The Barrier: Stories from behind the Wall

The Wall in Abu Dis
The Wall in Abu Dis (© Eric Beauchemin)

In the summer of 2002, Israel began erecting a barrier to seal off the occupied Palestinian territories. The move followed a series of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. 150 kilometres of the 700-kilometre structure have already been built. The barrier is due to be completed by late 2005. Israel calls it a security fence. Palestinians call it The Wall. In a two-part series, entitled “The Barrier”, Eric Beauchemin examines the impact of the barrier on Palestinians and Israelis. Part 1:  “Stories from Behind the Wall” highlights the consequences of the structure for Palestinians’ freedom of movement and their daily life.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: October 27, 2004

“The Barrier” garnered a gold medal at the New York Radio Festivals in 2005.


In the summer of 2002, Israel began erecting a barrier to seal off the occupied Palestinian territories. The move followed a series of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. The 700-kilometre structure is due to be completed by late 2005. Israel calls it a security fence. Palestinians call it The Wall.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Stories from Behind the Wall”, part 1 of “The Barrier”, a 2-part series, produced by Eric Beauchemin.

The Qalandia checkpoint, 11 kilometres north of Jerusalem on the West Bank. Dozens of taxis are waiting in the hot sun to transport people to towns and cities in the northern part of the territory. Cars on both sides are backed up several hundred metres. Hundreds of people are shuffling through turnstiles to get in. I make my way in the opposite direction. It’s a quiet time of the day: after only a few minutes’ wait, I empty my pockets and pass through the metal detector. An Israeli soldier checks my passport. And then, I’m on the other side.

Like the other checkpoints in the occupied territories, Qalandia separates a Palestinian town from another Palestinian town or village. But Qalandia is also different from many other checkpoints: to the west, a concrete wall, 8 metres high, stretches for as far as the eye can see. Soon, the eastern side will be closed off too.

A few hundred metres away, I meet Dr. Sami Ass’ad, an orthopaedic surgeon in his 50s. The Wall lies in his backyard.

Dr Sami Ass’ad used to have over 100 trees in his backyard
Dr Sami Ass’ad used to have over 100 trees in his backyard (© Eric Beauchemin)

Well, I can show you something. It’s in my bedroom. Before the Wall, it was all green and you can see all the things to Jerusalem. And suddenly I have two and a half floors now in front of me, so I plant this… EB: 2.5 floors of Wall you mean Yeah. It’s the wall. 2.5 floors, so I plant this so I can cover my window. You see it. It’s like a green fence. My bed is just next to it. When I woke, I just see this and not see that because it’s really very painful for me.

One month before they made the Wall, a bulldozer, a military bulldozer came and it just destroyed all the trees who had been planted since 40 years ago. And they made it a desert for me. It was about 100 or 120 trees had been destroyed in two hours. My family was proud of it. We were just having our own forest and suddenly in one night or one day, it’s just everything is gone. They didn’t talk to me. Just they’re having their gun, well asking us to go away and we didn’t know what to do. Palestinian people are living on the other side, and there are no Israelis. The first Israeli is living after the Wall is about 15 kilometres from here.

I think it’s very clear, certainly from our point of view, that nobody could ever say that Israel shouldn’t build a barrier on their own land to stop whatever coming across. I mean, I think that’s every country’s right to do that.

David Shearer of the United Nations’ Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs
David Shearer of the United Nations’ Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (© Eric Beauchemin)

Almost everyone, including most Palestinians agrees with David Shearer, the head of the United Nations agency coordinating humanitarian affairs in the occupied territories. The protests and condemnation of the Wall – most recently by the International Court of Justice in The Hague – stem from the fact that the barrier doesn’t follow the Green Line, recognised by the international community in 1949 as the border between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.

85% of the length of the barrier is not on the Green Line. It’s actually running into Palestinian areas. That’s the issue for us, and where it does come into Palestinian areas it brings people into enclaves. It stops people again getting to their markets, to their schools, the hospitals. It creates enormous humanitarian problems. There’s going to be at least 4 to 500,000 people living in the West Bank but that will be living within one kilometre of the barrier which means in some way they are going to be affected, whether they’ve got family or friends or their fields or their agricultural land or whatever is on the other side. The barrier has an enormous impact basically on people’s lives.

Another checkpoint, this one in Abu Dis in eastern Jerusalem. Abu Dis used to be part of the city. Now, it’s cut off by the Wall. But there’s a small gap in the concrete barrier and thousands of Palestinians pass through it every day on their way to school or work or to visit family and friends on the other side.

