By James Norton and Nicole Gaouette, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor
QALQILYA, WEST BANK - Gray, sleek, and massive, the Israeli security barrier halfway around Qalqilya looks like a wall. But townspeople say the rising concrete serves as a noose, constricting traffic, cutting farmers off from their fields, and choking the local economy.
"It's a systematic program to destroy the infrastructure of the Palestinian people," charges Qalqilya Gov. Mustafa Malki.
When the barrier is completed this year, Qalqilya's only entrance - or exit - will be an Israeli checkpoint just 26 feet wide.
The Israeli government approved the plan to build the wall throughout the West Bank in June 2002, after a spate of more than 90 suicide bombings, some of which originated in Qalqilya. Palestinians say the barriers are just the latest ploy to seize their land and bring their economy to its knees. According to an upcoming report commissioned by international donors, the wall will accelerate an unravelling of Palestinian institutional and economic development.
But for many Israelis, the wall is the only answer to unremitting Palestinian attacks. "Israel is accused of harming Palestinians economically, but we don't get up in the morning and say 'Let's [hurt] the Palestinians today.' There's a need for this: to prevent terrorism," says Alan Baker, legal adviser to Israel's Foreign Ministry. "We have a right to life and we have an obligation to protect our citizens. We appreciate the problems the Palestinians are facing, but if we have to close roads it's because something's wrong."
Not surprisingly, Qalqilya residents see it differently. "They call it a security wall," says Governor Malki. "We call it a wall to confiscate land, because this wall doesn't prevent anyone from getting into Israel who really wants to."
When finished in June 2003 the wall will snake down the West Bank's 225-mile length, incorporating trenches, electric fences and security patrols. For most of its journey south, the wall does not hew to the Green Line, the pre-1967 border that marks the divide between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Instead, it cuts into Palestinian territory, annexing 10 percent of West Bank land, according to one estimate by the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights, also known as LAW.
The wall's course "doesn't have any political consideration," Mr. Baker says, adding that nothing Israelis or Palestinians do to land in the Occupied Territories will have "any significance" when the two sides eventually sit down to final status negotiations.
Compared to the informality of Qalqilya's ragged concrete streets, the barrier looks like an alien monolith, dropped into the fields. Around the city, it bulges out to encircle three nearby Israeli settlements, keeping them on the Israeli side of the wall. Qalqilya's land loss from the wall's detour will be compounded by a security zone extending 60 to 100 meters from the wall. People will not be able to enter this area, forcing farmers like Ibrahim Shraim to abandon affected fields.
The fertile black earth in which Mr. Shraim tends his cabbages goes right up to the barrier and he stands to lose crucial income once the zone is enforced. "If they apply the 100 meter zone, it is going to be disastrous," says Shraim.
All told, Qalqilya will lose some 15 percent of its municipal land and 50 percent of its agricultural land, according to LAW. The first phase of the wall, which encompasses Qalqilya, will affect 69 communities and some 213,000 people, the donor report says. Qalqilya's experience will be telling, as it is wealthier than other towns in the wall's path.
The wall has already had a profound impact, says the donor report. Agriculture has traditionally acted as an economic shock absorber during hard times, employing people when they lost jobs elsewhere. But wall construction has cut people off from that shock absorber. An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people have already left Qalqilya in order to escape the stricter Israeli hold on their lives and pocketbooks. The wall comes on top of an isolation initiated by Israeli closures and curfews.
"Qalqilya depends on agriculture, the manpower of its people, and the commercial sector. These three sectors have been hit hard by the [Israeli] siege, and the city has been isolated from the surrounding villages," Governor Malki says. "Now when you bear in mind that villagers from nearby villages can't come to Qalqilya anymore, up to 85 percent of the economy has come to a halt."
Throughout the Palestinian territories, this isolation has also broken down social networks, along with social services. West Bank stillbirths are up 58 percent over the past 29 months as medical care is harder to reach. Over 500 schools have closed across the territory because students and teachers can't reach them.
Some critics of the wall argue that short of a solution to this conflict, good intelligence, not a wall, is the only thing that will stop terror. They say that the despair engendered by the barrier, like the closures and curfews before it, will inevitably create more suicide bombers.
No regrets about violence
And even though Israel says that suicide bombers lead to the creation of the wall that is strangling Qalqilya, in at least one home here there is no regret about Palestinian violence against Israel.
"What my brother did wasn't wrong - but it wasn't enough," says Yousef Amer, whose brother Fadi blew himself up at an Israeli gas station in March 2001. The explosion killed two Jewish seminary students, ages 14 and 16.
Mr. Amer's comment prompts nervous laughter from two local officials who quickly point out that they disagree and that many Palestinians have divergent opinions about the most violent parts of the intifada.
Now, as Qalqilya struggles in the aftermath of that bombing and others like it, Malki insists that Qalqilya's residents are standing firm. Convinced that the wall is really meant to drive Palestinians from their land, he says they will refuse to leave under Israeli pressure. "We have all decided that we are going to stay here, even if we have to starve and eat grass," he says.