Israeli wall creates "island" villages in W. Bank

BIR NABALA, West Bank (Reuters) - Tawfiq al-Nabali says he lives on an island surrounded not by water, but by a concrete wall.

An aerial view shows the controversial Israeli barrier around Jerusalem in this October 10, 2006 file photo. The wall is part of a "separation barrier" which Israel says stops Palestinian suicide bombers from crossing from the occupied West Bank into its cities. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

His village of Bir Nabala, in the rolling hills just north of Jerusalem, is encircled by an eight-metre (26-ft) high concrete barrier, cutting it off from the holy city.

The only paved road to the outside world leads through an underpass and past an Israeli military checkpoint toward the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Bir Nabala, once bustling with traders and workshops and home to many Palestinians working in Jerusalem, looks deserted. Campaigners say it is one of several communities whose survival is threatened by the barrier snaking round its perimeter.

“When you crossed the road it used to take 10 minutes, there was so much traffic,” Nabali said, pointing to the empty main street outside his tile shop. Most stores are closed, and blue metal shutters line both sides of the street.

“Now it’s like there’s a curfew.”

The wall surrounding 15,000 Palestinians in Bir Nabala and four nearby villages is part of a “separation barrier” which Israel says stops Palestinian suicide bombers from crossing from the occupied West Bank into its cities.

Palestinians say Israel is just seizing land. Israel says the barrier is temporary and could be removed under a future peace deal.

Its route takes it well inside the West Bank at some points, dividing communities and isolating up to 250,000 Palestinians in small enclaves on territory they want for a future state.

“They keep talking about a state. But we’re just islands, islands, islands,” Nabali said. “Where is the state?”

Hundreds of kilometres of wall have been built and Nabali says, around his village, it is virtually complete.

A second road is planned to connect Bir Nabala with a Palestinian district to the west but Nabali, a businessman who also heads the municipality, says those links are no compensation for villagers whose ties are with Jerusalem.

“In the whole West Bank, no one has been left unaffected, but we were hit the most. We didn’t know Ramallah, we are (part of) Jerusalem,” Nabali said. Thousands of people, mainly those with Jerusalem residence permits, have moved out, he said.


A report published in January said the barrier was separating people from schools, religious institutions and health services, stifling Palestinian life.

“In the long term, the enforced disconnection from Jerusalem may lead to the atrophy of the villages in the enclave, possibly leading to their disintegration,” said the report by Bimkom, an Israeli group that campaigns against discrimination in public planning and land development projects.

Bimkom says planners who mapped the barrier’s route were driven primarily by a desire to safeguard Jewish settlements in the West Bank and ensure they were able to continue expanding.

“The creation of these enclaves is the most extreme example of this misguided system of considerations that attaches only marginal importance to the interests of the Palestinian residents of the area,” Bimkom said.

The northern section of Bir Nabala barrier follows the route of a bypass road linking Jerusalem to Israeli settlements west of Ramallah. The road is off limits to most Palestinians.

The eastern side divides two sections of the Palestinian village of Beit Hanina. To the west, residents say farmers have been cut off from almond and olive groves.

The isolation has further damaged the local economy, already suffering from a six-year Palestinian uprising, sanctions against the Palestinian Authority since the Islamist Hamas movement came to power and travel restrictions in the West Bank.

Nabali says he keeps his tile factory operating more from pride than for business. “I used to have 30 workers. We were operating 24 hours a day. Now I have three or four,” he said.

Driving through his village, Nabali points to a row of near empty buildings. “There are 18 apartments in this one. Only one is occupied.”

The Taj Mahal, an entertainment venue once popular with newlyweds from across the region, is closed.

On the main street, Kamel Mohammad Hassan sits in his fruit and vegetable shop, one of a handful of businesses still open. He says his turnover is less than a tenth of what it used to be.

“They’ve closed the place down,” he said.

Bimkom says the barrier has cut off a quarter of a million Palestinians, either surrounded by wall as in Bir Nabala or trapped on the Israeli side of the barrier -- separated from the West Bank and banned from travel into Israel.

“No community can survive in the long term without contact with other communities,” Bimkom said.

“If these trends continue in the long term, it may be expected that some of the communities in these enclaves will be unable to survive in such conditions and will be dismantled.”