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Nasser Kuzmar, 30, could hardly speak for fear he would burst into tears. He managed to say, in a voice of a man in mourning, that on Tuesday September 24 the bulldozers arrived.

Earlier in the morning the surveyors came to make sure all the marks they had left in recent weeks on trees, bushes, stones and hothouses were still in place. These marks indicate the route of the separation fence, winding inside and between villages, 20 meters from houses through olive groves, hothouses, water reserves and wells. The bulldozers started uprooting trees in his village, digging in his family's land, approaching the grove his father planted 40 years ago.

In Ramallah, far from his family's village, Azbat Salman in the Qalqilya region, his brother Haled also spoke like a man in mourning. He had spent his childhood in the olive groves spread out on soft hills, among rocks that his brothers slowly removed to build vegetable hothouses among the shared village pastures.

"Most of all I'm worried about my mother," he said. "She has heart problems. My brothers tried to conceal from her that the bulldozers are already at work, but she'll soon hear and see for herself."

Less than three weeks after the Israel Defense Forces' official notification to the residents of the village, bordering on the Green Line, that the separation fence will pass through their lands and through some 30 other villages in the Qalqilya and Tul Karm regions, the bulldozers started working. The fence itself will destroy a "mere" few hundred dunams of land in all those villages, but large village areas will remain west of the fence, while others will be too close to it to enable access, as the villagers have learned from experience.

Geographer Halil Tufkaji, who has been studying the Israeli expropriation and settlement policy for years, calculates that some 80 thousand dunams belonging to 23 villages - from Kafr Salem west of Jenin to Jayos east of Qalqilya - would be lost.

Tufkaji says the built-up area of 12 of the 23 villages will be east of the fence while a considerable part of their lands will remain between the fence and the Green Line. Eleven of the villages, all in the north west of the West Bank, will be between the Green Line and the separation fence. Some 26,000 people reside in these villages, living off the land. The Palestinian local administration office says this concerns some 80 percent of the villages' lands.

The villages are Romana, Hirbat A-Taiba, Aanin, Baraa A-Sharkia, Tora A-Rarbia, Um Reihan, Al Akaba, Nazlat Issa, Nazlat Abu Nar, Baka A-Sharkia and Al Jarushia. The residents and mayors are still in the dark as to their legal status and how their life will be affected, living between the Green Line and the fence: will they receive special identity cards? How will they reach the neighboring villages east of the fence and the region's towns? What restrictions would be imposed on their movement, in addition to those already hampering all West Bank residents?

Tufkaji's careful calculations do not include Azbat Salman and the neighboring villages south of Qalqilya, which were the last to receive the IDF orders.

The only source of income

On Thursday, September 5, soldiers left a map and an order to seize lands for military purposes in the village mosque. The order summoned the residents to a tour of the lands to be expropriated the following day, Friday. Most residents did not bother to show up: they knew the die was cast.

"So what? The representative of the Civil Administration will see my 70-year-old father leaning on the tree he planted, hiding his tears? Will that change the mind of anyone in Israel? Will anyone in Israel think it might be better to build the fence exactly on the Green Line?" someone in the village said. The handful of villagers who did go on the tour said the surveyors had air photographs of the whole region, showing every tree.

The residents had one week to present their objections to the Civil Administration in Kedumim: look for documents proving their ownership or lease on the land, photograph maps (in the Administration office in the settlement), consult lawyers, prepare powers of attorney - all under curfew and closure, requiring them to slip through barriers, bypass roadblocks and evade military patrols.

At the end of last week it appeared that a misunderstanding with the lawyer prevented filing the objections in time. These would not have lifted the decree, but may at least have postponed it, villagers say.

A few days later surveyors escorted by troops came to hang red, pink and yellow ribbons on the green bushes and trees, marking rocks and hothouse canvases with red paint. The people concluded: Everything marked is lost. They did not even bother to stop work to remove the ribbons, cover red-scarred rocks and change the hothouse canvases. That might have "earned" them a day or two. But Azbat Salman and the neighboring Beit Amin don't believe in miracles. They know that two to three days would have changed nothing. Bulldozers, backed with military vehicles, have been poised near the Oranit settlement for three weeks.

People woke up every day to see from their windows the bulldozers waiting for the order "go." Yet, when they did begin, people were dismayed, as if they didn't know this would happen.

Since the pinkish ribbons have decorated the bushes and trees, Kuzmar has been forbidden to water his cucumbers in the hothouses and the orange and tangerine grove. As luck would have it, all his hothouses, including a large water reserve he built, are included in the area west of the concrete fence to be put up in the middle of the village lands. For years he and his brothers worked in Israel in various construction jobs. Part of the money was invested in the education of some of the brothers and sisters and the children. The rest went into the land. Already 20 years ago the Israeli authorities forbade village residents to build on its rocky, western hills, facing the new settlement Nirit. But they did not forbid working the soil.

