Portrait of a Palestinian Family Divided by Israel's Separation Barrier

The Khatibs are being kept apart by Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement in East Jerusalem, including the towering separation barrier.

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Ahmed Khatib walks with four of his six children along the separation barrier between the West Bank village of Hizme and Jerusalem, April 21, 2014.
Ahmed Khatib walks with four of his six children along the separation barrier between the West Bank village of Hizme and Jerusalem, April 21, 2014.Credit: AP

The six children of Ahmed and Rokaya Khatib shuttle between two parental homes during the week, spending time with their mother in Jerusalem or with their father in the West Bank.

Theirs is not another story of a family broken up by divorce.

The Khatibs are being kept apart by Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement in East Jerusalem, including a towering separation barrier of cement slabs that cuts through families and neighborhoods.

Their two homes, built on ancestral lands of their extended family, are just a mile (less than 2 kilometers) apart, but have ended up on opposite sides of the separation barrier. Rokaya and the children have Israeli permits to reach the Jerusalem house through a barrier checkpoint, but Israel has barred her husband on security grounds.

"We cannot live the life we want as a family," said Ahmed Khatib, 45. "It's not a normal life."

The dispute over Jerusalem forms the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and hope of finding a way to share the city has faded with the failure of the latest U.S. mediation attempt. A nine-month negotiating period, envisioned by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as bringing about a final peace deal, expired Tuesday with no progress on any issue, including the fate of Jerusalem.

The Palestinians seek to establish a capital in East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, while Israel's center-right government claims the entire city as its undivided capital. The fate of East Jerusalem is especially explosive because it is the home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites.

Some warn that the situation in Jerusalem is becoming increasingly unsustainable, particularly for tens of thousands of Palestinians whose daily lives are disrupted by the barrier and by Israel's permit regime, which bars most Palestinians in the West Bank from entering the city. In addition to seeing East Jerusalem as their spiritual capital, many Palestinians rely on the city for jobs, health care and other services.

"Jerusalem has been turned into a corked volcano ... and at some point it will erupt," said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and Jerusalem expert.

Israel says the restrictions are needed to keep out militants who targeted Israeli civilians in Jerusalem during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago.

"Israel wants to see a different reality of peace and co-existence," said government spokesman Mark Regev. Until then, security measures need to stay in place, he said.

The story of the Khatibs begins in the West Bank village of Hizme, near Jerusalem.

After Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967, it expanded the city limits into the West Bank and took land from more than two dozen villages, including Hizme. Israel then annexed the enlarged Jerusalem to its capital — a move not recognized by most countries in the world.

In all, about one-fourth of Hizme's 4,500 acres (1,800 hectares) ended up within Jerusalem's new boundaries, village officials said. This included 12 acres (5 hectares) owned by the family of Ahmed and Rokaya Khatib, who belong to the same clan. Still, family members were able to move freely between the properties because Jerusalem's new border was just a line on a map.

Ahmed grew up in Hizme, while Rokaya spent her childhood in a house the family built on the Jerusalem land after 1967.

"It was a deserted area," Rokaya's mother, Kifaya, 78, said of the vista around her Jerusalem home.

That changed in the 1980s, when Israel began building large neighborhoods for Jews on occupied lands to tighten its hold on East Jerusalem. Pisgat Zeev, a settlement of 50,000 people, sprang up next to the Khatibs.

In all, Jerusalem has more than 800,000 residents, including about 300,000 Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Ahmed went to prison in 1986, at age 17, for wounding two Israeli soldiers in an attack carried out by Fatah, the movement that a few years later was to lead the Palestinians to peace talks with Israel. Khatib said he got out in 1998, his sentence cut short for good behavior.

He married Rokaya and the couple had six children, ranging in age from two to 15. The family spent time in Hizme, but Rokaya was also needed in the Jerusalem house to help take care of two disabled sisters in wheelchairs.

Access to Jerusalem became a problem after Israel began building its West Bank separation barrier in 2002, in response to attacks by Palestinian militants.

In Jerusalem, the barrier often follows the post-1967 municipal lines, but at times loops into the West Bank to put open spaces on the "Israeli side" while dumping 60,000 Palestinian city residents on the "West Bank" side. The Palestinians say the barrier amounts to a land grab, and even senior Israeli officials have acknowledged that security wasn't the only consideration in drawing the route.

The Khatibs carry West Bank ID cards, which require them to apply for Israeli permission to enter Jerusalem. Ahmed Khatib said that until the end of 2008, he and his family could still cross through a checkpoint at Hizme through informal coordination with the troops at the checkpoint.

But then restrictions tightened and the family was asked to get permits. While his family was approved, Ahmed Khatib, now a civil servant for the Palestinian Authority, was denied on security grounds, presumably because of his prison stint.

"Security is just an excuse," said Khatib, who is trying to get the ban lifted in an Israeli court.

Israel's Civil Administration, which deals with Palestinian entry permits, confirmed the restrictions on Khatib.

Khatib wants his wife and children to maintain a presence in Jerusalem despite the difficulties, fearing a prolonged absence would expose the property to the risk of being seized by the authorities. As a result, the family usually spends most of the week apart.

According to UN figures, about 500 Palestinians with West Bank IDs are stranded in Jerusalem in cases similar to that of the Khatibs.

Some can cross the nearest barrier checkpoints through informal coordination with Israel or have temporary permits, while others have no special arrangements and are virtually confined to their homes for fear of arrest, according to a 2013 report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The Civil Administration said most in this group hold permits, but that some had sneaked into the city and are not eligible.

Seidemann, the Jerusalem expert, said the city's arbitrary boundaries have wreaked havoc with the lives of thousands of Palestinians.

"All this is the result of Israel taking a fictitious municipal line which had no practical implication between 1967 and the 2000s, and turning it into a hard physical border," he said.

Ahmed Khatib poses with four of his six children along the separation barrier between the West Bank village of Hizme and Jerusalem, April 21, 2014.Credit: AP

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