Abu Dis crossing
Abu Dis crossing (© Eric Beauchemin)

Israeli border police monitor the crossing, but not as closely as in Qalandia. The gap in the Wall is less than half a metre wide. Children, mothers with babies in their arms, old people with canes…everyone has to climb up several uneven concrete blocks to get through the opening. Every morning and evening, there are human traffic jams here. Israeli soldiers often climb up the blocks and stop everyone. The Israelis say the closures are for security reasons. But most people who come through here every day have been stopped so many times that the explanation has lost all meaning.

Abu Dis crossing
Abu Dis crossing (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: Why did they close it? He said that was a restriction from an officer and that’s it. EB: And how long will we be here? He said he doesn’t have an idea. I told him we have ? and he doesn’t have an idea. Everybody’s closed. We’re never going to pass. EB: Well if it’s any consolation, as a foreigner, there’s no…I don’t go through either. Well, it seems that we are all foreigners. Nobody is local.

Along with dozens of other people, we finally decide to go through the yard of a nearby monastery. Part of a metal fence there has been torn down and we manage to slide down a 2.5 metre lamppost, leaving the women and the less physically fit behind.

If there’s no choice, there’s no choice. EB: I’ll hold it for you. No that’s OK. EB: Be careful, be careful. Don’t worry. That’s it.

Every day, 16-year-old Yussuf, who lives in Jerusalem, passes through the Abu Dis checkpoint – known to Palestinians as “The Gate” – to attend one of the best schools in the area.

Sometimes the Israeli soldiers stop us at the Gate. They check our bags and ask us our names and we have to show them our identity cards. They humiliate us. And sometimes we’re late for school because there’s so much traffic. In winter, the ground is wet. When we jump from one side to the other, we often slip off the stones. And nothing is organised there. People are trying to get in and others are trying to get out. And lots of people cut the queue. EB: How long does it take you to get from there to here? Usually it takes me about half an hour, but if we have problems it takes longer. EB: How long did it take before the Wall was built? It used to take me about 10 to 20 minutes.

Qalandia checkpoint
Qalandia checkpoint (© Eric Beauchemin)

On all the world, we just say, you just say well, I’m 15 kilometres from my work or 20 kilometres from my work. Well, everyone here is counting it by the checkpoints. I’m two checkpoints from my work or three checkpoints from my work,. A Palestinian, he knows exactly what does it mean. Because sometimes it’s closed so you can’t go to your job. And you can imagine well, if you are just in the morning and two or three hours walking or standing in the sun in a long queue and humiliating and with everything, and how you can arrive and you just see your patients? And sometimes you feel that you are already exhausted and you want to come back from the first checkpoint. And this is what is happening now.

For some, it’s just too much. 8-year-old Ahmad was born with spina bifada, an incomplete closure of the spinal column. He’s paralysed from the waist down. Ahmad uses a brace and a walker to move about. The only school in his village is spread out over three different buildings on different levels and separated by a road. So when Ahmad started attending kindergarten, his mother sent him to a school adapted to his needs in Bethlehem, 5 kilometres away. But now Ahmad’s village, Wallaja, is being cut off by the Wall.

Ahmad al-Atrash
Ahmad al-Atrash (© Eric Beauchemin)

Two years ago when the situation was different in Wallaja and the roads were not closed completely a taxi would come pick Ahmad up from the house. I would carry him down the stairs, put him in the taxi. The taxi would then take him to school and then bring him back in the afternoon and I’d pick him up from the taxi and bring him up to the house. EB: And how long did that take? Ahmad could leave the house at 7. By the time the taxi picked up all the other students, he’d be at school at 7:30 and when he finished at 12 o’clock, he would be back home at maximum 1:30, when the taxi had dropped off the other children.

EB: What was it like when you first started going to school in Bethlehem? When I was at kindergarten, the taxi would come to the house and pick up and take me to school. It was easy. EB: And what was it like at school? We studied subjects like Arabic and math and we had exercises and we had different subjects and I liked going school.

Wallaja, has been cut off by the Wall
Wallaja, has been cut off by the Wall (© Eric Beauchemin)

To close off Ahmad’s village, Israel dumped earth and boulders on one of the village’s access roads. There’s only one other road out of Wallaja: cars and pedestrians have to pass through a checkpoint there called DCO which is only open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Because of the long delays at the checkpoint, every morning, one of Ahmad’s family members pushed him in a wheelchair to the earth mounds and carried the 30-kilo boy on their back over three big mounds to a taxi. In the afternoon, one of them would go back to bring Ahmad back home.

