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Bonded in resistance to the barrier

Some Palestinians are looking to their Jewish neighbors for help. separation barrier is slated to rise between the antique village and the modern suburb, replacing a stand of pines that marks the porous boundary here between the and Israel.
Scott Wilson
The village of Wadi Fukin with the settlement of Betar Ilit rising behind it. The Palestinians of the village are working with some Israelis in Tzur Hadassah, an Israeli town on the opposite ridgeline, against the planned route of Israel's separation barrier and the expansion of Betar Ilit.Scott Wilson / Washington Post
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The Palestinians of this village have long looked toward Tzur Hadassah, a neighboring Israeli town, for jobs building homes on land that decades ago belonged to them.

Now some Palestinians are looking to their Jewish neighbors for a different kind of help. Israel's separation barrier is slated to rise between the antique village and the modern suburb, replacing a stand of pines that marks the porous boundary here between the West Bank and Israel.

Over almonds, hummus and tea in a comfortable Tzur Hadassah living room, several Palestinian farmers gathered on an April evening to ask their hosts to help preserve the bonds they have maintained for years.

"God told us two peoples should live in this land," Mohammed Awad Sukkar, 52, told the group. "And so we should."

As it physically divides hundreds of Arab and Jewish communities along its 456-mile route, Israel's separation barrier is ending countless personal relationships that have developed between the two peoples. Lawsuits and protests by Israeli and Palestinian activists have failed to slow construction of the cement and chain-link barrier, and a number of communities have turned instead to each other to prevent their impending division.

'Something in our own neighborhood'
The intimate experiment in cross-cultural cooperation taking place in this narrow valley tells a larger story of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and the increasingly strained relations between individual Arabs and Jews. Mutual suspicion, opposition within the participants' own communities, and the unequal status of Arabs and Jews have made it far more difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to work together, even those with a history of doing so.

"To change the reality on a major scale seems almost impossible," said Dudy Tzfati, a genetics researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who hosted the rare gathering with his wife, Dana. "At least we can try to do something in our own neighborhood."

A mostly secular suburb of Jerusalem, Tzur Hadassah spills over a ridgeline above Wadi Fukin, a village of 1,200 people whose hidden valley is a popular hiking destination for Israelis.

Natural springs water the patchwork of vegetable plots and olive groves that have sustained the village for centuries, even during the period when its people vanished.

Jordan seized the West Bank in the 1948-49 war that accompanied Israel's creation and evacuated the village because of its proximity to the armistice line. That boundary left more than half the village's land inside Israel, farmers here say, ground where Tzur Hadassah neighborhoods would rise years later.

Most families ended up in the Deheisha refugee camp near Bethlehem -- now behind an inner layer of Israel's separation wall six miles to the east -- but the men continued commuting to their fields. Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, and the military allowed the villagers to return in 1972.

Now Wadi Fukin is at the center of a tightening circle of Israeli development, its growth circumscribed by the planned barrier, a new road joining southern Jewish settlements to Jerusalem, and the expanding settlement of Betar Ilit rising over the next ridgeline.

If the development proceeds as planned, the entire area, which includes four other Palestinian villages with a total of nearly 20,000 residents, would become an enclave between two arms of the barrier.

'How do we maintain a relationship?'
"How can we develop a relationship between two peoples and live in peace and security?" Sukkar, a stout, grave man who also teaches elementary school English, asked to start the recent meeting. "How do we maintain a relationship?"

A psychologist, two science professors, a peace activist and a music therapist from Tzur Hadassah listened. A boy in pajamas, Tzfati's son, wandered among the guests. Several of the Israelis spoke Arabic. The Palestinians filled the gaps with Hebrew.

Sukkar and his two colleagues complained about armed Jewish settlers swimming naked in their irrigation ponds, sewage spills from Betar Ilit and the expected loss of land to the fence and road projects. Then they asked for help.

Could the Israelis meet with Jewish settler leaders? With army officers to stop night patrols? With the Defense Ministry to learn the status of a legal challenge to the barrier's route? The Israelis pledged to try and offered a few ideas of their own, from signs prohibiting nude swimming to filing suit over the sewage spills.

The 30 or so village residents who work as day laborers in the gardens and construction sites of Tzur Hadassah will not be able to reach jobs there once the 10-foot-high fence goes up. The men warned that the loss would badly damage the village's tiny economy.

"Israel's policy here is like those of Nazi Germany under Hitler," Sukkar said.


"There are many problems we face," Tzfati, 45, responded after a few awkward moments. "If we put everything on the table, we will be confused."

Chipping away at doubts
Mistrust grew between the village and the suburb during the Palestinian uprising that began in the fall of 2000. There were no attacks against Tzur Hadassah from Wadi Fukin, but many residents of the suburb had arrived from Jerusalem, where bus and cafe bombings were common.

Like many Israelis, they feared Palestinian attacks, which the Israeli government says the barrier is designed to prevent. Like many Palestinians, the residents of Wadi Fukin believe the Israelis have designs on their land, which the barrier has already annexed by the thousands of acres along its route.

"Two villages, two separate worlds," said Itai Haviv, 35, an Israeli geologist who moved into a Tzur Hadassah apartment at the start of the uprising and hired Wadi Fukin workers to renovate it. "There was this mental barrier standing between the two villages."

