By Martin Fletcher Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/19/2004 8:54:22 AM ET 2004-02-19T13:54:22

Israel's waiting for the shoe to drop. Hamas promised a furious revenge after Israeli troops killed 15 Palestinians in a Gaza shootout earlier this month. But since then, no bombs, no suicide attacks, not even warnings.

The apparent reason: The hearings in the International Court of Justice in the Hague into the legality of the barrier Israel is building through the West Bank.

The hearings begin on Monday and militant Palestinian groups have reportedly been warned by the Palestinian Authority to lay off the bombs, not to give any opportunity for Israel to say "We told you so -- we need the fence to stop the bombs."

The U.N. General Assembly decided in December to ask the court for an advisory opinion after Israel ignored a resolution demanding the barrier be taken down.

Israel has challenged the judges’ authority in the case, saying it is a political matter, and will not attend the hearings.  

The 'wall' to Palestinians, a 'fence' to Israelis
The combination fence and wall is planned to run more than 200 miles forming a separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank.

But the fence that Israel says is a necessary evil to stop suicide bombers is called an apartheid wall by the Palestinians and is likened to the Berlin Wall as a symbol of aggression and oppression.

Above all, Palestinians complain that the wall cuts deep into Palestinian areas, effectively allowing Israel to steal Palestinian land.

Human rights groups say the lives of as many as 400,000 Palestinians are harmed by the barrier -- it cuts families off from their villages, their jobs, their fields, hospitals and relatives.

On Wednesday, the Red Cross weighed in, saying the barrier violated international humanitarian law.

Some Palestinians find themselves in a bizarre no-mans-land, separated from their village by the wall and fence and hemmed in on the other side by more fences that cut them off from Israeli settlements.

Trapped by walls and fences
Nowhere is that clearer than at the home of Hanni Amar, a sturdy Palestinian farmer who effectively lives in quarantine with his wife and six children. 

In front of his house is a 25-foot wall. Behind him is a tall fence that cuts him off from the Jewish settlement of Elkanaa. And on either side are more fences, which mean that his solitary home is an island surrounded by concrete and wire fences.

He prays in the shadow of the wall. His children ride their bicycles along the road with an acre of concrete looming above them. And every 10 seconds they turn round again as they reach yet another fence.

Searching for peace

Hani's fields are 5 miles away. They are lush with heavy red tomatoes and green onions and have rows of trees laden with lemons and oranges ripe for picking. A single almond tree is in full glorious pink bloom and its scent is heavy and sweet.

To get to his farm, or send his children to school, or visit his village on the other side of the wall, Hanni has to unlock a gate Israeli officials constructed in the fence next to the wall.

He has the key to his own gate in Israel's anti-terror barrier. "Not only do I live in a jail," Hanni lamented, "but I am my own jailor."

Every day Palestinians come to Hanni's gate and beg him to unlock it so that they can go through. But he always refuses.

"It breaks my heart," he said, "but I can't allow them through. The soldiers said if I let people through apart from my own family, they will destroy my house. You cannot imagine the humiliation I feel."

On the other side of fence
Right on the other side of the fence lives an orthodox Jewish neighbor, Sarah Ashwal.

Standing on the roof of her home and looking down on Hanni's enclosure, she said, "We don't like this fence either, but they brought it on themselves. We have to stop the suicide bombers and I would rather have this fence than have killers coming into my home and murdering my children."

Before the Intifada began three years ago the Israeli Sarah and the Palestinian Hanni were, if not exactly friends, then at least good neighbors.

When Sarah had a baby Hanni and his wife dropped by with a present. If something stopped working on the Sabbath, Hanni would fix it. Sarah said, "Hanni knew all about the Sabbath and how to help."

As for the fence, Sarah says, today there is simply no other choice. She noted Israel offered Hanni money to move and he confirms that. But forget it, he said. "I will never sell this land. I will never move from here," Hanni said.

In a quiet act of defiance early one morning Hanni and his 4-year-old son together planted a row of 20 trees between his house and the wall 30 feet away. "They are small trees," Hanni said, "but they will grow and block out the sight of this awful wall."

Sarah and Hanni hardly talk now. The wall and fence have come between them in more ways than one. They agree on one thing though. They hope the wall will come down one day -- when there is peace.

Martin Fletcher is the NBC News bureau chief and lead correspondent in Tel Aviv.

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