In The West Bank, Barriers Don't Necessarily Make Good Neighbors

Feb 16, 2016
Originally published on February 17, 2016 3:47 pm

Do good fences really make good neighbors? In the past months of increased violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinian attackers have cut or jumped fences surrounding Israeli settlements several times, stabbing and twice killing Israeli civilians.

In a cluster of settlements known as Gush Etzion, some 10 miles south of Jerusalem, a Palestinian teenager cut through the fence of the Tekoa settlement in mid-January. He walked a couple hundred yards to a street of small workshops and warehouses, entered a used clothing store and stabbed and wounded an Israeli woman working there.

The break in the fence is fixed now, but two thin strips of white plastic twisted in barbed wire still mark his entry point.

On the settlement side, two rolls of concertina wire are stacked on top of each other to about human height. They buttress a chain-link fence topped by half a dozen strands of barbed wire. On the other side, a Palestinian olive grove stretches to a Palestinian village with the same name, Tequa, just a short walk away.

Israeli Miriam Gabso runs a horse therapy business inside the settlement, steps from where fence was cut. She would like a better barrier — a less penetrable fence, and she'd like it to go all the way around the settlement.

"There are kids here," she says. "I think we need to feel that we are doing our maximum efforts to keep them safe."

Cars entering the settlement are already inspected by armed guards. A guard roams the settlement around the clock and many locals are on call to respond to security breaches.

One guard who will just give his first name, Avi, says he feels safe. "I have a weapon," he said, sitting in his white truck watching the fence. "I feel secure, but citizens are scared."

'This Is My Home'

Other Tekoa residents say barriers are not the answer. David Harel, one of the first security responders to show up on the day of the attack, says any fence can be crossed. He also says he doesn't want to live fenced in.

"I don't think this is the way," he says. "I'm living here because this is my country, our country. This is my home."

Harel says the way to real security is by convincing Palestinians that Israelis are not leaving the West Bank.

"If we reach the point where each accepts the fact that the other sees this place as home and recognizes the other's history here, then it is possible" to live together, he says.

Down the road, the mayor of Efrat, a much bigger settlement, subscribes to the same theory. Security comes "first of all, by very good relationships with our neighbors," Oded Revivi says.

Still, his settlement does not rely on that alone. There is no fence to speak of — but the town's two driving entrances are guarded, like all settlements. And Efrat has an extensive system of video surveillance, built in 2008 with a donation from a wealthy American.

Cameras around the perimeter, some using night vision, feed images to a dozen screens in a bunker two stories below city hall. Two employees watch the screens constantly, scanning police and security communications at the same time.

"They're connected here to all the radio systems, all the emergency systems," Revivi says.

Every couple of months, Mayor Revivi says, the cameras catch someone trying to sneak in, crossing through the fields instead of using the settlement's two entrances.

"Usually, they give the excuse that they've come to do some sort of criminal offense, whether to break into a property or to steal a car. But we treat them as suspects who've come to do a terrorist attack. We hand them to police or to the army," he says.

Apart from security, there's another reason Revivi doesn't like fences.

"There is a tendency, once you draw a line or once you build a fence, that the other side understands that's the border," he said.

Revivi says Efrat hasn't grown past its original boundaries, set 25 years ago. But founders thought a fence might get in the way of growth.

The Long Way To The Main Road

In the closest Palestinian village to Efrat, Wadi Nis, resident Saleh Hamad, 63, says he doesn't have a beef with Efrat as it is now. He says it helps villagers with emergency care.

But Hamad does remember better times. Before the second Intifada or Palestinian uprising, which started in 2000, residents of Wadi Nis used to be able to enter the settlement just by showing their local IDs, he says. They could even drive through to the highway. Hamad did business in Efrat.

"I'd sell things house to house or deliver from the supermarket," he says. "But now, due to security, we can only go with a permit."

One small fence blocks the road Palestinians used to drive into Efrat. Now they have to take the long way to the main road.

This is a sensitive subject, and Hamad and his family, roasting potatoes and calf hearts in a hot iron stove in their living room, are reluctant to fully spell out their views.

According to documentation by Israeli human rights groups, Efrat was built on land expropriated from Palestinians. But Hamad lays no claim, noting these weren't lands belonging to his village. He also says most of the several hundred Wadi Nis villagers belong to the same Palestinian clan — a "good" clan. "No troublemakers here," he says.

Checkpoints And Soldiers

In the Palestinian town of Tequa, things are more fraught. The entry road is strewn with half-burned debris from recent confrontations between Tequa youth and Israeli soldiers.

