Tag Archives: separation barrier

Crossing the separation barrier daily – one day honey, one day onions

Stood squinting into the early morning sun a young Israeli soldier leans against the heavy metal gate that is separating the two of us and sighs. The gate is padlocked closed for what he had described to me earlier as ‘security concerns’. The soldier looks tired, worn down and wanting nothing more than a sit down. Instead he is stood talking to me. I ask him (again) why it is taking so long for the workers to pass through the agricultural gate this morning. He answers me in elaborate, almost performed Arabic, “yaum ‘asal, yaum basal” – “One day honey, one day onions”. He stares at me and meets my eye for as long as the strengthening sun will allow before retreating back to the solitude of the shade.

For the two hours preceding this conversation I had been stood watching frustrated agricultural workers waiting to cross the separation barrier to access their own farmland. The separation barrier is built predominantly through the middle of Palestinian farm land and as such was ruled to be illegal by The International Court of Justice at The Hague (in 2004).

The men are grouped in small circles, one circle lit a small fire out of rubbish and wood they have collected. Others are pacing the width of the road promenading up and down discussing the matters of the world. Others however wait with less patience.

All of the men hand in their permits to one Palestinian who has the unofficial job of keeping the peace and trying to organise what order people will pass in. The men pass in groups of 5 past the first turnstile before entering into a cabin where there papers are checked for what seems like an impossibly long time. One man who was waiting (patiently) nodded to the Palestinian holding the pile of permits and said, ‘He plays cards with those permits. You never know if you will wait 10 minutes or 2 hours”. I asked if there was any favouritism and the man responds, “it is good if we are friends”.

The first few groups of Palestinians emerge from the far side of the checkpoint and go their separate ways to their small plots of land. I look up sporadically to see what the soldiers are doing. There are normally four on duty that I can see (one to check vehicles, 2 to ‘control the crowd’ and one to stand their pointing his gun at people – or this is what I have deduced from previous times). Soldier one (who in previous groups has made an effort to look menacing) is stood in a concrete pillar box resting his chin on his semi-automatic weapon making little effort to keep his eyes open. The second (there to check vehicles) is  sitting with feet up on what I have seen in the past used as a second inspection point (which doubles the speed of transit for the workers trying to cross). The final two spend most of their time talking but occasionally tell the men waiting to take a step or two back.

The four soldiers barely look up as a small fist fight breaks out over what I presumed to be a disagreement about who got to pass through the checkpoint next. The soldiers take a couple of steps closer but allow the men waiting to sort themselves out. One of the Palestinians around the fire looks up and sucks air in through his teeth. For the majority of men waiting, they stand patiently looking out at their land to the west. Staring back at them are the soldiers who wait patiently as the minuets left on their shift slip away.

What was notable about this gate monitoring was the lack of anything specific happening. The Palestinians were not tear gassed nor were the soldiers pelted with stones. There was however a low level lack of respect that materialised itself in different forms depending on what side of the locked gate you were stood. There was a understood sub-text that they were not going to make life easy for each other. This is where the power dynamics shine through.

I noticed the Palestinian men would often pretend not to hear the soldiers when they were giving orders or would take a long time to move when they were asked. The response from the soldiers is no less petty but has far more serious repercussions. As I mentioned the power dynamics between the occupied and the occupiers is not equal.

To illustrate, as the workers leave the cabin where there permits are checked the soldiers normally wave on the next group of five men through the turnstile. Today, for no explicable reasons, they waited until the workers were well clear of the gate before allowing others to come forward. This wasted crucial minuets and added to the feeling of frustration.

These small actions (or sometimes lack of actions) meant that at the end of the two hours (the gates opening times) there were over 50 men (and 40 sheep) still waiting to pass when I left the gate at 9:00am. This has serious repercussions on those who do not make it through (loss of income in a desperately poor society). I have monitored this gate many times before and have seen that proactive friendly soldiers can ensure that all men (and animals) pass through without problem and with minimal delay. Today the soldiers did their jobs, but with the minimal possible effort you can imagine.

The tired soldier at the end said that one day is like honey, while another is like onions. He made this  comment with a certain fatalistic edge to his voice. What today has taught me is that if some days are like honey while others are like onions as the soldier suggests, then it is because of his choosing. Soldiers (often young conscripts) have an extraordinary amount of power and control over ordinary people’s lives. For the men who have to wake in the early hours of the morning clutching their permits to pass to their own land, days are rarely like honey.

