Collage from the story
© Your Middle East, Anna Kokko
Collage from the story
Last updated: September 24, 2015

Stories from the Wall

Banner Icon More than a decade after construction started on the separation wall, Palestinians and Israelis tell how the barrier has affected their lives.

In 2002, the Israeli government approved the construction of a separation barrier between the West Bank and Israel, with the aim of restricting the entry of Palestinian militants into the country.

The decision came in the middle of the second Palestinian intifada, sparked by the failure of the Oslo Peace Accords. The uprising was forcefully suppressed by Israel, killing more than 3,200 Palestinians. 950 Israelis lost their lives, approximately 450 of them in Palestinian suicide bombings within Israel.

Although Palestinian attacks decreased following the construction of the wall, the reasons for it have been debated. Some credit the wall, while others claim it was because of the Israeli Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, combined with a unilateral Hamas ceasefire in 2005. Critics point out that the drop occurred before major parts of the wall had even been finished.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 62% of the wall has now been constructed. 85% of the barrier is built on the West Bank territory, meaning that it does not follow the internationally recognized 1967 border. In fact, the planned road, 712 km, would be more than twice the length of the Green Line.

In its advisory opinion eleven years ago, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared the wall inside the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal and called for Israel to tear it down.

More than a decade later, the wall continues to divide the locals’ lands and opinions. While some have been walled off from their property or family, for others the wall means safety. Yet because of the barrier, many of the persons interviewed for this article might never meet in real life.

Ali Ayyad (Palestinian), Abu Dis 

When Ali Ayyad traveled to meet his sick brother in the United Arab Emirates in March 2014, Israel finished constructing the wall around his hometown, Abu Dis, leaving Ayyad’s hotel on the other side of the barrier.

For Ayyad, 61, the hotel had always been much more than a workplace. His father built the house for his family in the 1950s in an area with a beautiful view over Jerusalem. When he died in 1978, Ayyad became the owner of the hotel. It was there where he met his Norwegian wife, and where they raised their two daughters.

A key, some stamps, and photo albums are almost all that Ayyad has left from the building. “I try not to think of those years with nostalgia. That would hurt too much,” he says.

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Problems started in 1996, when the Israeli military declared the hotel a closed military area. With the help of his diplomatic contacts, Ayyad managed to negotiate the siege to be ended after ten days. In 2003, the family was thrown out for the second time. Israel had decided that the territory should belong to East Jerusalem and was planning to annex it with the barrier.

As Ayyad and his siblings were all holders of West Bank IDs, none of them were allowed to travel back to the area, which was now considered a part of Israel. The hotel was declared an absentee property, based on the Israeli law that usually applies to houses left behind by Palestinians that were forced to flee in 1948. 

“Legal circus” longer than a lifetime
Ayyad chose to complain to the court, starting a “legal circus” that is still ongoing. Twice, the Israeli authorities attempted to build a wall next to the hotel, but after a few phone calls to his contacts, Ayyad managed to get a certificate banning the construction. He feels like sentenced without knowing what crime he committed.

“It’s as if I was living in one of Kafka’s novels,” he says.

The case has reached the High Court of Justice, where Ayyad is trying to revoke the status of absentee for all his siblings. The problem is that Israel has declared the building a “security property.” In reality, Ayyad considers the location important because the road bypassing the hotel would lead directly to the planned settlement of Kidmat Zion.

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The businessman has little hope of dismantling the wall. Wherever Israel expands, he says, it remains. He is also disappointed by Palestinians who worked in constructing the wall or sold cement for its completion. “They say it was for their livelihood, but in the process they jailed themselves,” Ayyad says.

Now, the Cliff hotel is empty and surrounded by fences and barbed wire on all sides, with no traces of the garden that was still green two decades ago. Yet the owner claims he will continue the fight “as long as he’s still standing on two feet”.

“I have no short-sighted schedule for this project. This probably won’t be solved in my lifetime,” he says. “Whether my daughters or nieces want to keep up the struggle, is up to them. But I couldn’t sell my soul.” 


Barak Gatenyo (Israeli), Kfar Yona, Netanya 

When Israel started constructing the wall in 2002, Barak Gatenyo was 13 years old and living in Tel Aviv under the constant fear of terror attacks.

