I took a trip to Tulkarm, in the northwestern corner of the West Bank to see the effects of the occupation on the villages in that area. Tulkarm is located close to the Green Line, the 1967 boundary between the Palestinian territories and the state of Israel, and has been incredibly adversely affected by the building of the wall. The path of the wall, as I have mentioned many times, does not follow the Green Line, but zig-zags over the land, sometimes veering kilometers away from the Green Line, cutting off villages, and annexing people's land.
The first day of my visit to Tulkarm, we visited a farmer in a neighboring village whose lands have been cut off and isolated by the wall. He has 40 dunums(1 dunum equals 4 acres) 25 of which are now on the other side of the wall. To access this land, he must obtain a permit. No one without a permit can go to the land. Permits are not given for year-round access, but rather, in periods of three months, at harvest time, planting time, etc. Some farmers with trees are able to manage with this, but for vegetable farmers, who need to go to their fields every day, this can be crippling. It is common for men, especially young men, and almost certainly men with criminal records, to be denied permits, taking the strongest members of the family out of the workforce, and many times leaving an old woman as the only member of the family with permission to work the land. Sometimes they will give permission to a farmer, but not to his donkey, making their work much more difficult.
The wall in this area of the country consists of a six meter high concrete wall, fortified by an electrified fence some 20 meters back from the wall, surrounded by a large ditch, and coils of razor wire. In the fence there is a large locked gate, and on the gate is a huge yellow sign that reads "This gate will be opened from 07:00-08:00, 11:00-12:00, and 15:00-16:00." Workers that have obtained a permit may meet at the gate, and be allowed admission when a soldier in a jeep comes to open the gate for them. However, they do not open the gate three times a day, as indicated on the sign, but two times, at 7am, and at three o'clock in the afternoon, and contrary again to what is indicated on the sign, the gate is not opened for an hour, but only long enough for the soldiers to check the identification of the workers, and then it is closed again. In the meantime, farmers are locked on their land like a prison camp, with no way in or out. If anyone was injured during the workday, they could die there with no way to reach help.
While we were there, workers gathered at the gate, awaiting the three o'clock opening. When the jeep arrived, the soldier informed us that he would not open the gate as long as we were standing there and asked us to move about 20 meters back. When we complied, he opened the gate and proceeded to check the workers identification, and one by one, they were allowed to leave. The process took about twenty minutes and then the gate was closed again. Anyone left behind would have to wait until the next morning.
According to the workers I talked with, sometimes the soldiers come half an hour late, and sometimes they come and sit in their jeeps and read the newspaper for half an hour while the people wait. Even worse, one man said that morning they had come half an hour early, and many people didn't make it in time. They also said that if one person is missing when the jeep comes, they will often detain or punish the rest, forcing them to run laps or perform ridiculous or humiliating acts.
After the jeep left, one farmer gave us a tour of his remaining land. The soil is rich and fertile, the landscape surprisingly green. Greenhouses stretch over the landscape. He grows tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, Narcissus flowers. He told us the story of when the bulldozer came to take his land, how he tried alone to block it, saying "Kill me if you want to, just kill me, I am not moving." In the end the bulldozer prevailed. Now Israel has sent an order saying that all land 300 to 500m away from the wall must be vacated for security reasons. He will be alright, he says, he has forty dunums, but for some, this will mean losing their farm. In the distance one can see the buildings of the city the Israelis call Netanya. "That's what they took in '48," he says, "Then they brought the wall, now they want 300 to 500 meters more." He says he doesn't know what the future will bring.
We took a tour of led by a few Tulkarm activists and the School Health Officer, an articulate and well dressed young woman, of the poorest schools in the area. We brought lice shampoo from a Tulkarm organization for distribution in the schools. The first school we visited had 320 students from 1st to 3rd grades in 9 classrooms. The school was so overcrowded that some classrooms had as many as 46 students in them. The students sat two to a desk, with desks lined up in rows and along the walls. The school had no central heating, and therefore is very cold and damp in the winter, forcing the children to wear their coats inside the classroom. Many children come from very poor families, since many of their fathers are out of work, or have been killed or injured in the intifada. Taking these conditions into account, I am always impressed by how highly Palestine as a society values education, and how many students go on to receive a higher education.
The second school we visited was an even poorer situation than the first. This school is located right next to a recent Israeli settlement, and the school, as well as the villagers, are under constant harassment from the settlers as well as the army. This school only has three rooms, one for first and second graders, one for third and fourth graders, and one for fifth and sixth. The school has no heat or electricity because the army has disconnected their wires, and Israel refuses to grant them permission to run electrical wires from the village to the school. The classrooms are cold and dark, and the village, being in one of the poorest areas in the West Bank, doesn't have the money to fix it. One can see the settlement at the bottom of the hill. They are expanding every day. Someone told me that only about thirty people actually live there. Most of the 200 or so houses are vacant, owned by people who live in Tel Aviv or Netanya, and come out for the weekend once in awhile.
Upon returning to Tulkarm, we saw the old Mukata, which was destroyed by the Israeli army in the 2002 invasion. We saw a mosque, a police station, a prison, an army barracks, a school and a playground, all completely destroyed by tanks, buildings half standing, with mortar holes blown in the side.
I remember once hearing a comment once, while visiting Ground Zero, that Americans are so fascinated with Ground Zero because we've never seen a bombed out area like that in our own country. I was reminded of that as I stood there gawking at this bombed out shell of a neighborhood, the likes of which I could never imagine in my own city.
It's all too common here.
Take care everyone.