, and shut us and our neighborhood in behind the fence," says Hussein sarcastically.
This is not exactly a neighborhood. These are two small stone houses built over two caves that once served as residences, another two tin-and-aluminum structures that serve as storehouses, a pen for the flock of sheep, 120 head, and a few plots sown with vegetables and planted with trees. This has been the home of the extended Zawahara family for some 55 years now: elderly parents and another six families including some of their sons and some of their nephews. A total of about 40 people, of whom 23 are children - babies, toddlers and schoolchildren.
The nearest houses in Beit Sahur are about 400 or 500 meters away, and between them and the village there are stones, a road that was once made for cars and a path worn down by the inhabitants' feet over time.
Ahmed, with his tractor, did not exactly "shut them in": The area is open and expansive; the gullies and the hills spread eastward to the minaret of a mosque dwarfed by the distance, and even on a hot day, pleasant breezes blow there. It is hard to apply the words "closed in" to the feeling of space the place creates.
This sense of space is also almost undisturbed when you look straight out from the Zawahara home toward Jabal Abu Ghanim to the north of Umm al-Assafir, perhaps 800 meters as the crow flies to the peak, 80 meters on foot to the slopes of the high hill. The woods there were uprooted long ago, and in their stead the Israeli Har Homa neighborhood is relentlessly being built, a neighborhood like any other in Jerusalem. Its crowded buildings covering the entire hill bring to mind a modern fortress, but that is the way of the world, say the family members, and they even admit that they have derived at least some benefit from the construction of this neighborhood: At the beginning of the infrastructure work there, in 1997, their two houses were also hooked up to the electricity grid (of the Palestinian company, which buys electricity from the Israel Electric Company).
A shout away
Nevertheless they are shut in. Imprisoned in the expanse between the Jerusalem envelope and Har Homa. The fence began to go up behind their rocky hill about a year and a half ago, due to pass between them and the nearby houses of Beit Sahur (which is listed in their identity cards as their place of residence). Its construction first of all affected their source of water: The Bethlehem municipality had laid a water pipe not to their houses, but to a point that is a little beyond the outermost section of Beit Sahur. At the end of the pipe, a water gauge was installed in their name, and they attached a rubber hose to fill the small tank on the roof. Because of the fence this hose was cut off and now they draw water sparingly from the well in the yard of the house.
Before the intifada they drove to Beit Sahur on the dirt road they built at their own expense among the rocks. A five-minute drive and they were in the heart of the village. At the beginning of the intifada, the Israel Defense Forces piled up a dirt roadblock on the route. So they walked. From May 2002, until about two months ago, June 2003, the work on the separation fence continued and a winding asphalt road was paved along the route of the fence, from Hebron Road (at the Gilo Junction) to the Palestinian neighborhood of Nuaman, to the east of them. But there was a gap in the fence through which the family continued to go on foot. Not so bad: 15 minutes instead of five, and they were in the heart of Beit Sahur. They would leave the car there, at the home of one of the brothers who had long ago moved to the village itself.
But in June 2003, the third, electronic, fence was put up and the gap disappeared. Beit Sahur was now far away from them, at a distance that cannot be measured in meters, but in military orders and government decisions and commanders' instructions.
Ostensibly, there is nothing easier than getting on to the network of roads that links Har Homa to Hebron Road, to the west, and then going south in the direction of Bethlehem and its twin, Beit Sahur. A two-minute drive. Two kilometers at most from the house to the entrance to Bethlehem, which today is a fenced-in and fortified roadblock.
But this segment of Hebron Road was annexed to Jerusalem, Israel. And the members of the Zawahara family, as residents of the West Bank, are forbidden to enter Jerusalem without entry permits from the Civil Administration and its office in the Etzion Bloc. But there are no permits. If there are permits, they are for only one or two members of the family, whose veteran employer in Beit Shemesh or Netanya has managed to obtain the permits for a period of a month or two. Regular and frequent patrols by Border Police forces along the wide roads of Har Homa and the area between Hebron Road and the rocky hill ensure that they will not violate the order preventing them entry into Jerusalem. No one wants to be arrested or fined for being illegally in Israel, even if it's only a shout away from their home.
Only a short trip
In the meantime, the expanse remains open to the east - or, more accurately, it remains open as long as the workers don't continue the construction of the fence along the route that apparently will lead in the end to the Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim. This expanse, an hour's walk among the hills and the wadis (which gets longer especially if the children come along) is the family's link to their everyday world: school, the grocery store, family, medical care, the fruit and vegetable shop that Hussein owns, the market where they used to sell their sheep's milk cheese but have now stopped. How much can they carry, really? At the end of this expanse, it is necessary to coordinate with one of the relatives who lives in Beit Sahur so that he can come with his car and drive them onward, in a huge circuit around the village. If he can't come, it is another hour's walk.
Before the school year began this week, the Zawaharas moved all the children to homes of relatives in Beit Sahur. They will stay there during the week and then come home every Thursday. It is crowded, it is not comfortable. "But what can we do? We aren't going to put them in a hotel," says Hussein. The children obey reluctantly. They like their wide open space, with the goats and the rocks and the pleasant breeze. They find the city crowded. "But learning is more important than all of that," say the fathers, Khalil and Hussein.