Some ten years ago Nasser, like a few of his uncles, began leveling the land, removing rocks and stones, moving tons of rich, brown earth and building hothouses. In a few places they even uprooted olive trees. "They only bear fruit once in two years; the hothouses three times a year."

The family invested tens of thousands of dollars into its land and water reserves. As long as they could work in Israel they did so, spending the weekends in the hothouses.

In the last two years the hothouses and groves became their sole source of income, although that, too, was dwindling. It is hard to market Palestinian merchandise in the West Bank these days. The closure on every village and town prevents Palestinian farmers from getting to their natural markets. Guavas, olive oil, lemons, hot peppers and other products for which Qalqilya - dubbed "the vegetable garden of Palestine" - is known, cannot compete with the advantages of movable Israeli products. Even under siege and curfew, Israeli products manage to cross barriers, enter roads that are closed to Palestinian vehicles, overcome bureaucratic procedures and reach the shelves and market stalls of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Tul Karm.

Last year, says Kuzmar, sales did not cover the cost of watering the groves. Now, he cannot bring himself to waste the little cash the family has left to water cucumbers and lemons, soon to be crushed under the bulldozers, or to be inaccessible due to the well-guarded construction work on the fence.

Nasser and his brother, Zuheir, wander among the doomed hothouses, pointing to prickly pear bushes on the opposite hill, a kilometer away as the crow flies. There, exactly, they say, was our family's house before 1948. Just on the Green Line. Their family was told to choose where to live: Israel or Jordan. They chose to move to the Jordanian side, not for political reasons but simply because on the side which became Israel, they owned only 57 dunams, while on the Jordanian side they had 600. Now, with the separation fence, they would lose more than half of them.

A `Musalsal' since '48

Since the beginning of the `80s, they watched Israeli settlements being built around them. Nirit on the west, on the Green Line near the prickly pears on their former land; in the south, inside the West Bank, the frequently expanding Oranit settlement and Sha'arei Tikva, whose houses reach the houses of the village Beit Amin. They, in contrast, are forbidden to build in the area bordering on those settlements. The village fought 20 years ago against an order expropriating their land. Finally some 20 dunams of joint pasture land was seized and now they are in the security buffer zone separating between Oranit and their village.

Despite their proximity to the Green Line, despite the numerous settlements being built around them, the village is not connected to the national water system. The villagers have paid and are paying taxes to Israel, but found they had to foot the bill for developing a sewage system, build internal roads and pump water from a local well. They were connected to the electricity grid only a month ago. Until then a generator in the village provided power, but only for 15 hours a day. Due to the expanding construction in the surrounding settlements, a new power line was put up between Oranit and Alfei Menashe. Azbat Salman now gets electricity from that line.

About a year ago the authorities put up a fence separating Azbat Salman from Oranit. "We thought that was it, that they would leave us alone," said Nasser Kuzmar. The residents whose lands were on the other side of the fence were told they could go and work their land beyond the locked iron gate. But every time they tried to get a key to do so, they were given the "runaround," in their words. The ruined, arid land and neglected trees testify that promises such as "the land owners will be allowed to continue working their land" have nothing to do with reality. This will be the fate of all the agricultural land located west of the separation fence now being built, they believe.

In recent weeks the villagers have realized their fate will be no different from that of other villages, like Jayos and Falma, Faroun and A-Ras. They met the residents of these villages at a few ineffective protests in front of the bulldozers and military jeeps, from which soldiers warned them not come closer.

Building the fence will deprive Jayos of 10,000 dunams out of 13,000. Abu Ahamd, of Falma, came all the way to Azbat Salman for a demonstration, so he could at least pour his heart out over his 750 olive trees, groves and hothouses.

"Is this what Sharon wants?" he asks. "That we all become suicide bombers? He takes my land, he takes my soul. What need do I then have for my body?

"If they take everything, do they want me to be a pauper? How will I care for my little children? When my son cries and I can't take him to a doctor, I will either steal or die. I won't steal. I worked all my youth in Abu Dhabi to buy land and work it, so that my family has a future.

"Now they take from me all the fruit of my efforts all these years. How can there be peace? I worked in Kochav Yair's gardens for five years. People left me their house keys, the little children stayed in the house with me. I didn't feel we were enemies. Now they're turning me into an enemy. Do you think this fence will increase your security? It will do the opposite, because you leave us with nothing."

In the past three weeks Kuzmar has been watching his hand-planted cucumbers shrivel up and die and seen the lemon trees sentenced to slow death.

"This fence, you never saw anything like it," he says. "It's all zig-zag, there's nothing straight about it, and all to ensure that the Oranit and Alfei Menashe settlements are included in Israel. If they really thought of Israel's security, rather than ways to take what was left of our land, they'd build a fence right on the Green Line."

His father, 67, who planted hundreds of trees in the wadi and on hill slopes, soon to disappear behind a tall concrete fence and barbed wire fences, gazed at the prickly pear on the hill opposite, where his home once was. "This is a `musalsal' (a never-ending story) which started in 1948," he said.