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Mar-10-2012 17:12printcomments

Between a Wall and a Green Line: Palestinian life in 'Seam Zone'

Mahmoud A’buqbeita, 45, is speaking out about the routine hardships he and his family face, in the hopes that something will change. His problems are numerous.

Al'Seefer (photo: Ariel Bardi)
Al'Seefer (photo: Ariel Bardi)

(TEL AVIV +972 MAG) - Al’Seefer lies uphill from the settlement of Beit Yatir, just beyond the South Hebron Hills, but the tiny Palestinian village feels worlds apart from the 33-year-old settlement. Indeed, the daily lives of Al’Seefer’s residents, some 60 in number, are mired in extraordinary logistical challenges on account of the village’s physical location: flanked by the Green Line on one side and by the separation barrier on the other, it belongs to the no man’s land known as the Seam Zone.

Visually, the two agricultural communities make for incongruous neighbors. One has been carefully cultivated from the roots up, the other systematically neglected. The extent of their stark economic disparities is immediately apparent: Beit Yatir, its telltale red-roofed homes planted like crops in neat, rectilinear rows, presides imposingly over the hilly terrain. Al’Seefer merely blends in. Due to strict bans on construction, the village’s building materials are often limited to tarp and corrugated sheet metal, while its remaining houses are left woefully derelict.

Still, while Al’Seefer’s economic disadvantages may be in plain view, restrictions on the small community’s mobility – in many ways, a far greater problem – go largely unnoticed. Due to their unique location, village residents, as the saying goes, are stuck “between a rock and a hard place,” corralled by their northern neighbors, yet forbidden from formally entering into Israeli territory. (read “Stuck,” a report on Al’Seefer by Hebron International Resource Network.) The majority of the villagers are children, many of school age, who must make their way across the checkpoint every morning in time for the first bell, a process that can take up to an hour.

Mahmoud A’buqbeita, 45, is speaking out about the routine hardships he and his family face, in the hopes that something will change. His problems are numerous: the closest accessible water source lies just beyond the checkpoint. Villagers are legally forbidden from driving a car with Israeli license plates, so they either maneuver carts to the border, then walk, or else make the entire day’s journey on foot. Medical care presents the same logistical quagmire, and many residents of Al’Seefer, including Mahmoud’s elderly mother, mostly make do without. Al’Seefer families also receive no visitors, as their family and friends are unable to cross the checkpoint without proper documentation. Villagers themselves must obtain special permits every three months in order to remain on their own land.

Members of the A'buqbeita family in their home (photo: Ariel Bardi)

Mahmoud and his family hosted me for a couple of days as I compiled research on their perilously complicated living situation. Though my time with them was brief, I was able to observe first-hand the effects of their social and physical isolation. The open fields and scattered hills that surround the family’s small plot of land belie a gnawing claustrophobia, to which I had already succumbed by the second morning. The family of fourteen and I, along with three other researchers, had spent the previous evening piled in front of a small television set. At the time of my stay, the family received only an hour or so of electrical power per day from Mahmoud’s brother, who has obtained Israeli citizenship – and thus far better amenities – through his Nazareth-born wife. In honor of our visit, however, we were treated to a full evening’s viewing entertainment; the ten A’buqbeita children were enthralled. I asked the family how they tended to wile away the wintry evening hours with no lights, let alone several channels’ worth of programs. They told me that they sit in the dark, or sleep.

In considering the largely invisible restrictions that have been placed on the family’s range of movement, I couldn’t help but think of the electronic fences that encircle the lawns of certain American suburban homes – invisible barriers, but ones still deeply felt by those they’re designed to keep in.

On the other hand, the checkpoint, which divides Al’Seefer from the rest of the West Bank, is a permanent, observable presence. It snakes around the green line in order to keep Beit Yatir on the Israeli side of the barrier, leaving the village entirely cut off and vulnerable to settler intimidation, a persistent fear. The village children must pass alongside the settlement on the way to their nearby elementary school, and are often victims of harassment from drivers traveling along the busy road. I escorted several children to their classes on my last morning with the A’buqbeita family. While they made it through the checkpoint in record time with four internationals in tow, it was clear how such a procedure – repeated twice daily – could prove intolerable. The children’s stoic, habitual acceptance of this frustrating formality helps to contextualize the more mundane implications of life under occupation, when all that it appears to involve is a lot of waiting around.