Soldiers set up a military post on the outskirts last week. Palestinian youth throw rocks toward it and the soldiers fire back with teargas or bullets. Tayser Abo Mefreh, Tequa's deputy mayor, says 18 Palestinians from the village were shot and wounded in confrontations with military patrols in January alone.

He says most contact with settlers has been in court, as the village has sued over Israeli land confiscations.

Five settlers did come to Tequa recently, he says, introducing themselves as peace activists. He chatted with them, but called it useless. "How can five impact [thousands of] settlers in the area?" he says.

At the edge of his village, he points out an olive grove he says Palestinians need Israeli military permission to harvest.

On the other side of the grove is a settlement, and a settlement fence. Abo Mefreh says the fences around settlements aren't a real problem for Palestinians. It's the settlements themselves, he says.

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A fence is often seen as something that provides protection. For Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are considered occupied territory by the U.S. and other governments, there are different opinions about what a fence means. Several times recently, Palestinian attackers have climbed or cut through fences to conduct attacks, twice killing Israeli civilians. It's part of a wave of attacks that's been happening since last October. But NPR's Emily Harris reports some Israelis oppose more fencing.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Two thin strips of white plastic twisted in wire mark the spot. This is where a Palestinian teenager cut through a chain-link fence and concertina wire along one edge of an Israeli settlement. He walked in and stabbed and wounded an Israeli woman in a shop nearby.


HARRIS: Steps from where the Palestinian attacker entered, Israeli Joseph Gabso makes repairs around his horse stables. His wife, Miriam Gabso, looks past the concertina wire at Palestinian homes just across an olive grove. She says she wants a better fence.

MIRIAM GABSO: (Through interpreter) Because there are kids here, I think we need to know we are doing the most possible to keep them safe.

HARRIS: But other residents in this settlement called Tekoa say barriers are not the answer. David Harel was one of the first settlement volunteer security guards to respond to the attack after the fence break.

DAVID HAREL: Anyone can cross any fence he wants. If somebody wants to attack, he can attack anywhere.

HARRIS: But mainly, Harel doesn't want to feel fenced in on land he claims as home.

HAREL: I don't think that this is the way. I'm living here because this is our country, my country. This is my home.

HARRIS: There are no fences to speak of around Efrat, a bigger settlement down the road. It's not even related to the security debate. Efrat mayor Oded Ravivi says founders thought a fence might make it harder for the settlement to expand.

ODED REVIVI: There is a tendency, once you draw a line or once you build a fence, that the other side understands that's the border. And they didn't want to set the boundaries and say these are the boundaries of the city.

HARRIS: Efrat's perimeter is watched by armed guards and a network of camera, some even with night vision.

REVIVI: So this is how it looks underground.

HARRIS: Revivi shows off the settlement's security bunker, paid for by a wealthy American. Two employees watch screens around the clock.

REVIVI: And they're connected here to all the radio systems, all the emergency services.

HARRIS: But Revivi says most important for Efrat's security is not fences or cameras. It's getting along with Palestinian neighbors. In the closest village, Wadi Nis, 63-year-old Saleh Hamad thinks he knows why there are no fences around the settlement.

SALEH HAMAD: (Through interpreter) Efrat doesn't want borders. It wants to go all the way to the sea.

HARRIS: But he doesn't mind Efrat and its current borders. He says settlers help with villagers with emergency healthcare. By a hot iron stove in his family's living room, his wife roast potatoes and calf hearts. Their pet birds sing, and Hamad remembers when Wadi Nis people used to go in and out of Efrat freely.

HAMAD: (Through interpreter) I used to go myself in my car and distribute merchandise from house to house or from supermarket to houses. That was my work. And I would stay there 'til midnight, and no one would stop me.

HARRIS: The Israeli military stopped that free access years ago during an earlier flare-up in violence. Now permits are required.

TAYSER ABO MEFREH: (Foreign language spoken).

HARRIS: Tayser Abo Mefreh, deputy mayor of another nearby Palestinian town, Tequa, shows the point at the edge of his village Palestinians can't pass without Israeli permission.

ABO MEFREH: (Through interpreter) This road has been closed for 30 years. The olives at the entrance to the settlement are ours, but we need permission to harvest them.

HARRIS: On the other side of that olive grove is a settlement and a settlement fence, but that's off in the distance. Abo Mefreh says with or without fences, Israeli settlements hem Palestinians in. Emily Harris, NPR News, the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.