Fifteen years ago, Bassam Abu Ara from the village of Akaba near Jenin in the West Bank married a woman from East Jerusalem. He resided there with his new wife until two years ago, when he was forced to move to Ramallah. As a resident of the West Bank, he is not allowed to reside in the capital.
His wife and children stayed on in Jerusalem so the state would not revoke their official status as Jerusalemites, affording them social and medical rights in Israel. Once a week, they travel to Ramallah to see their husband/father, who works there as the sports editor of Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, a daily newspaper.
As a journalist, Abu Ara travels all over the world. He covers sports events in Europe and the Middle East - but he is not able to visit his family in Jerusalem. His is not an unusual story; it's actually run-of-the-mill. The Israeli media no longer pay any attention to such phenomena. The Palestinian media have also stopped reported on them.
East Jerusalem is estimated to have roughly 20,000 such cases - of Palestinian families where parents are forced to live apart from one another on opposites sides of the fences and walls that separate the West Bank from Israel.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's recent proposal to set up a Palestinian state in the West Bank and in Gaza, according to an agreement of principles - as reported by Haaretz last week - pertains mainly to the geographical issues involved. It encompasses territorial concessions and exchanges, borders and settlement blocs.
Additionally, in their meeting, Olmert and Quartet envoy Tony Blair discussed, for the umpteenth time, easing restrictions at crossing points and checkpoints. The possibility, which may sound fictional right now, that one day all the people of this land will enjoy total freedom of movement is not mentioned anywhere. Nowhere is this notion cited as a goal we must aspire to achieve.
This aspiration should not be regarded as odd. Indeed, freedom of movement existed during the 24 years between 1967 and 1991 - almost an entire generation. Not a single roadblock could be found from Rafah in the south to Jenin in the north. Moshe Dayan, defense minister during the Six-Day War, regarded this freedom as a sacred principle.
Israel is a relatively small country, densely populated by Arabs and Jews, who live close to one another. We must always plan and strive to achieve the very clear goal of ridding ourselves of fences and roadblocks - even if we find ourselves in need of setting them up at this point in time.
Devising an agreement of principles which will include freedom of movement is a diplomatic and social need, but first of all an economic need par excellence. Prof. Ephraim Kleiman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is arguably the world's greatest expert on the Palestinian economy, has for years maintained that it has been dependent on the Israeli economy - and will stay that way in the foreseeable future. The reason? Israel is the largest, closest and potentially most attractive market for Palestinian agricultural and industrial products, as well as for Palestinian labor. The neighboring Arab economies compete against the Palestinian economy, and so cannot constitute an alternative to Israel.
The Israeli economy provides work for tens of thousands of Thai, Chinese and Romanian laborers. There are other workers from other corners of the world, which make up a population that possibly even exceeds tens of thousands. This foreign workforce is withholding our neighbors' livelihood.
How should Palestinians - who comprise the majority of the workforce in the territories - feel when they, unemployed, see the workers of the world earning their living in Israel? Sure, their Israeli neighbors extol coexistence and speak highly of striving to reach an agreement, but in effect they starve the Palestinians.
Separation is a security necessity that no one is trying to downplay. However, when we speak of an agreement of principles, we must keep in mind that the current separation is destroying, virtually wiping out, the Palestinian economy.
No diplomatic process stands a chance of getting off the ground while the Palestinian economy goes from bad to worse. Such processes are hopeless as the standard of living in the territories recedes and slips downhill. Especially when the Israeli economy is meanwhile flourishing and blooming.
The roadblocks and fences have long been transformed into a vision and ideology for most Israelis, who stand united on this issue. This vision is based on despair and disappointment. If we are to strive toward achieving an agreement with the Palestinians, we must think about how to achieve the opposite: How to bring down the walls of separation.
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