Since public buses were targets for suicide bombings, Gatenyo had to rely on his parents to take him to school. Public places like malls and restaurants were better off avoided. Gatenyo would visit friends only in his neighborhood.

 “I was a child living in conflict,” Gatenyo says. “Like the Palestinians, we just have to continue to live with it.”

One of Gatenyo’s friends was injured while riding a bus that exploded. His sister missed a bus that was later blown up. But after the construction of the wall begun, Gatenyo claims, there was a sharp decrease in terror attacks.

“It is a very simple equation for Israelis to understand, which is why most of us support the fence,” he says.

A graduate student in security studies, Gatenyo says that it was not only the wall but also Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 that decreased the threat from the West Bank. During the operation, Israelis arrested several Hamas leaders and destroyed a large part of their material.

Now Israelis worry instead about the civil war in Syria, the rise of radical Islamism in Iraq, and Hamas militants in Gaza. “People don’t say: ‘Thank God we have the fence!’ but rather, ‘Thank God we have the Iron Dome!’” he says, referring to the missile defense system that intercepts rockets fired from Gaza.

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“There will always be a wall between us”
Although Gatenyo thinks there will always be a wall between the future two states, he believes it should follow more closely the internationally recognized 1967 border between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Eventually, once both sides have forgotten about terrorism and occupation, the Israeli government should amend the road of the barrier.

The 28-year-old claims Israelis are well aware of the wall’s negative effects on Palestinians, among them the separation of families on different sides of the barrier. Yet the land annexed by the wall – about 6% of the West Bank according to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem – is not that significant for him.

 “You cannot build a house on such a small portion of land. Even some crazy settlers couldn’t do it,” he says.

Kfar Yona, a town in the region of Netanya where Gatenyo’s parents moved in 2006, is situated only three kilometers from the wall. When the student takes highway number six to the east, he can always see the barrier on the side of the road. For him, it is like any other building.

“I tend not to overthink about it,” he said. “I guess it makes me feel more secure – if something happens, it’ll be there to protect you.”


Fayez Taneeb (Palestinian), Tulkarem 

On the other side of the wall, organic farmer Fayez Taneeb can hear the cars driving on highway number six close to the lands that his grandfather used to cultivate.

Twelve years ago, he heard the Israeli soldiers ordering through megaphones that locals should stay inside for two weeks. Less than an hour later, Taneeb and his wife saw from their window Israeli bulldozers uprooting olive and orange trees next to their farm.

“We didn’t understand what was going on,” Taneeb says.

After the curfew, farmers found letters and maps that the Israeli forces had stuck on stones and trees in the cleared area, explaining that a wall would be erected for the protection of Israeli citizens. A month later, another Israeli bulldozer destroyed everything from irrigation pipes to greenhouses on Taneeb’s land, which was declared a closed military zone. Within six months, a concrete wall was constructed.

The farm, which used to cover 32 dunams (an Ottoman measurement for 1000 square meters), was now reduced to 12 dunams, leaving only 40% of Taneeb’s fields on the West Bank side of the barrier.

It took more than a year before the Taneebs were allowed to enter their land again. Sneaking in was challenging, as the Israeli forces could watch the fields from an observation post built into the wall. In addition, the army constructed a separate 50-meter-high camera tower to survey every movement on the farm.

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A million lost trees
Today, Taneeb’s farm is flourishing in verdant green with salad, tomatoes, and strawberries. The cultivator shows excitedly all the innovative technologies that have made his plantation one of the few organic farms in the West Bank.

Yet vandalism is far from over. One morning, Taneeb discovered that someone had cut off the plastic on greenhouse roofs. Once he found poisonous chemicals on the plants. Last winter, 15 of his trees died because of floods after the Israeli soldiers closed down a sewage tunnel built under the wall.

The barrier is not Taneeb’s only problem. An Israeli chemical factory has surrounded his farm from the other side since he started cultivating the land in the 1980s. As the wind blows from the west to the east during most of the year, many Palestinian villages suffer from the pollution. Even during a calm day, a pungent smell hovers over Taneeb’s land.

In addition to teaching agricultural engineering to other Palestinians, this father of five is now fighting the wall at an international level.  Within ten years, his aim is to raise enough money to plant one million olive trees to replace the ones that were uprooted because of the wall.

The farmer says he is determined to die on the territory where he was born.

