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In the past few weeks, tractors and bulldozers have been digging relentlessly in the soil of El Bireh, next to Ramallah, in the West Bank. The city's northern and northeastern edges are now blocked by mounds of earth, piles of stones and trenches. At first glance, you might think these are fortifications for defense against an invasion. A few sandbags are heaped on one of the mounds of earth, like potential firing stations. This mound faces a hill on which Israeli tanks are positioned, tanks that have already descended from their stations and moved into the Palestinian-controlled Area A several times, or have shelled some of the houses in the neighborhood.

The impression that these are fortifications is only reinforced by the sight of the roads that lead from the north and northeast of the city and connect it with Area C, Israeli-controlled territory. In recent weeks the Palestinians have blocked the roads to vehicular traffic, digging ditches in the middle of the road at some points and placing cement-filled barrels along them. In other places the asphalt has been dug up and iron bars stuck into the road and held down with cement. Pairs of iron rods, one crossing the other, now jut out across the width of the road, leaving only a very narrow space for cars. Tanks, if and when they try, will not be able to enter Area A very easily. The result is the creation of a no-man's land, blocked to cars, between the concrete blocks laid down by the Israeli army and the bars and rods put in place by the Palestinians. This continues to confuse local residents when they try, as if in a labyrinth, to find a way out of their neighborhood.

A second glance makes it clear that these are not only fortifications and deployments for battle. Alongside the earth mounds are massive concrete pipes: the El Bireh Municipality is hooking up the northeast neighborhood to the sewerage system. The concrete is made in Israel, by the Wolfman company, as its stamp on every pipe shows. The same name is stamped on the concrete blocks that the army installs at the entrance to Palestinian towns and villages to stop the movement of Palestinian vehicles.

People live this duality constantly: between fortifications and preparation for military campaigns, and the building of infrastructure projects and of private and public structures; between the fear that the war - in the form of a shell fired by a tank - will reach their front door, too, and not just that of the neighbors across the way, and the natural desire to improve their quality of life. The youngster of the house is out taking a karate lesson, the parents boast about his yellow belt, his older brother is making a kite with dad, while from the valley below come the explosions of stun grenades and tear gas canisters, as the army moves to prevent students of Bir Zeit University from bypassing the roadblock.

Other children, less fortunate, are sent by themselves or their parents to stand at road intersections and sell drivers who stop for a red light the daily paper Al-Quds or tissues or gum with a strange taste. This is the manifestation of the natural desire of refugee families who are trying to climb a few millimeters above the poverty line. At night, at those same intersections, police take up positions and look into cars that dare to drive by at such a late and dangerous hour. Sometimes they will tell drivers not to proceed straight ahead because there is shooting from and at the settlement at Psagot. Even though Nablus, the home of the stock exchange and the business capital, is also blockaded by mounds of earth, some businessmen get to the city. Some, wearing suit and tie, carrying an attache case and a cloth duster in their pocket to wipe the dust off their shoes, make the journey from one roadblock to the next riding a mule.

Close to midnight last Saturday, about 30 workers set out for jobs in Israel from the refugee camps of Nablus. Even though they had no permits; even though there were roadblocks along the way and on the Green Line; even though it was dark and soldiers lay in ambush. This too reflects the Palestinians' aspiration for normality. Hunger makes everyone crafty, said the neighbor of Khalil Sarafandi. Primo Levi wrote the same thing about Italians in far-off times. Hunger and concern for the family overcome even the fear of traveling by unmarked roads, in the dark, between dozens of uniformed and undercover Israeli army units.

Sarafandi, 50, from the Askar refugee camp, was one of the 30 workers. He was killed after midnight on Sunday by the army at a surprise stone roadblock south of Jenin. He was on his way to his job in Ramat Gan. Husni Abu Lail, 19, worked as a porter. He slept under a bridge on weekdays and returned to his home in Balata refugee camp once a week. He was killed, too. Balata, people say without surprise, is also one of the bastions of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs, the body of militant Fatah activists.

Israel is still a source of livelihood for many and remains the principal market for basic commodities. And, of course, it also sends in the tanks and the soldiers who fire shells from them and the bulldozers that destroy tent dwellings in the southern Mount Hebron region. Just like the Wolfman company's concrete, which is the material out of which the misery-making roadblocks are built, but also the material that is now being plunged into the ground to protect the pipes of the new sewerage system.