He was in Bethlehem from kindergarten, 1st grade and 2nd grade. In third grade, I had to move him back to Wallaja because I didn’t have the financial means to continue paying a taxi to take him and to bring him back. EB: How much was it costing you? It cost me 150 shekels a month on transport alone. EB: So that’s $40 a month. That’s other than the school fees that were 250 dinars because it was a private school. EB: Does 150 shekels represent a lot of money for you? Of course it’s expensive when you consider that there’s no other source of revenue. 150 shekels for a family that has no income, that has other expenses – electricity and water, the school fees for Ahmad, his brothers and sisters in other schools, and also for his medication and treatment and the pampers because he needs to wear pampers. I’m always worried if he gets sick at night and I have to take him to the hospital. There’s no way for me to get out. The DCO closes at 7. There’s no other way out. I can’t get out and take my son to hospital. So this worries me.

Ahmad’s mother is not the only one who’s worried about getting medical treatment for her family. Many places that are being cut off by the Wall are also being cut off from medical services, says David Shearer of the United Nations.

In Abu Dis, which is home to 30,000 people, they had three hospitals within 2 or 3 kilometres of them. The barrier, the physical concrete wall, will stop them from getting to those hospitals and they will now have to travel about nearly 20 kilometres down to Bethlehem in the south where the hospital is going to be overrun by 30,000 new people. Now to get to that 20 kilometres on a very bad road, they have to go through a checkpoint which they have to get out, walk through the checkpoint. So the idea is not to be too sick when you get out to go to hospital. Of course, if you’re an emergency patient, you can go in an ambulance and go straight through. But if you’re going for a simple heart check-up or a blood pressure check-up and you need to go to a hospital, you literally have to plan quite a long time in advance in sense to go there. This is going to be a serious issue as the barrier is completed because at the moment there are little holes where people can sneak through. But as soon as that is sealed shut, there’s going to be some major issues, I think.

Even ambulances and medical personnel are being affected by the Wall and the checkpoints, as I discovered one evening with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. A woman in labour needed to be rushed to hospital. Before the construction of the Wall, it would have taken her 5 minutes to get there. Now it takes over half an hour.

Red Crescent ambulance personnel
Red Crescent ambulance personnel (© Eric Beauchemin)

Before entering Jerusalem, we were stopped by border police at a checkpoint …a violation of international humanitarian law.

Come, come with me. They want to write our ID numbers, everything. And it maybe takes a lot of time. Maybe she will born now with us. It’s very difficult. It’s very urgent. We must go quickly because in any time she will do it. EB: So even though your lights are flashing and you’ve got an urgent case, there’s nothing you can do. You simply have to wait. We can’t do anything. Let’s go.

When we finally reached the hospital, the woman’s husband and father were already there: they jumped through the gap in the Wall in Abu Dis. The woman was rushed in and gave birth, but there have been dozens of cases of women delivering at checkpoints or en route to hospitals. No one knows how many people have died because of these delays.

I only travel in the West Bank. But they are still checking. When I’m going to Ramallah, I’m checked. When I’m going to Bethlehem, I am checked. It’s nonsense. It’s just because they wanted us to suffer. They wanted us to be tired, to be exhausted and everyone just to sit and not to give, for doctors, for teachers, for everyone not to do his work. And this is also destroying relationship, the social relationship, economic relationship, everything is just destroyed. And I think this is the aim of the occupation. Just to destroy us.

The poverty rate in the Palestinian territories has gone from 22% to 55% in the space of four years. We have increased the amount of food delivered 10 times. The unemployment rate has gone from 10% to close to 40%. So all of these things have been caused by these various blockages and obstacles, and while they have a security purpose, they also have a downside in terms of Palestinian lives.

The Wall is also tearing families apart. Terry Bulata is the head mistress of a primary school in Abu Dis. She’s a resident of Jerusalem and so holds a special permit enabling her to get back and forth across the Wall. Her husband is from Abu Dis. The Israeli authorities now consider him an inhabitant of the West Bank. So he has to get a special permit to go to his home in Jerusalem.

