Monday, September 19, 2005

Abu Nidal and the wall

I met a stubborn Palestinian yesterday. His name is Abu Nidal and he is a farmer. Stubbornness is a trait that Palestinians celebrate in poetry and song. Abu Nidal is the embodiment of the Palestinian who will not, no matter the hardship, be pushed from his land.

He lives in a virtual prison. His house, which once stood on the edge of fertile West Bank farm land, is now hemmed in by a Jewish settlement on one side and a 20-foot high concrete wall on the other side. In order to enter or exit his roughly half-acre of lot, which includes a chicken coop, he must pass through two gates.

After some outcry from international groups and from within Israel, the Israeli army furnished Abu Nidal and his wife a key to one of the gates. The other gate is opened and closed at the whim of Israeli soldiers. A sign on that gate warns “mortal danger” in three languages to all who pass.

The Israelis call it a security barrier and the Palestinians call it the Apartheid wall. The wall, which started construction in 2002, does not follow the historic boundary of the West Bank; instead it carves out wide swaths of Palestinian farm land, homes, even entire villages, isolating Palestinians, such as Abu Nidal, from the rest of the Palestinian territory.

The wall arrived to Abu Nidal’s doorstep two years ago. Since then, he has been something of a cause celebre of international and Israeli peace groups. He credits the attention with saving his home from demolition. The government offered him a blank check to leave, but he says no amount of money – or the rocks his next door neighbors, Jewish settlers, hurl at his home – will convince him to leave his land. He lives there with his wife and four children, all of whom must pass through the gates to get to and from school. On some days, the children must wait as long as an hour to pass, he said.

He and his wife make sure that one of them is always at home, out of fear that the Israelis would take advantage of their absence and demolish it. Abu Nidal’s grandfather was killed in the 1948 war by Jewish forces while he was defending his village, nearby Qufr Qassem, which is now in Israel, and Abu Nidal’s father fled to the West Bank and became a refugee. Abu Nidal was born in the West Bank. He built his house 34 years ago.

I was traveling on a tour arranged by the Palestine and Arabic Studies Program at Birzeit. We tried to get a glimpse of the wall construction in the nearby village of Beir Ballout, but were stopped by three Israeli security contractors -- Arabs of Bedouin origin with Israeli citizenship -- carrying automatic weapons. We only saw the bulldozers moving on a ridgeline. In the wall's path was a Palestinian goat herder who refused to leave his home. His house, made of tin and wooden pallets, was not as sturdy as Abu Nidal's. He was out with his goats when we came calling.


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