Arab Town, Both Israeli and Palestinian, Divided by Shopping

Bartaa, straddling the Green Line, has brought together Palestinians and Israelis in a de facto economic free zone, but with some unable to cash in, the village is still split.

The Arab village of Bartaa, on the outskirts of Wadi Ara, lies halfway inside Israel proper and halfway over the Green Line. But the town is really remarkable for the economic boom it has undergone recently. And opinion over its transformation into a shopping mecca is, like most things in this town, divided.

Some see it as an inspiring story of coexistence, but to others, the market is a sign of how one side of the town is prospering while the other is falling behind.

Eyal Toueg

Since the construction of the separation fence in 2003, a kind of unplanned free trade zone has developed in Bartaa. The town is divided only by a small bridge over a tiny wadi and getting from one side to the other is simple and easy. On the Palestinian side of the village sits a huge market, which Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, reach by a quick turnoff from Route 65.

A survey by the Basma Local Council indicates that every day of the week no fewer than 20,000 cars enter the small village on their way to the market. The merchants are thrilled, but not everyone is rejoicing with them.

"Although the market is developing, it's helping mainly the Palestinian side," said Israeli council head Zidan Badran. "We're gaining two things from it: dirt and dust."

The village of Bartaa was built about 150 years ago by two clans from the Beit Jubrin region in the center of the country who came in search of additional sources of livelihood. Even today, the clan constitutes a substantial part of both sides of the village. The houses were built on either side of a wadi with a spring that supplied the village with water.

At the end of the War of Independence, the armistice line drawn up ran smack through the village. With the stroke of a green pen, the western side became Israeli and the eastern side Jordanian.

The residents didn't get upset. Although Jordanian soldiers stood on one side and the Israeli Border Police on the other, it was relatively easy to cross the border for family visits. The water source was also preserved for both sides. Still, a distance began to develop between them.

"We had to sneak in," said Rafat Kabha, a psychologist who is the head of the education department in the local council. "There's something off-putting about having to avoid soldiers." The changes that took place in daily life also created a distance. Studies in the Jordanian schools were conducted separately for boys and girls, the subjects of study were different as was the tax system. Naturally a separate city council was established in eastern Bartaa.

In 1967, the village was reunited, but Kabha says it was a "virtual unification." Some residents were under a military administration and received education and health services from the Jenin district, while in homes nearby they held Israeli identification cards.

When the separation fence was built at the start of the 21st century, it "bypassed" eastern Bartaa and included it in Israeli Area C, effectively putting it inside Israel. The official crossing point can be found four kilometers from there, near Reihan.

Cheap and easy

The fact that eastern Bartaa is totally accessible to both Palestinians and Israelis has turned it into a glittering business opportunity for the West Bank merchants. Since famous markets such as Bidia - which used to be visited on Shabbat by Israelis from all over the country to buy cheap merchandise - disappeared behind checkpoints, merchants understood that business could be moved to Wadi Ara. Jenin is a 15-minute drive from there, but why cross a checkpoint and deal with Palestinian policemen if you don't have to.

In the Bartaa market, where prices are 20 to 30 percent below other places in Israel, one can now find no fewer than 1,200 different shops, offering food, clothing, furniture, toys, gifts and more. A lot of merchandise comes from the Far East via Eilat and doesn't even cross the checkpoints. The market includes an area of garages, and in another part, Israeli trucks stand and load stones and marble.

Built without any planning, the market is concentrated along one very long main street, with a few alleys emerging from it, and two cars would have difficulty driving on it at the same time.

"On weekends it's impossible to move here," says Kabha. "This market has grown so much in recent years that in China they've already asked whether it's possible to visit and sleep in five-star hotel in Bartaa."

It is estimated that 80 percent of the Israeli shoppers are Arab and 20 percent are Jewish. Most of the merchants come from West Bank cities, with a small percentage of locals who identified the potential from the beginning. Those wanting to open a store in the market will find a difficult road ahead. Anybody already in isn't willing to give up the spot.

The economic prosperity of eastern Bartaa, whose present population is about 5,000, goes mainly into private pockets. A tour of the village streets reveals large unpaved sections, and 40 percent of schoolchildren in the western village arrive every morning from the eastern side.

The local council in the eastern side is supported by quite a number of international organizations, like USAID, which don't help the Israeli side, but the economic momentum is reflected in the money collected by a cooperative association established by the merchants and the residents, which is responsible for improving infrastructure.

Some on the Israeli side say off the record that the Palestinian side has far greater resources. The association is already paving a new bypass road that will help to solve the traffic jams. "At the moment this is a poor place, populated by people who are gradually becoming rich," said a local official who preferred not to be named. "You can see the development in the new houses and the cars, but not in the streets. There's a lot of money here under the mattresses."

The wild east

While the residents of eastern Bartaa are very pleased - those in the west are far less so. The market begins on the main street of western Bartaa, but 99 percent of it is in eastern Bartaa, so that the local merchants derive almost no benefit from the market. "We are the transition point from the Wadi Ara highway to the market," said Badran, the head of the Basma council. "Everyone passes by here, and they don't stop."

Kabha has a psychological explanation: "People see the Palestinian side as very cheap, and that may really be the case, although physically it's one area. We're very close by, but on the other side of the wadi they don't pay property taxes like here, the level of collection is not the same as here, and there's a lot of unreported work. They can permit themselves to be cheap. A Palestinian taxi owner can take five shekels per person to drive to the Reihan crossing, and wait for hours without work until the taxi fills up. An Israeli taxi driver can't live on that."

Kabha says the boom has ruined what was a nice village, creating a "headache."

"One there was a small and quiet village here, today we're part of the duty free shopping of Wadi Ara," he said. "I'm happy for eastern Bartaa, some of them are relatives of mine, but we, the Israelis, suffer from the noise and the air pollution, and don't benefit at all from the fruits."

He says the western side will only benefit once the whole area becomes an economic center: "We need thinking and investment by the government, because an orderly plan to set up a commercial zone could be the solution not only for Bartaa - but for all of Wadi Ara."

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