Breaches in Israel's Security Fence Are No Secret. Why Do Troops Still Ambush Palestinian Laborers Who Cross?

Every day thousands of Palestinian workers enter Israel via breaches in the security fence, between Jenin and Qalqilyah. Sometimes, however, the army ambushes them – and shoots them in the legs

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Workers going through a breach in the fence to jobs in Israel. Some make the crossing calmly, others are anxious.
Workers going through a breach in the fence to jobs in Israel. Some make the crossing calmly, others are anxious. Credit: Alex Levac

S.A. has an Israeli Rav-Kav bus card in his wallet. Every day he travels from his home in the West Bank city of Tul Karm to his construction job in Netanya; he specializes in removing nails from planks. S.A.’s workday is short – about three hours, for which he gets 150 shekels ($43). His commute typically begins in the late morning, when he takes a shared taxi from Tul Karm to Faroun. On the western outskirts of that village, just south of his city, he passes through the separation barrier, enters the city of Taibeh on the Israeli side and walks to the Ephraim Gate, the official border crossing. From there he catches a bus to Netanya. One validation of the electronic bus card takes him to his job in the seaside city.

The daily routine followed by S.A. could be normal, were it not for the fact that he doesn’t have a formal entry permit for Israel. At 65, he’s no longer young, but his gray T-shirt is emblazoned with the inscription, “Run like an animal.” This week, however, we saw him walking slowly.

He walked toward the separation fence in Faroun, held onto a pipe while climbing down into and then out of a security ditch, crossed a dirt path, went through a large – almost gate-size – breach in the barrier, crossed the road and instantly disappeared among the houses of Taibeh.

S.A. has six children and many grandchildren and is his family’s sole provider. Isn’t he afraid? He smiles and points to the heavens. “We want to live,” he says before leaving us and descending into the ditch. “We want to live” is what almost everyone who passed through the opening in the fence told us.

A young couple emerges from a yellow taxi; she’s pregnant, the man supports her. She’s originally from Tul Karm, he’s from Taibeh, where they now live. They’re returning from a visit to her parents in Tul Karm. No one checks people at the entrance to Tul Karm, but when leaving it, on the return home to Taibeh, there is a danger that the woman, who doesn’t have an Israeli entry permit, will be detained. So it is that the couple is forced to sneak back home through a breach in the barrier, hand in hand. A pair of lovebirds.

A bushfire at the western edge of Faroun has scorched and blackened the earth there, adding yet another dimension to the aura of abandonment, in this narrow strip of land between the village and the fence.

Nearby are two junked cars; two makeshift food stands, one selling freshly squeezed juice and the other sandwiches, both shut for the day; a small patch of eggplants, fenced in on all sides, amid garbage and desolation. The ruins of six houses that Israel demolished here in 2006 – they were too close to the fence – can still be seen, like a monument to injustice.

From the western side of the ruptured fence in Faroun, the houses of Taibeh are so close you can almost reach out and touch them. A few hundred meters to the north is the Sha’ar Ephraim terminal and beyond it Israel’s coastal plain shimmers in the west.

Palestinians going through a breach in the fence to jobs in Israel.

A young man carrying a heavy duffle bag, for what is apparently intended to be a long stay, emerges from a beaten-up blue Subaru, looks every which way to make sure there are no soldiers in the area, and runs toward the hole in the fence. Some make the crossing calmly, others are anxious. Soldiers haven’t opened fire from an ambush here for about a month now, but you never know.

We’ll see that blue Subaru a few more times during the day, delivering passengers and immediately departing. Its owner makes a living from the drive to the improvised border crossing – 20 shekels ($5.75) for the trip from Tul Karm, with no guarantees that soldiers aren’t lurking close by.

Every day about 500 Palestinians climb through the fence in this area en route to Israel, the Subaru driver says. The peak time here is between 4 and 5 A.M.

Abdulkarim Sadi, a local field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, estimates that there are some 300 breaches in the security barrier between the Jenin region in the north and Qalqilyah. Everyone knows, everyone is mum, everyone is fine about it.

“It’s like a terminal here,” says one of the people who helps smuggle workers through the fence. The Palestinians have learned to live with the fear and humiliation occasioned by this cat-and-mouse game. It’s the lesser of the evils. In fact, some people who have an entry permit to Israel prefer to cross here instead of at the checkpoint, in order to spare themselves the even greater humiliation of being questioned and searched.

A mother and father and their little girl arrive at the fence, accompanied by another smuggling contractor. They cross over in a frightened sprint, holding the girl so she won’t fall on the dirt path. The father is from Taibeh, the mother originally from Tul Karm, and they’re coming back from a visit to the grandparents in that West Bank city. There is no longer any official family unification scheme for Palestinians, only for Jews. The woman can’t get a permit to live with her Israeli husband in his city, so is there illegally, and the family is torn, as are many other Palestinian families.

Not far away, on road 444, tens of thousands of Israelis travel to and from settlements unimpeded – living here and going there, living there and coming here – but, of course, one shouldn’t call it apartheid.