Haviv, who had once been jailed for refusing to perform his army reserve duty in the West Bank, helped circulate a petition in June 2005 opposing construction of the barrier where plans call for it to sweep within view of his living room window.

About 300 people from Tzur Hadassah signed the petition, which Israel's military administration in the West Bank is weighing.

But the elected town council declined to endorse the effort, reflecting perhaps the majority opinion among the upper-middle-class population of 5,000. The suburb is now ringed by its own security fence.

"I don't believe in peaceful coexistence at this point -- maybe in the future," said Ernest Dulberg, 68, a retired engineer whose gardener lives in Wadi Fukin. "I'm more in favor of my own security than in his interests."

Springs running dry?
Cranes loom on the far ridge above Wadi Fukin, and the valley wall has been carved away to accommodate more neighborhoods in Betar Ilit. The ultra-Orthodox settlement of 35,000 people is growing at a rate of between 8 and 12 percent a year.

Israeli environmental activists, who have filed a legal challenge to the barrier's route, contend that two of Wadi Fukin's 11 springs have already run dry as a result of development in the area.

Last year, Haviv and others from Tzur Hadassah helped stop the dumping of more than 1 million cubic feet of excavated earth from Betar Ilit's construction sites into the Wadi Fukin valley. One Tzur Hadassah resident faced down a bulldozer.

"Why is there this wall? Why is there this trouble?" asked Tzfati, who moved to Tzur Hadassah three years ago. "Because people do not see Wadi Fukin."

Haviv said that "small success" built some trust with residents of Wadi Fukin, where many view those who work with the Israelis as collaborators, often the targets of the armed groups in the Palestinian territories. The villagers say it did, too.

Tzfati's wife, Dana, began taking a weekly walk down the hill last summer to buy fresh vegetables for about 30 Tzur Hadassah families, defying Israeli customs law.

Haviv's wife, Noya, would not go for the first few months, fearing the reception at a time of war in Lebanon and unrest in the territories.

"It was hard to differentiate between what was safe and what might not be," said Haviv, who acknowledged that there was some resistance in Wadi Fukin to Israelis visiting for the vegetable market, which has become a less regular event. "This is still the main obstacle."

'How do we trust?'
At the top of the valley, along the unmarked road into the village, sits the Obaidallah family home, where 45 people spanning three generations live among plots of cucumbers, tomatoes and squash, the rooftops of Tzur Hadassah visible over the ridgeline above.

"The people there say it is better to have Arab neighbors than to have Betar Ilit as a neighbor," said Hamed Obaidallah, the 70-year-old patriarch, over large dishes of lamb and rice. "But I cannot say that all the people in Tzur Hadassah are like this, only a few who want peace."

Some of the men gathered in the sunny rooftop parlor told stories of working in Tzur Hadassah and the kindnesses they had received over the years.

One Friday, recalled Jamal Obaidallah, Hamed's 47-year-old son, a doctor there asked him if he planned to pray at the al-Aqsa mosque on the Muslim Sabbath.

"I told him I had no permits to go to Jerusalem," said Jamal, who owns a small grocery store. "He stopped what he was doing and said, 'Get in the car.' And he drove me right past the soldiers, and I prayed."

But Jamal's brother, Sami Obaidallah, 42, who works for a U.N. agency in Bethlehem, asked, "Do we really know them?" "I mean, you know there are Israelis up there -- you can see them," he continued. "But it's like switching on a TV, as if they are in Britain or France, because our lives are so different. I can make a friendship with someone in Tzur Hadassah, but will that make any difference?"

Tzur Hadassah's master plan calls for the suburb to grow fivefold in the coming years, including down a slope toward Wadi Fukin. Ghaleb Bader, Wadi Fukin's mayor, said the construction above the village has left many residents suspicious.

"They think the opposition from Tzur Hadassah to the fence is because they want to expand onto our land," Bader said.

Boxer shorts and an M-16
On a hot April morning, over a rise in the road leading to the springs, a group of young Jewish settlers appeared in wet boxer shorts, their leader carrying an M-16 rifle. They had come from a swim.

"We're celebrating these beautiful places," said Eitam Arzoni, 27, tapping the rifle on his shoulder. "We never have any problems here, but we need a weapon."

His charges attend a yeshiva in a nearby settlement, and they oppose the barrier because it will mark a distinction between Israel and Palestinian territory they say is part of Israel.

"It will divide our country," said Roi Shashar, 16. "It's strangling the land."

Over tea in an eggplant field a few days later, Sukkar and Mohammed Rashad Manassrah, 65, snapped at each other with the easy bluntness that comes from years of practice.

"Not all the residents of Tzur Hadassah are working with us, only about four of them," Sukkar shouted at his friend, whom he has known since their childhood in the Deheisha camp. "Is there a threat from Tzur Hadassah? I say yes. How do we trust?"

In the stiffening breeze, Manassrah, who usually smiles broadly beneath his bushy mustache, listened placidly.

"I know there are those here who say this is like blowing into an empty goatskin -- that there is nothing in there," Manassrah said. "And I know there is another group who says this is against our collective interest, against our religion -- and our homeland."

He paused.

"But to anyone who stands with us to protect our land, I extend my hand, regardless of who they are."