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How to kill flowers

My colleague and friend Mamela accompanied me to visit Haney Ameer (No man is an Island) a few days ago. Here are her words reflecting on the rose garden that remains beautiful on Haney Ameer’s small patch of land outside of his house:

How to Kill Flowers

You can build towers
Cause them great distress
Cut water access
Reduce their showers

Threatened by a knife
Remain delicate
Calm yet intricate
They bare endless strife
Not by death, through life

You can raise a wall
That may never fall
Despite the deadly shade
Beauty does not fade
One bit, not at all

While flowers exist
Nourished by light mist
With strength to endure
Not harmful but pure
They persist to resist

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No man is an island

The English poet John Donne once wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself”. This assertion has never faced a more literal challenge however than through the story of Haney Ameer.

Mr Ameer lives on the outskirts of Mas-ha just outside of Qalqiliya in the West Bank. Back in 2003 his house was situated on the path of the proposed separation barrier, 80% of which is built on Palestinian land. When he refused to leave his house and his land the Israeli government decided to build the barrier around him. His house is now surrounded on all four sides by either walls, fences or the separation barrier. He lives in what looks like a high security prison except he now holds the keys for the one small gate that provides access to his property.

On one side of his house is the 8 meter high concrete separation barrier that scars the landscape for as far as the eye can see. All over the wall there is battle between local graffiti artists and the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) censoring white paint. On the other side of his house there is an illegal Israeli settlement which is cut off from him by a barbed wire fence. Flanking each end of his property are locked security gates leading to the military road that track the separation barrier. He is hemmed into his small plot of land on all sides.

On the approach to his house our driver and translator rings ahead for him to come and meet us. We pull up alongside the 8 meter high concrete slabs to walk the last few meters. Next to the barrier there is a small rusted metal door from where Mr Ameer emerges. Between 2003 and 2006 he lived in his property not owning these keys to access his own property. For three years he relied on the IDF to let him through the security gate each day to return to his own property. It was not uncommon in those days for friends to throw food parcels over the wall so he could feed his wife and children.

We sit outside his broken and bruised property in the fading evening sun. He explains he cannot fix any of the broken windows, crumbling walls or holes in the roof as he cannot get a permit off the Israelis to ‘build’ on his own land.

I ask him if he ever considered leaving. He responds with a story of isolation and incredible courage which is characterised by a lack of options. The Israelis offered him a lot of money and a chance to rebuild a bigger and better house on more land wherever he wanted in return for his land. He refused. Why he refused is a mixture of a connection to a family home that has been with him for years, and a slightly more harsh reality. The Palestinians who lived nearby warned him that if he sold up to the Israelis he would no longer be considered a ‘Palestinian’, he would be isolated. An ironic threat given his circumstances.

Regardless of his motives, Mr Ameer now finds himself in a physical limbo, not on either side of the separation barrier. He insists that if he could turn back the clock then he would do nothing differently. I ask what he hopes for the future and he bleakly responds, “nothing, I will die like this”. This response sends a shiver down my spine as I realise that this is quite possible. The occupation has come to a point where a family can be living in 60 by 40 meter virtual quarantine and the world does not bat an eyelid.

Mr Ameer has the look of a man who has told his story a million times before. He sits back in his chair as if this is a day to day occurrence for people all around the world as he recalls the details of his isolation. I wonder whether this is just his way of dealing with what is an unimaginable daily infringement on his personal liberty.

The meeting comes to a close and he walks us back to the rusted metal gate. Unlocking the padlock he looks up at the separation barrier and then at the floor. His body forgets what he is doing for a brief moment but his hands are still unlocking the door they have unlocked everyday for the last 6 years.

We leave him on the other side of the barrier. I cannot decide whether I have extreme admiration for this man, or if I just want to shake him by the scruff of the neck and tell him to move with his family to a new house. I suspect if I did the latter, he would sit me down, light a cigarette and tell me to not be so impatient. I am impatient though, I don’t want to think of this man sitting in his house, his virtual prison, until the day dies. There has to be an alternative ending to this tragic story.

The occupation restricts peoples movement, freedoms and lives on a day to day basis. Mr Ammer’s story is unique only because of his physical proximity to the separation barrier.

Haney Ameer will sleep tonight though knowing no one can tell him to leave his family house, not the IDF and certainly not a foreign human rights monitor like myself.

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