A Wall, Arrests and Close Surveillance: How Israel Fences in a Palestinian Family

Their every move is filmed, every exit from their house depends on the army and they may access their land three times a year at most. The Gharib family has been living this way since Israel surrounded them with settlers

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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The road to the Gharibs' home in Beit Ijza in the West Bank, October 2019.
The road to the Gharibs' home in Beit Ijza in the West Bank, October 2019.Credit: Bassam Almohor
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Nothing unusual happened this week to Sa’adat Gharib and his family from the village of Beit Ijza northwest of Jerusalem. That is, if you don’t take the olive harvest into account. This routine is what makes the family a microcosm of the Palestinian situation.

Life in the enclaves. The enclave the Gharib family lives in is especially small; maybe it should be called a fenced-in pocket. On three sides, a 6-meter-high fence surrounds the one-story house and the short path leading to it from Sa’adat’s brothers’ house to the south. An unpaved, sunken road, blocked by concrete walls and fences, closes in on the house from the south and cuts it off from the family’s olive grove and the village’s lands.

Above it is a concrete bridge. Under the bridge on the east, behind a locked door made of iron bars, steps lead to the sunken road, which is intended only for Israeli military vehicles. The soldiers have the key to the door and at any moment they can open it and enter the path leading to the family’s house.

The house. It was built in 1979 on land the family says has belonged to them from as far back as the Ottoman era. The village’s ancient stone houses attest wordlessly to the continuity of life there.

The Gharibs' house in Beit Ijza is surrounded by the settlement of Givon Hahadasha, as seen here in October 2019.Credit: Geomolg

The permanent threat of being cut off. A large iron gate leans on the concrete wall on the sunken road. The soldiers can move it at will and block the entrance to the fenced-in house, cutting it off at any moment from the village’s other houses.

In the first three months after the fence was built at the end of 2006, the entrance was blocked all the time, Gharib says. To leave, the family had to negotiate by phone with the police at the nearby Atarot industrial zone, or get the Red Cross to help out. “Sometimes we waited for several hours for them to come and open it,” he said.

Close surveillance. This is achieved by cameras on the bars of the fence and at the entrance to the path. In Israeli military language this is called an “indicative fence” – which is also equipped with sensors. The son Sabri climbs a tree, the daughter Haya runs to her father, the daughter Ruba returns from school, the nephew Mohammed comes to see who the visitors are. All filmed. Cameras aimed at the Gharib house are also placed at the neighbors’ house beyond the fence.

The neighbors are settlers. The settlement is Givon Hahadasha. “I don’t talk to them, they don’t talk to me,” Gharib says. About 3 meters separate the house from the fence. At a similar distance on the other side stand the neighbors’ villas. Their cars drive along the fence and park in its shade.

Gharib hung a green sheet along the bottom part of the fence to obtain a semblance of privacy. Or the illusion of privacy. The setters’ villas are two or three stories high and are abundant with greenery. This past Wednesday a woman was watering plants on her balcony and explaining something to her son. “Tomer,” she called out to him. Three women came down the stairs outside another house and discussed something in Hebrew.

Members of the Gharib family between fences separating Palestinians from settlers at Beit Ijza in the West Bank, October 2019. Credit: Bassam Al Mohor

“Sometimes I lift the green sheet,” says 10-year-old Sabri, “and look at the settlers’ children playing. I say 'Shalom' to them.”

The poverty of words. It’s hard to describe the labyrinths of fences, concrete and sunken roads cutting the area’s villages off from their groves and vineyards. It’s hard to describe the way from Ramallah to Beit Ijza – bypass routes and a kind of tunnel, built by Israel, as part of the network of roadblocks and restrictions on movement.

All the land of the Palestinian region between Beitunia in the north via Nebi Samuel to Beit Iksa in the south have de facto been annexed to Israel. Now Palestinians are forbidden from entering it, aside from laborers who work in the Givat Ze’ev settlement bloc and the dwindling number of residents of two cut-off Palestinian communities, Nebi Samuel and al-Khalaila.Territorial contiguity is for Israelis only.

Only a tour here and in all the other fenced-off enclaves and sub-enclaves of the West Bank – only actually seeing it – could make clear the reality of living in cages.

