You Can Trust the Israelis, Can't You?

For the Husan-Nahalin bloc near Bethlehem, the future looks bleak. The separation fence will cut them off from Bethlehem and the "green lung" it provides.

Two weeks ago, Omar Awad called in his eldest son Fuad, 15, for a man-to-man talk. "I explained to him: `We don't have land, we don't have a country, the land is gone, the country is gone. And I don't want to see you sitting in jail someday for something that isn't going to come back.' For whom would he sit in jail? For the people with all the millions? `All I want from you is to study,' I told him. `Learn well. There is a good school here in the village. Do your matriculation exams, so that I can send you abroad to study.'"

Fuad is named for Omar's brother, who was 14 when he was shot to death in front of Omar's eyes by the Border Police, in their village, Nahalin, which lies to the west of Bethlehem. That same day, Israeli soldiers killed five residents of the village. Ever since, the name Nahalin has sent a tremor of shock through the hearts of Palestinians.

Last year, the name of the village was linked to the separation fence. According to the Defense Ministry plan, the fence will separate Bethlehem and its satellite towns (Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and the adjoining refugee camps) from all of their land reserves (in and around the Gush Etzion settlement bloc). The preliminary plan called for the fence to encircle, as if in two huge nooses, the three villages of Batir, Husan and Nahalin.

The foreign diplomatic corps and representatives of the contributing countries in Jerusalem could hardly believe that this was the Israeli plan - an excessively blatant imprisonment, even in the opinion of those who understand Israel's security needs.

So, in the latest version of the Defense Ministry plans, which were recently made public and appear on the ministry's Web site, the noose around the three villages has been withdrawn. But the separation fence will cut them off from Bethlehem and the "green lung" it provides.

"Everything we know about the fence comes from (television newsman) Haim Yavin," said Awad last week at his home in Nahalin. Not exactly: some people check the Defense Ministry's Web site. One is Osama, a friend of Awad's and a Fatah activist in the village. This is how they learned about the revised route of the fence.

The ever-expanding settlement of Betar dominates Nahalin from the northwest. Awad, 35, a contractor who claims to have built many homes in many settlements, says that he built one of the houses in Betar on land that had belonged to his family. "When I was a boy, I planted trees here. Now I plant houses here for Jews," he said, in an air of submission.

Unsubmissively, he relates that he cannot build on the parcel of land that still remains in his family's possession, as it lies in Area C - under full Israeli control. "My father has land here that goes back for aeons; some Interior Ministry person came, maybe a new immigrant from Russia, maybe not even Jewish, I'm more Jewish than he is, and said that I am not permitted to build on it."

"There's nothing you can do about the fence," concludes Awad, sounding acquiescent. "Look, for 40 years the settlers lived in Gaza, Israeli soldiers lost their lives for them, and all of a sudden the new man of peace, Ariel Sharon, arrives and within a minute orders them to leave. Sharon decided, and the entire Yesha Council (which represents the settlers of Judea, Samaria and Gaza) can't hold him back. If Sharon decided on a fence - and on us, the Palestinians, whom you rule through the army and not through laws - who can hold him back? Even if we fight the fence, the struggle will eventually become a losing battle. I don't expect anything from Abu Mazen; everything is decided by the Knesset. Abu Mazen is smart, because he understands the situation. He understands he has no power."

A rumor is making its way through the village, says Awad, that the villages west of Bethlehem will be "annexed to Israel" and their residents will receive citizenship. A rumor in this spirit even appeared on the Net somewhere, which people took to mean that it was actual fact. Some folks are even pleased with the news. Awad is amused: "Israel doesn't want the Israeli Arabs, so how is it going to want us as citizens?"

Nahalin residents are wondering what sort of arrangements will be implemented by the Israel Defense Forces to govern passage between the two sides of the fence. Will they share the same fate as other Palestinians, caught between the fence to their east and the Green Line to their west, who have had to outfit themselves with special ID documents that prove they reside in the area, to enable them to enter and exit the area in which they live?

The IDF and the Civil Administration told Haaretz that this would not be the case: "The Gush Etzion region," read the answer furnished by the Civil Administration spokesman, "including the Nahalin-Husan bloc that lies within it, will be defined as a unique area, and not a seam zone. Therefore, the residents will be permitted to enter the area through the control points and gates that will be erected, after a security inspection only, without need for special .or permits from the Civil Administration."