The quality of life in Mahmoud’s home improved shortly after my visit: the household is now outfitted with solar panels, courtesy of the Israeli activist group COMET-ME, which provides renewable energy solutions to off-grid communities throughout Palestine. On February 27, the Israeli Civil Administration issued demolition orders to four communities in the Southern Hebron Hills, on the grounds that they lack permits; earlier in the month, COMET-ME had also been given stop work orders for two other electrification systems. While Mahmoud’s family is still with power, COMET-ME estimates that over 500 people will be affected by the ruling. Until then, the communities, which, much like Mahmoud’s, are rural and isolated, will keep waiting, with nowhere to go.

Ariel Bardi is a PhD student at Yale University. She is in Israel and the West Bank researching and photographing settlements.

Special thanks to 972Mag in Israel

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gp March 10, 2012 5:30 pm (Pacific time)

Star of David
Bertrand Russell's Last Message
Bertrand Russell
Fri, 09 Mar 2012 09:25 CST
© Unknown
Bertrand Russell
This statement on the Middle East was dated 31st January, 1970, and was read on 3rd February, the day after Bertrand Russell's death, to an International Conference of Parliamentarians meeting in Cairo.

The latest phase of the undeclared war in the Middle East is based upon a profound miscalculation. The bombing raids deep into Egyptian territory will not persuade the civilian population to surrender, but will stiffen their resolve to resist. This is the lesson of all aerial bombardment.

The Vietnamese who have endured years of American heavy bombing have responded not by capitulation but by shooting down more enemy aircraft. In 1940 my own fellow countrymen resisted Hitler's bombing raids with unprecedented unity and determination. For this reason, the present Israeli attacks will fail in their essential purpose, but at the same time they must be condemned vigorously throughout the world.

The development of the crisis in the Middle East is both dangerous and instructive. For over 20 years Israel has expanded by force of arms. After every stage in this expansion Israel has appealed to "reason" and has suggested "negotiations". This is the traditional role of the imperial power, because it wishes to consolidate with the least difficulty what it has already taken by violence. Every new conquest becomes the new basis of the proposed negotiation from strength, which ignores the injustice of the previous aggression. The aggression committed by Israel must be condemned, not only because no state has the right to annexe foreign territory, but because every expansion is an experiment to discover how much more aggression the world will tolerate.

The refugees who surround Palestine in their hundreds of thousands were described recently by the Washington journalist I.F. Stone as "the moral millstone around the neck of world Jewry." Many of the refugees are now well into the third decade of their precarious existence in temporary settlements. The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was "given" by a foreign Power to another people for the creation of a new State. The result was that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were made permanently homeless. With every new conflict their number have increased. How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty? It is abundantly clear that the refugees have every right to the homeland from which they were driven, and the denial of this right is at the heart of the continuing conflict. No people anywhere in the world would accept being expelled en masse from their own country; how can anyone require the people of Palestine to accept a punishment which nobody else would tolerate? A permanent just settlement of the refugees in their homeland is an essential ingredient of any genuine settlement in the Middle East.

We are frequently told that we must sympathize with Israel because of the suffering of the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. I see in this suggestion no reason to perpetuate any suffering. What Israel is doing today cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horrors of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy. Not only does Israel condemn a vast number. of refugees to misery; not only are many Arabs under occupation condemned to military rule; but also Israel condemns the Arab nations only recently emerging from colonial status, to continued impoverishment as military demands take precedence over national development.

All who want to see an end to bloodshed in the Middle East must ensure that any settlement does not contain the seeds of future conflict. Justice requires that the first step towards a settlement must be an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in June, 1967. A new world campaign is needed to help bring justice to the long-suffering people of the Middle East.

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