“This is our land,” Taneeb says. “We have no other place to go to.” 


Anhar Itmazi (Palestinian), Ramallah 

Anhar Itmazi, 24, cannot really remember the years before the wall.

“I never had a free life,” she says. “I don’t think of the wall as something weird. We’re used to it by now.”

A recent graduate in economics, Itmazi is now working in her hometown of Ramallah, the administrative capital of the West Bank. During her studies, she used to commute every day to the university of Al Quds in Abu Dis. The buses may have to stop at one to three checkpoints along the road, which is already longer because of the wall.

“Sometimes I finished school at 5 p.m. and got back home at 8 p.m. There was no time to study,” Itmazi says.

For her fourth year, Itmazi moved to Abu Dis. Her apartment was right next to the tall concrete wall, which also happened to be where local teenagers gathered to play and throw stones. The Israeli soldiers responded with tear gas and shooting. Several times a week the air was so filled with gas that Itmazi and her flatmates could not go out.

Once the student saw some children trying to make a hole in the wall.

“They were curious to know what was behind,” she explains.

While Itmazi could see the churches and mosques in Jerusalem from her rooftop, with her green West Bank ID she can go to the city only after a lengthy and costly application process. The process involves applying first for a permit to be able to apply for the real travel certificate, which then allows between eight hours to three days in the holy city.

“Even going to Amman is easier,” she says. During the last thirteen years, she has been to the city only twice, the last time was two years ago. 

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Never on the same side of the wall
Economy is the main reason why Israel gives permits more easily to Palestinians during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Itmazi claims. At the end of the fast, Muslim families traditionally buy new clothes. While garments are often less expensive on the other side of the wall, certain products, such as organic foods, cannot even be found in the West Bank.

“We know we’re living under occupation. But we still want to enjoy the restaurants and shops in Jerusalem for once when we get there,” she says.

For Itmazi, crossing the wall feels like going to a foreign country. Walking in the streets with ordinary Israelis is strange for someone who is only used to seeing soldiers. To get better customer service, she and her friends have decided to speak English instead of Arabic. On both sides, she says, there is too much resentment to be able to live in the same state.

“We were never taught to hate Israelis,” she claimed. “But when we saw how much they destroyed our property and killed our people… We never wanted to be with them, even before the wall.”

Itmazi reiterates that the wall itself is illegal in the way that it separates families and steals Palestinians’ land. For her, claiming that the barrier protects Israelis from Palestinian terrorism is nonsense.

“We have only stones, not weapons.”


Majd Saqih (Palestinian), Jerusalem 

The road into Majd Saqih’s apartment in the Beit Hanina neighborhood of East Jerusalem passes right by the separation wall. On top of the concrete blocks, several footballs have been trapped into the barbed wire, lost from the children’s play.

Now married and the father of one, Saqih has struggled since the age of fifteen to maintain his permit to live in the city. That was when his family moved from Ramallah to Jerusalem, where his mother originally comes from.

Although both Saqih and his brother were born in Jerusalem – their mother came specifically back to her hometown to give birth – their father comes from the West Bank, which makes registration more difficult. As teenagers, the two boys were given a residency permit for only three months. After these expired, they were staying illegally in their own house.

To avoid ID controls, Saqih tried to stay only in the Arab neighborhoods. The police still stopped him “countless times”. After a half-hour questioning, he was deported “back” to the West Bank.

He managed to return to the house in Jerusalem by passing around the checkpoints that control movement between Israel and the Palestinian territories. He attended school the same way: Without a residency permit, he was not allowed to study in Israel.

Things became more complicated when Israel constructed the wall in several parts around Jerusalem during 2009-2010. At the time, Saqih was spending his last semester at the Al Quds University in Abu Dis, studying to become a laboratory technician.

The only way to come home now was to climb over the wall. About 400 meters from his house, Saqih found a place where the wall was only 6-7 meters high instead of the ordinary 8-10 meters. In addition, there was a hole in the barbed wire.

The crossing had to be timed carefully, as Israeli jeeps drove through the area every 30 minutes to check if everything was normal. To minimize the risk of getting caught, Saqih came home only once a month. 


Residing without rights
Although several lawyers told the technician there was nothing to be done, with the help of a human rights organization, St. Yves, Saqih finally managed get a permanent residency permit in 2012. Even this permit, however, has to be renewed every September.