According to the IDF Spokesman, this refers to both residents of the villages and residents of other areas of the West Bank. When the fence is completed, the Civil Administration reported, "the village of Walaja, north of Bethlehem, will be linked by an underground passage to Bethlehem, similar to the link that was made between Qalqilyah and Habala (in Habala, there is an intersection that the IDF from time to time closes with a steel gate - A.H.). The Husan-Nahalin bloc will be linked to Bethlehem through an underground passage and a control point near the village of El-Khadr."

But removal of the noose around their village and assurances that they will not suffer the same fate as residents of the "seam zone" offer little relief to Nahalin residents. On the basis of reports from other areas of the West Bank, they know that the fence that runs west of Bethlehem will cut them off from their environs, from the provincial city, from other cities in the West Bank, from their lands. It is a process that will not pass them by. The fence will also speed up Israel's annexation of the land reserves of Bethlehem. They do not yet know exactly how it will happen - when, by whom, who will be hurt more, who less.

The past four years have given Nahalin residents a good idea of what it means to be cut off: There was a long spell when the IDF blocked access to the village with an excavated canal, with a locked gate, with boulders. Even garbage trucks couldn't reach the village, and trash piled up at the sides of the roads, in unregulated dumping sites. They even received fines for doing so. They can no longer reach sealed-off Bethlehem in their own cars. Residents park their cars at the blockaded road at the exit from Husan, cross the busy Tunnels Road on foot, and get into the taxis awaiting them on the other side of the road, at the El-Khadr blockade. This is how they go to work, to family, to medical clinics.

There were times when they were not permitted to enter Bethlehem. Periods when Bethlehem residents were not permitted to come to them. They are certain that the fence will institutionalize the detachment even more.

Creeping disconnection

Administrators of the Talitha Kumi School, on the outskirts of Beit Jala, feel that construction of the fence will aggravate existing trends. The severing from eastern Jerusalem, the disconnection from other villages and regions of the West Bank, the weakening of connections with the Palestinian community at large - all will be accelerated. Some 830 boys and girls study at this German Evangelical Lutheran institution, 70 percent of them Christian, 30 percent of them Muslim - boys and girls together. Muslim and Christian religious classes are held together. The student body comes from the entire Bethlehem and northern Jerusalem region, from cities, villages and refugee camps. There is also a dormitory for boys; this was the purpose of the institution when it was built in Jerusalem by German nuns in the mid-19th century: a dormitory and school for orphaned Palestinian girls.

In the mid-1990s, the dormitory stopped accepting girls from Gaza. Due to the Israeli closure policy, they were not always permitted to go to Gaza for visits, or could not always return to school and the dormitory after a visit to Gaza. In the past four years, girls from Hebron and Ramallah have encountered difficulties when leaving for or returning from a visit on days without classes, Fridays and Sundays. The checkpoints and cordons around Palestinian cities caused them to spend entire days in transit. By the time they reached their homes they would have to turn around to return. It was therefore decided that once a month, the dormitory would be closed from Thursday afternoon till Monday morning to create a balance between the time required for a round trip and the actual time spent with family. Pupils from Jerusalem, from nearby neighborhoods like Beit Safafa, still attend the school. When the fence is built - presumably at the foot of the hill on which the school sits - one assumes they will not be able to study in a school that is a mere half-kilometer from their homes. Even more doubtful are the pupils from Walaja and Husan, two villages that are between one and four kilometers away, who will probably not be able to continue studying at Talitha Kumi.

Nevertheless, representatives of the defense establishment have met with the school principal, Dr. Georg Duerr, and assured him that a "humanitarian tunnel" would be built between the area west of the fence and the area to its east. But based on experience, Duerr doubts whether the promised humanitarian arrangements will in fact permit free access to pupils. As an institution that aims to promote peace between peoples, Talitha Kumi has hosted - and continues to host - meetings between Israelis and Palestinians. The fence, says Duerr, "will prevent us from continuing to hold these meetings. Already, Israeli Hebrew teachers, whom we had hoped to hire, are not authorized to work here, because the institution is located in Area A. The sidewalk in front of the school and the entrance to the school are Area C."

As a German institution, Talitha Kumi may find the channels of diplomacy available to ensure its continued activity as an educational institution. However, Duerr is cognizant of the limitations of every possible struggle. As a case in point, he mentions Rehm Handel, the school's music teacher, who lives in Bethlehem. A song she wrote for Christmas was aired on Israeli television.

Even so, when he submitted a request on her behalf two weeks ago, for a permit to go to Jerusalem (which is just around the corner) to buy a piano for the school, the Israeli authorities said no.