Terry Boullata
Terry Boullata (© Eric Beauchemin)

When there is total closure his permit becomes invalid so he stays at home and can you imagine that even when the permit is valid, after 7 o’clock he’s living illegally with me and the kids in the house? EB: What happens when the Wall is completed because this checkpoint will then be closed, I assume. Yes, and that’s the nightmare that we are all afraid of. My husband already started thinking to move out of the house. So me as a Jerusalemite, I have to stay in the house in order to protect my residenceship, according to the Israeli regulations, and my husband will move inside Abu Dis and so we are going to be separated from each other. The other night, I don’t hide it, we started even discussing the issue of the children, that the children might stay with him for three nights and they will stay with me for four nights. And I’m not the only person with such an example. I have a friend for example, Abu Leilah. His wife is from inside Israel and they got in love while they were studying in Italy. They came back. She’s an Israeli citizen even. She’s a Palestinian Israeli citizen. They got married. They have two children, two girls. Now the wife and the children, they live inside Israel and the husband, at one point, although he had a permit, he was picked up from the car with his children and put in a jeep and they threw him into the middle of Ramallah. And since then, it’s been like two years, he’s living separately from his wife and his children. And they come to visit every two weeks, three weeks. But what kind of a marriage is this? And it seems that this is going to happen with me. This is going to happen with all the neighbours who are living in my neighbourhood. They keep the lie that they are separating me from the Israelis. I’m not being separated from the Israelis. I’m already separated from the Israelis 5 kilometres from here.

Children at Terry Boulatta's school
Children at Terry Boulatta’s school (© Eric Beauchemin)

For the most part, the Wall that runs through Jerusalem is running between Palestinian and Palestinian areas. They’re not in fact between Jewish Israeli areas and Arab areas. As a result, there are hundreds and hundreds of cases where the mother and father will be on one side and the children will be on the other. There will be a wall running between the two of them. The system is that people who have been living in Jerusalem, in an area that was in the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, have got Jerusalem ID cards which account for about 230,000 Palestinians. Everybody else to the east and the West Bank have West Bank ID cards which means that they have to get a permit to come live in Jerusalem. Now, where the barrier is going to go currently, it will mean that about one-third of those 230,000 people approximately – it’s very hard to calculate – will be on the West Bank side of the Wall. So whereas they used to have complete free access to hospitals, schools, all those sorts of things, now there will be a wall separating them from the services that they are entitled to. On the other hand, there are people living in Jerusalem with a West Bank ID card who need a permit to stay there but don’t have a permit. Therefore legally they can’t move around. They can’t access services. They can’t use the schools or the hospitals, but they will have real problems in reaching the West Bank where they are supposed to be because the barrier is going to be in their way. What’s also happening now is people are very scared of being on the West Bank side of the Wall. People are crowding into Jerusalem in order to stay on the Israeli side of this wall.

This is the kitchen. If you are moving into a new apartment, this is the most important part, the most important room. The kitchen. Yeah. It’s a fairly small kitchen. Yes, my wife is happy about this actually because she says now, I won’t be able to help her cooking which is good because she claims I mess things up more than I help her.

Wadi Razzouk is one of those who’s moving to Jerusalem. I first met him the day after he discovered that the Wall was being built around his neighbourhood, Bir Nabala, in northern Jerusalem. Now, four months later, as he unpacks his family’s belongings, he still mourns his flat in Bir Nabala.

Wadi Razzouk
Wadi Razzouk (© Eric Beauchemin)

I heard about it in the media, but it was sudden. All of a sudden we saw blocks being erected in the middle of the road. The road was destroyed. It was very traumatic. EB: Tell me about your house there. I bought it in 1997 but we moved in only after I got married two years ago. It’s a very spacious, modern apartment in a 7-story building. 140 square metres. Five big rooms, a huge kitchen, two verandas and two bathrooms. I never believed that I would live in it only for two years. I thought that this will be my house for the rest of my life. And I thought I would only leave my apartment as a dead person, hopefully 70, 80 years old. Now I’m only 37 years old and I’m having to move into a smaller apartment, pay $450 dollars as rent every month while I’m still paying the $550 mortgage for my apartment in Bir Nabala. EB: So that means that most of your income goes to pay these two apartments? Yes, two-thirds of my salary goes to paying for these two apartments. Luckily my wife works as a secretary at a foreign consulate. We will live. It’s unfortunate for those who cannot afford it. My sister, who lives on the other side of the Wall, in Ar Ram, isn’t well off. She’s not working. She’s a housewife. And her husband’s income is not good enough for them to rent an apartment in Jerusalem.

Mustafa Rabah
Mustafa Rabah (© Eric Beauchemin)

77-year-old Mustafa Rabah has no intention of moving. He lives in Wallaja on a steep hill, guarded by a ferocious dog. On the other side of the hill is a Jewish settlement. The Israeli authorities have surrounded his property with a metal fence, covered with barbed wire. On the other side of the hill, another segment of the Wall is being erected.