Yet a residency permit cannot replace Israeli citizenship. Without an Israeli passport, Saqih can only travel abroad through Amman, Jordan. He is not allowed to drive in Israel and receives no benefits from the government, such as child allowances, unemployment support, or even pension.

“I’m just living here, with no rights,” he says. Moving to the West Bank is not an option either, for then his wife and child would lose their Jerusalem IDs.

For Saqih, the reason behind his treatment is clear. “They want to make Israel a Jewish state, forcing Palestinians to move to the West Bank or even leave the country,” he says. In his neighborhood, problems with the residency permits and insurances dominate the locals’ discussions.

In spite of his current challenges, Saqih tries to remain optimistic about the future. “In Sunni Islam, they say that after six or seven years there will be no Israel, and Palestine will be united with Syria and Jordan.”


Kobi Snitz (Israeli), Tel Aviv-Yafo 

Kobi Snitz, a long-time member of the Israeli group, Anarchists Against the Wall (AATW), calls Israel a “fundamentally oppressive and discriminatory” state.

A loosely bound group with few formalities, the anarchists are united in their campaign against the separation barrier. Every Friday, they attend Palestinian demonstrations against the wall in different towns across the West Bank.

Already the presence of Israelis can protect Palestinian protestors. In principle, the Israeli army is not supposed to use live ammunition when they might hurt their own citizens. Even so, Snitz says he has witnessed numerous shootings and beatings at the demonstrations.

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While around 40 members form the core of the anarchist group, thousands of Israelis have attended the protests since the organization’s establishment in 2003. For many, acting on the same side with Palestinians is an eye-opening experience.

“Typical Israelis are afraid of going to a Palestinian village without a gun, as they think they will be hurt,” the activist says.

For Snitz, a biology researcher at the Weizmann Institute near Tel Aviv, it seems clear that the wall is not about security but an Israeli attempt to grab as much Palestinian land as possible. If this were not the case, he argues, the wall would have been already completed.

“Jerusalem is the city that suffered most from terrorist attacks during the second intifada, but the wall around it has not been finished,” he says. “The state wants to keep the option open for even further expansion.”

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Activists constantly on trial
The state wants also to limit the anarchists’ campaigning. Arrests and injuries at the demonstrations are commonplace. Most of the Israeli activists are on trial “all the time”, charged with attending illegal demonstrations or interfering with police work.

Yet Snitz repeats that their struggle is nothing compared to what Palestinians endure. While Israelis are subject to civilian law, Palestinians are tried in military court, which means harsher punishments and longer jail sentences.

The Israeli society at large is no more sympathetic for someone who spends half of his weekends attending Palestinian protests. Snitz says that the university where he works receives letters from right-wing parliamentarians every month, asking for him to be fired.

“I’m sure I’ve lost some friends over the years because of my activism,” he says. “Every day, I’m thinking of moving abroad.”

So far he has decided to stay in the Mediterranean town, for he wants to continue the struggle “as long as he can”. But the pressure for Israel to change, Snitz says, has to come from the outside. As the debate in Israel focuses only on the wellbeing of Israelis and not that of Palestinians, he thinks discussion is futile. Protesting on the other side of the wall has more effect.


Steven Plaut (Israeli), Haifa

“If they act like animals, we have to make a cage for them.”

This is how Steven Plaut, professor of Business Administration at the Haifa University, explains the necessity to separate Palestinians behind the wall. Although only partly successful, the fence has to a large extent stopped the “mass murder of Israelis”.

If Plaut could have decided, he would have built a separate fence around each Palestinian village. With the current wall, he says, Israel is fencing itself away from the West Bank. The recent conflict in Gaza has also proved that it is possible to dig a tunnel under the barrier or shoot a rocket over it.

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Yet the professor, who immigrated to Israel in 1981 from Philadelphia, is happy to see the wall when he drives towards the south from Haifa. He does not think that the barrier harms Palestinians living on the other side – though it does prevent them from killing more Jews.

“Too bad if the fence cuts through their farming lands! It didn’t do so before they launched the terror attacks,” he says.

Plaut does not consider punishing all Palestinians collectively for suicide bombings a problem. While the economist admits it is hard to conduct opinion polls on the issue, he claims only a small number of Palestinians do not support the terrorists. In fact, he argues that Palestinians are as legitimate a target as German civilians during the Nazi era.