Jerusalem. It’s 11 kilometers (7 miles) from Beit Ijza to the city to the southeast. Since the direct roads are blocked and due to the restrictions on movement, the few village residents who obtain entry permits to Israel must travel to the capital via the Qalandiyah checkpoint for about two hours. In each direction.

The gate leading to the Gharibs' home in Beit Ijza in the West Bank, October 2019.Credit: Bassam Almohor

Expulsion attempts. In a 2006 petition to the High Court of Justice on the route of the separation barrier being planned there, a Givon Hahadasha “communal settlement committee” demanded that the army expropriate the house, evict the family and pay them compensation – to ensure the settlers’ safety. The family refused.

“Ever since Israel occupied the West Bank, Jews have been offering my father to sell the house,” Gharib says. “They even brought him a suitcase of money. He refused.”

During some years, people hurled stones at the house, also a firebomb, he recalls. It’s the kind of testimony you hear in every West Bank village and neighborhood on whose land settlers built homes just beyond existing Palestinian homes. Envoys offer money and then raise their bid, and when the answer is no, the violent harassments begin – and with them bans on any additional construction.

Arrests. Gharib, born in 1981, is the youngest of eight siblings; his father died in 2012. He remembers how, when he was a child, his father and older brothers would be in and out of prison because they challenged the settlers and the bans on entering the family’s land. Gharib himself spent three months in prison once for objecting to the construction of the separation barrier. His elderly father was sentenced to a month behind bars for the same offense, he said.

Prehistory. The separation barrier in the West Bank was planned and built because of the second intifada. The fence at Beit Ijza turned the Gharib family home into a monitored fenced-in pocket after Israel confiscated two of the family’s plots of land.

But before that there were confiscations for various excuses; the main one was that 167 dunams [41 acres] are registered as Jewish-owned. Jews stayed their briefly in the 1920s and left. After 1948 the land became Jordanian property.

Members of the Gharib family at home in the village of Beit Ijza in the West Bank, October 2019.Credit: Bassam Almohor

“We grew wheat and barley on it,” Gharib says. After 1967 the land was declared Israeli government property. A group of Gush Emunim settlers settled there and cleared the way for a secular villa community with some religious residents. The villas near the Gharib house were built after the Oslo Accords, he recalls.

On the basis of that registration of Jewish ownership, the appeals committees of Israel’s Civil Administration and the High Court of Justice denied appeals and petitions by the head of the family, Sabri Gharib, but recognized his ownership of 24 dunams. Eventually, 10 more dunams were confiscated for the separation barrier. Four dunams had been allocated years earlier for a water tower for the settlement.

Water. When the fence and security road were built, the pipe that led water to the family’s house was severed. Now a narrow black rubber hose stretches along the fence from the imprisoned house to the brothers’ house.

In the summer, when the demand for water increases, the pressure in the hose is low and the water doesn’t arrive. This is worsened by the house’s position on relatively high ground. Gharib has been forced to buy water from containers. Instead of 5 shekels ($1.41) per cubic meter he pays 20 shekels. The settlers’ full water tower overlooks the house 6 meters away.

Proportionality. This is how Supreme Court President Aharon Barak justified the go-ahead he gave the army to surround the family’s house with a fence, destroy part of its groves for the separation barrier and block the family’s direct access to the groves. Access to the groves, he ruled, would be permitted through gates in the separation barrier.

Twice a year. If this is what Barak meant it’s impossible to say. But the residents of Biddu, Beit Ijza and Beit Duqqu may go to their lands only for a few days twice a year, three at the most: at plowing, grape harvesting and olive picking. The two locked gates are set in a barbed-wire fence beside the security road winding through their land.

“This year they wouldn’t let us harvest the grapes,” a Biddu resident said Tuesday, waiting for the Border Police to open the gate. This season the gates are opened for eight days over two weeks. At the end of week, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, they are closed. People like Sa’adat Gharib are forced to miss work in order to pick their olives.

Sumud – steadfastness. “My son Sabri didn’t know his grandfather Sabri,” Gharib says. “But he knows we’ll never leave the house and never give it and our land up.”

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