10 years ago the settlement started being built. Two years ago they completely closed us off with barbed wire and fencing. EB: Is there any way for you to get out of your house now? Two years ago we were able to get out of our house by going through the settlement. We used to have a gate that would lead us through the settlement and onto the main road. Two years ago they closed this gate and the only way of getting out of our house is down this steep hill that you came up. And when did they start putting the barbed wire around the house? One year ago the fencing was put all around us, very near to my house. EB: Did they give any explanation for that? They don’t ask our opinion, and they don’t tell us they’re going to put something or they’re going take something off. They just put it and we have to live with it. EB: The Israelis want you to leave, right? They came and they suggested that he leaves. They told him that they would build him a house anywhere else, wherever he wanted, that they’d do anything for him to leave. And he told them that’s out of the question. When they came, they told me that the road would be closed after the wall is built, that I will have no way of getting out so that I’d better leave now. EB: And still you don’t want to leave. I have lived a long life and I’m not willing to leave my land now. And whatever they do, even if they put up gates I’ll break them down. I’m not willing to leave my land.

Israeli settlement behind Rabah’s house
Israeli settlement behind Rabah’s house (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: Were there any protests against the construction of the Wall here? Yeah, there were a lot of protests against it and they used to come from this street, you know, above on the hill and they were throwing stones in the Wall. Well, I don’t know if they are harming anyone – a stone will never harm a Wall actually – but the soldiers, they were just shooting and there are many who had been killed in this hill, in this area. About 9 had been killed here. 9 children actually because the oldest was 12 years old. And they were just kids, you know, throwing stones. It doesn’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t hurt even the Wall. But the soldiers doesn’t want any protesting. And they feel they are just facing military stones maybe. It’s like this since four years.

Watchtower in Dr. Sami’s garden
Watchtower in Dr. Sami’s garden (© Eric Beauchemin)

We have to be careful. And I can show now, I have an office here near, just an extension to my house, where I see emergencies at my house. Many times I got bullets inside it. You can see here. You see. EB: Oh yeah. This is bullets. And this is broken because every time I just repair and then they do it. There are bullets just going now. It’s live bullets. EB: But no one in your house has been injured yet. My wife was injured. EB: Really? Yeah. My wife was injured in the head. She was very lucky that she was down a little bit, kneeling down kneeling down, so it came just injuring the skin of the skull. EB: And she was in the house. Yeah, it was in front of the house, here. You see that tower. Yeah. Yeah, they just shoot. So that’s life. Well, that’s the occupation actually.

I have spent hours at checkpoints like Qalandia, Abu Dis, and Eretz, the only crossing into the Gaza Strip, which is already completely sealed off by a fence. I’ve walked along the Wall and read the graffiti, much of it in Arabic, but there are also simple messages in English like “Stop the Wall”. Gradually, Palestinians and Israelis are growing further apart. But there’s one thing almost everyone agrees on: the Wall is ugly. The mayor of Jerusalem has even launched a competition to beautify the concrete slabs dividing the city. When I mention this to Dr. Sami, he snorts and says the competition only applies to the Israeli side of the Wall. Besides, he says, it doesn’t address the real problem.

Dr. Sami Ass’ad looking at the Wall in his backyard
Dr. Sami Ass’ad looking at the Wall in his backyard (© Eric Beauchemin)

This wall is hurting them exactly as they are hurting us because they are living inside the Wall, exactly as if I’m living inside the Wall. And this is also in their heart, in their feelings. This is going to be a wall inside both of the people. EB: Is this what you think or is this what you’ve heard also in your conversations with Israelis? Exactly as the soldier who is just here in the checkpoint, he’s doing wrong and I know that he knows that he’ s doing wrong and with violence. And when he’s just hurting or humiliating a mother with a child or an old man, a Palestinian old man, he will go to his house and will do the same. Maybe not all the time, but at least it will be inside him, so it’s corrupting their society with the occupation. EB: Do you think that you will see this wall come down in your lifetime? Yeah, I think it will not last. I’m sure that it will end soon because this is an abnormal thing and abnormal things died very soon, actually. It’s a weak thing. Any abnormal creature or something is weak, and I can’t count with years actually. I can’t count with history. I hope it will be soon actually because I hope to see it coming down, as I saw it when they built it. EB: And when it comes down, will you replant all your trees here? I will keep on planting. Every time, every day I’m planting new thing, and I hope next winter, it will also, when we have the rain, we will have more green here. It will be green. It will be green.

“Stories from behind the Wall” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.