Friends and enemies at the same time
Despite his opinions, Plaut says that Arabs and Israelis can have cordial relationships at the personal level. As a student in Israel in the 1970s, he used to travel to Ramallah and Jericho during weekend trips. The Palestinians he met were friendly and welcoming – even more than Israelis.

The same holds true with Palestinians living in Israel. When Plaut’s car was stuck in the mud during a winter storm outside of Haifa, only Arabs stopped to help him and his wife, who was at the last stages of her pregnancy.

While hospitalized for severe health problems 14 years ago, the professor shared room with an old Bedouin Arab, a legendary scout who used to work for the Palestinian police. The two became so close that Plaut wrote a book named ‘Scout’ based on the stories of his new friend.

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At the political level, however, Plaut will always regard even the Palestinians he knows as enemies. He estimates that 70% of his Arab students, who also hold rallies for Hamas on campus, are in the end hostile to Israel.

“The Arabs will like me only dead in the sea,” he says. “Sounds contradictory? Welcome to the Middle East.”

Internationally, Plaut thinks Israel gets disproportionate criticism as no one holds demonstrations against walls built in other countries.

“The world is full of anti-Semites. The UN is the worst,” he said.

To ensure better relations between Israelis and the Palestinians, only a complete defeat will work. This is why Plaut believes military control of the Palestinian territories should be increased: Walls might not be enough to protect his children from the terrorists.

Nur Faki (Palestinian), Qatane

Meeting Faki at his home up the hill from the village of Qatane is virtually impossible. Even his family members have to apply for special permits to visit him, which the Israeli authorities usually grant during Islamic celebrations only.

Getting out of their home is also a daily struggle for Faki, his wife and six children. Whenever they want to go to the grocery store or to work, they have to pass through the family’s private electric gate controlled by the Israeli soldiers. Showing their identity cards for the cameras and waiting for about 15-20 minutes have become part of their daily routine.

Higher up on the hill from Faki’s house, there is an Israeli settlement, Har Adar. When Israel built the wall in the region in 2003, Faki’s house – only two kilometers away from the Palestinian village of Qatane – was left on the same side as the settlement. Israel offered Faki 25 million dollars if he left the house, but out of principle, the Palestinian rejected.

To allow the family access to their home village, the gate and a separate road were constructed. Yet Faki believes that Israel is just waiting for him to give up. He is not allowed to build anything on his territory, which is under constant video surveillance. When he added an extra floor to the house to get more space for the growing children, the new roof was demolished soon after.

At times, the father feels as if he is being monitored even inside his home. One midnight, when he was smoking a cigarette outside, Israeli soldiers came within ten minutes to ask what he was doing.

“When I leave my house, I have to pass through a gate. When I go to work, I have to go through a checkpoint,” Faki says. “My life is full of gates.”

One of these gates leads to his workplace in the Geva’t Zeaif settlement. Faki tries to justify the job for himself by thinking that in the end he is working on a Palestinian land. For now, someone else is just occupying it.

Security check for tomatoes
For the children as well, the road to school goes through their private checkpoint. The oldest son got lower grades from his final school exams, as he was often late because of delays at the gate.

Some time ago one of Faki’s sons suffered a serious head injury. When Faki rushed to the gate with the bleeding boy in his arms, the soldiers claimed it was not working. The two were allowed to go to the hospital only after the furious father threatened to damage the fence with a hammer.

Another time, Faki had to wait at the gate for two hours because the soldiers wanted to do a security-check for the eggplants and tomatoes he had bought from the market in big boxes. He says he now takes medicine for his nerves.

Living practically in a cage takes a toll on the rest of the family as well. Under stress, Faki’s wife sometimes loses consciousness for a couple of minutes. Having no one to play with, the children can only wave at the Jewish kids they see on the other side of the settlement fence. One of the sons asked to get an M-16 gun, used by the Israeli army, for his birthday gift.

The situation has improved only slightly as the family has finally running water again for the first time in eight years. After the wall disconnected the house from the Palestinian water supply, Faki was forced to transport huge tanks of water from the village. But even now, he feels helpless and alone.

“Most foreign governments support Israel”, he says. “But no one offers help for us.”

Anna Kokko
Anna is a freelance journalist currently based in Brussels.
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