A group of children are waiting in the shade of the trees. The Palestinian Authority hasn’t reopened the schools since the onset of the coronavirus epidemic, and these children, otherwise idle, are making their way into Israel to help provide for their families. Shortly afterward we’ll see them on the other side, in Israel, standing at the Taibeh junction, begging, or selling paper towels and lighters for next to nothing. In the meantime, they’re waiting for the adults to go through the opening in the fence, then they’ll make a run for it and hustle across, too.

Amir Yusuf had wanted to cross through the barrier, too, on May 7. He’s 15, in the ninth grade, and had never snuck into Israel. He didn’t know that just that week the Israel Defense Forces had begun to shoot people who were trying to get through.

Amir Yusuf.Credit: Alex Levac

We meet Amir in the home of relatives in the center of Qalqilyah, where he’s come with his mother to attend a cousin’s engagement party. It was another cousin, Laith, 17, who persuaded Amir to join him for a day of work in Israel, to make enough money to buy clothes for Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the conclusion of Ramadan. Laith promised him that they would find some sort of work in the Taibeh day-labor market.

The cousins left their adjacent homes in Faroun at about 6:30 in the morning. Laith had called during the predawn meal before the fast that day and had talked Amir into going with him. Amir’s mother, Dalal, saw her son already dressed at 5:30 and asked where he was going; he lied and said he hadn’t removed his clothes the night before. He snuck out when his mother went back to sleep.

Amir and Laith proceeded on foot to the fence, a few minutes away. There are a number of breaches in that area, and they chose one where there were no other people. After checking to see that there were no soldiers, they advanced toward the barrier.

They hadn’t managed to get through when a military jeep swooped in from the western side. Three soldiers got out and fired into the air to frighten them. Amir was paralyzed with fear, he recalls now. “He’s just a kid,” his mother says.

Laith managed to escape back toward their village, but Amir tripped on the rocky ground and fell on his stomach. The three soldiers gathered around him, he says, and one kicked him in the leg and another struck him in the shoulder with his rifle butt. He thought he was about to lose consciousness. The soldiers then allowed a few youths to evacuate him, possibly because they saw that Amir was very young.

The teenager was first taken home and from there to the Thabet Thabet Hospital in Tul Karm, where he was found to have internal bleeding and a damaged spleen. He was hospitalized for 10 days, five of them in intensive care. He still has difficulty lifting his right arm. Will he try again? “Even when I’m grown up and even if I have a permit, I will never go to Israel again,” he asserts.

It was during that first week of May that the IDF decided to ambush workers trying to enter Israel via Faroun, and to shoot them in the legs. Sadi, the B’Tselem field researcher, documented eight cases of workers being shot and wounded as part of that effort – all within the same week.

Palestinians going through a breach in the fence to jobs in Israel. Credit: Alex Levac

On the day Amir was wounded, for example, soldiers shot Ismail Aaniya, 40, a contractor from the Tul Karm refugee camp, who is married and has four children. He actually has an entry permit to Israel, but that week the Sha’ar Ephraim border terminal was only open to workers for two days.

On the way to his job in Lod, Aaniya left his home at first light, got to Faroun and was set to cross the fence. Soldiers hiding among the olive trees on the other side shot him in the right leg, fracturing it in several spots. They were about to handcuff him, but when he showed them his permit they summoned an Israeli ambulance, which gave him first aid and then transferred him to a Palestinian ambulance at the Jabara checkpoint. He’s still at home, his leg in a cast.

On May 3, troops shot Issam Hamad, a 31-year-old worker from the village of Danaba. He has a permit to work his land on the other side of the security barrier, but the soldiers were late in opening the gate that day, so he snuck in through one of the openings in Faroun, together with his father and brother. Two soldiers concealed amid the olive trees started shooting, hitting him in the left leg. As in Amir’s case, one of the soldiers gave him first aid and summoned an Israeli ambulance, which transferred him to a Palestinian ambulance and from there to Thabet Thabet Hospital – the standard procedure, apparently. His leg also remains in a cast.

On May 9, soldiers at the same spot shot Hasan Kuraan, a 59-year-old worker from the Al-Fara refugee camp near Nablus. It was the same pattern: Soldiers suddenly emerged from among the olive trees and shot him in the leg, before calling for an ambulance and letting Kuraan go.

Between October and December 2019, too, B’Tselem documented 10 incidents in which soldiers opened fire in this area, during which 17 Palestinian workers were wounded. In January we visited the Tul Karm refugee camp, where we met Abdullah Abu Tehaimer, who had been bedridden for months, his leg shattered by soldiers’ gunfire. He too had been trying to get to Israel to find work.

Asked for comment, the IDF Spokesman’s Office gave the following statement to Haaretz this week: “The IDF operates against anyone who vandalizes or interferes with the security fence. The army’s fighters are deployed in the area as demanded by the situation, and utilize a range of measures, in keeping with the rules of engagement, against anyone identified damaging or vandalizing the fence. Damaging the fence and creation of openings that allows for unregulated entry to Israeli territory constitutes a security risk and a serious violation of the law.”

After our visit we left the fence and Faroun, crossed through the checkpoint into Israel and headed west. Some 20 minutes later, at the junction of the entrance to Taibeh we saw almost everyone: the pregnant woman and her partner, the couple with the little girl and the group of children walking along the road on their way to beg for alms at the junction.

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