The grandfather, Said, about 65, is worried about two things: He can no longer sell his sheep, because no one will come to him to choose a sheep, and he is afraid that he will fall ill and will not be able to get help.
"A week or two ago he felt poorly in the middle of the night," related his son Ahmed. "We preferred that he remain at home, that he die in his bed if necessary, rather than walk to the doctor in the middle of the night. Maybe a soldier would shoot him or maybe a scorpion would sting him."
At the beginning of August, Hussein fell ill and came down with a high fever. He was taken to a hospital in Bethlehem, not before his family took the trouble of getting him a permit to enter Israel. That is, Jerusalem. That is, the kilometer and a half of Jerusalem that separates their home from the Bethlehem roadblock.
Another time the Border Police came to the house and ordered five of the men who were at home to report to the roadblock to "meet with" the Shin Bet security service. They rode there in a Border Police vehicle. They waited for the Shin Bet and it didn't come. In the end the policemen allowed them to go home. They tried to get into a Ford Transit van with Israeli license plates, considered public transportation in East Jerusalem. The driver asked to see their identity cards. When they said they wanted to go to Beit Sahur, he said, "Forget it" - even though it was only a matter of about a two-kilometer trip, through the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa. According to police orders, and with the aim of enforcing the IDF closure procedures, an Israeli driver who takes Palestinian passengers on forbidden roads (in Israel and in the West Bank) will be fined NIS 5,000 and have his vehicle confiscated for a month.
Life in a cave
The family members relate their travails and laugh. They are not resigned, on the one hand, but, on the other, they "aren't angry, because what good would being angry do?" Said, the grandfather, was born in Jerusalem proper. He lived with his family in Jurat al-Einab - "near the Cinematheque of today," explains Hussein and adds, "together with Jews." Not in a building, but in a cave - leading a half-nomadic, half-sedentary way of life. Said's family raised goats and lived in a cave, and it turns out that there was a certain Jew, Moshe - "I forget his last name; he spoke Arabic better than I do" - who also raised goats and lived in the same cave.
When the fighting started, in order to ensure that they would be able take their goats out to graze, Said's family hastened to their land in Umm al-Assafir (to an area on which there are two caves, which the father of the family had wisely purchased earlier). "Back then, war wasn't an ordinary thing like it is today," explains Khalil and laughs. "They heard one shot and fled. Now, when a day goes by without shooting, we ask `What happened?'"
In 1967, when the West Bank was occupied, that same Moshe made inquiries as to what had happened to them, related Said, his eyes brightening as he recalls the joy of that meeting. They slaughtered a sheep to celebrate the event. But in the first intifada they lost touch. In 1985, they built the first stone house and moved into it from the cave. Later they added the second stone house.
Without anger, and indeed with a kind of resignation, they talk about the prohibition on building on their land, 24 dunams (6 acres) that were purchased more than 50 years ago. Fifteen years ago they wanted to build another story, from cement blocks, and build a room in the yard. "Officials came from the Interior Ministry and told us it wasn't allowed," says Hussein. He is convinced that the prohibition still stands, even if opposite them thousands of housing units are being built on Har Homa.
As it was officials of the Interior Ministry and not of the Civil Administration who came, is it possible to conclude that the area had been annexed to the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, even if they remained residents of the West Bank? The members of the Zawahara family have no idea: No one has ever told them. They did not want to sell their land, although they could have done it long ago. Most of the land around them, which had been privately owned by other residents of Beit Sahur, was eventually sold to Israeli authorities. This is an open secret which they don't like to mention.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) intervened on their behalf with the military authorities. On June 12, 2003, ACRI sent the first letter concerning them to Colonel Shlomo Politis, the legal advisor for the Judea and Samaria area. On June 16, they sent a second letter, and on August 18, a third. In between they phoned his office a number of times, asking the legal advisor to see to it that "the inhabitants of the neighborhood are ensured safe passage to the city of Beit Sahur - and immediately." Up until this week, they have received no reply, neither from Politis nor anyone else in the military.
And as for the members of the family, who are not angry and yet are not resigned to the decree, all they want now is for the IDF to give them a permanent entry permit to the kilometer- and-a-half stretch along Hebron Road, on the way to the Bethlehem roadblock.
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The spokesman of the Jerusalem Municipality has responded that Beit Sahur is not within the city's jurisdiction, and that the neighborhood of Umm al-Assafir and the family are not known to the municipality.
According to the IDF Spokesperson, this is a dwelling that is located within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and is therefore on the northern side of the barrier. According to the spokesperson: "The route of the barrier was determined according to security considerations and with an effort to minimize the damage to the innocent Palestinian population's fabric of life and to find the best solutions to the everyday problems that result from the reality of the fence."
The military and Civil Administration authorities, it was also stated this week, "are aware of the complexity of the issue, and in the coming days permits will be issued through the Civil Administration that will allow passage to Beit Sahur through Jerusalem."
And, indeed, on Tuesday evening, following a Haaretz appeal to the authorities, Border Police soldiers came to the Zawahara home and informed the family that permits to cross through the Bethlehem roadblock were waiting for them at the Etzion Civil Administration offices. On Wednesday, in the absence of permits, the family members walked through the wadi to the east and received, at Etzion, about 20 permits for transit through the roadblock: One of them received a permit that is valid for a month, and the rest - for seven days, between 5:00 A.M. and 7:00 P.M., on foot and not by car.