The House at the End of the Road

Dror Etkes picked me up in front of the bank, next to the convenience store, on a normal Jerusalem street where nothing slows the morning commuters except normal traffic jams. I wanted to visit the Palestinian village of Silwad. To that, Etkes added a couple of other stops on our tangled route through the West Bank.

The day's task was to examine how to take someone's land for settlement -- via stealth, strong-arm tactics, or legal maneuvers. Only at the day's end would I understand what my real goal had been: to remind myself that the main street, the bank, the apartment buildings, the buses taking kids to summer day camps -- the whole normal city day flowing according to sensible rules -- is an enclave of illusory sanity.

Once upon a time you could get from Jerusalem to Silwad easily. You drove north on the main mountain-ridge highway. After Ramallah you turned right. On the other side of the country road from Silwad stood the wooden sign marking the entrance to the Israeli settlement of Ofrah. In the Oslo years of the 1990s, when Ramallah became the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority, the drive got even easier. A new road -- built so settlers wouldn't need to commute through Palestinian towns -- bypassed the Arab city.

Then came the second Intifada. To stop Palestinian drive-by shootings on West Bank roads and to keep suicide bombers from shredding themselves and other human beings in Israeli cafes and buses, the Israeli army installed a vast array of checkpoints and roadblocks. For Palestinians in occupied land, getting from one town to the next was somewhere between nerve-wracking and impossible.

Now, with the Intifada's brutality becoming a memory, and with Israel under American pressure to loosen restrictions, traveling between Palestinian towns and villages has slowly become easier. To reach Silwad, we still had to take the long back road that loops over the dry eastern slopes. Etkes, an Israeli activist who has tenaciously charted settlement growth and challenged it in court, stopped along the way at Adam. According to an official report, the bedroom community is built on real estate that Israel considers state property under its interpretation of a 19th-century Ottoman law. But in 2003, Israeli settlers built a new fence around the settlement, outside the town limits, cutting through nearby Palestinian fields.

In addition, there are islands of privately owned Palestinian land inside Adam, surrounded by the suburban homes. Officially, the enclaves aren't part of Adam's municipal jurisdiction, but the Palestinians who once farmed them can't reach them. We found one such enclave covered in rock and concrete debris from building sites, no longer fit to cultivate. Two synagogues and a kindergarten, all prefab, have been illegally erected on the scarred land. Their presence not only violates the law; it shames the religion in whose name many of the settlers purport to speak. I'm sure that the people who set up the kindergarten wouldn't want the kids to steal each others' crayons. Those who pray in the synagogues know the basic, obvious rule of Judaism that an obligation cannot be fulfilled through committing a sin. They wouldn't steal prayer books from another house of worship. In the culture of the settlements, it seems, stealing land has become invisible, unnoticed.

***

At the southern tip of Silwad, we met Mohammed Sullaiman, 79. Sullaiman's living room was the front porch before he closed it in with glass and aluminum and lined it with couches. The walls on two sides of the room are cut stone; Sullaiman showed me where he had carefully spread cement to fill in the pits in the stone chiselled by bullets during the war in June 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank.

Across the road is a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. It was built in 2001, says Etkes. At Ofrah, as at Adam, the troubles served as a pretext for erecting a wide security perimeter around the settlement. The land past the fence, Sullaiman says, belongs to Silwad and the neighboring village of Ein Yabrud. Silwad's farmers used to grow figs there and wheat where the land was flat. Ein Yabrud's people raised olives.

The difference between Adam and Ofrah is that the open theft of land is the rule at Ofrah, not the exception. The first settlers arrived in 1975, moving into a small, abandoned Jordanian army base, with then-defense minister Shimon Peres providing support in a bureaucratic rogue operation. A 1980 aerial photo of Ofrah shows the renovated barracks and beginnings of a neighborhood -- all surrounded by the cultivated land of the Palestinian villages. In another aerial picture taken 10 years later, the housing developments have spread. In a 2008 picture, one can also see the settlement outpost of Amonah on a mountaintop above Ofrah. According to the Spiegel Report, a secret army database (Hebrew excerpts are here ) leaked to Ha'aretz in 2009, most of Ofrah stands on fully surveyed land, clearly listed in the land registry under the names of Palestinian owners.

Amonah, likewise, is stolen land. Another government report says that its water supply is apparently "pulled" from Ofrah, meaning that the hook-up lacks legal approval. Ofrah itself has verdant, irrigated landscaping, including a park in front of the village center where rushes grow around a tiny wooden bridge, simulating the lushness of some distant country. Silwad, says Sullaiman, suffers water shortages; sometimes the municipality stops the supply for two or three days a week. People store water in cisterns to get by. In occupied land, the division of water is the division of political power, made tangible.

***

We drove on. Travel between the Palestinian communities is no longer near impossible. With some roadblocks removed but others in place and with access to major highways still cut off, getting from place to place is now merely aggravating, insultingly inconvenient, bizarrely roundabout. Just past Sullaiman's house, for instance, is the turnoff that should link the country lane to the bypass road built in the 1990s. But the turnoff is still blocked by a line of concrete cubes, so that Palestinian drivers can't share the main highway in the area with Israelis. On the other hand, it's now possible to continue along the lane to neighboring Ein Yabrud. A phantom checkpoint -- a turnstile for pedestrian passage, a concrete cube, a piece of portable concrete fencing -- marks where the road was closed to vehicles for several years. Etkes says the army removed the checkpoint as part of the "Obama effect" of easing travel under pressure from Washington. So far, the Obama effect is limited. This road was once the direct way to Ramallah. But past one more village, Beitin, it's blocked by a chained gate and a mound of earth and stone. To get to the region's central city, one must instead take a much longer route -- which was also closed until recently. If you are confused, you understand: Getting from point A to point B is always confusing.

***

We looped through the hills to the Bir Nabalah enclave northwest of Jerusalem. When we pulled over to ask a young Palestinian man for directions, he told us in Arabic to avoid a certain road lest we run into the yahud -- the "Jews" -- which turned out to be a new slang term for Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's strengthened police force. Read that, if you want, as a statement about where some Palestinians believe that Fayyad's loyalties lie, or simply as an attitude toward police mixed with an attitude about Jews, or submit your own interpretation. Dror and I laughed but avoided the road.

The Bir Nabalah enclave is a set of Palestinian villages surrounded entirely by Israel's security fence and accessed by a single road. To be exact, there are two enclaves. Between them are Israeli settlements connected by modern highways to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. An underground road connects the eastern and western enclave. It's partly in a trench, partly in a tunnel. Etkes' pickup seemed to be rushing through a concrete chute.

At the other end is the small village of Beit Ijza, which borders the settlement of Givon Hahadashah. From the edge of the village, you can look through a wire fence at the two-story houses of the Israeli suburb with their red tile roofs, lined up as if they'd just been stamped out of a factory for use on a Monopoly board. In a trench slashed through the hillside runs the much more serious divider, the Israeli security barrier, with its patrol roads, cameras, and concertina coils.

And above that runs the entrance to Sabri Gharib's house. It's a long driveway, eight paces wide, with walls on either side. At the end is the one-story square stone house with the grape arbor, surrounded also by fencing and then by the homes of Givon Hahadashah. Over the entrance to the driveway is a camera, apparently linked to a command room somewhere, where someone in a uniform can watch who crosses the barrier line to get to the Gharib house.

Gharib is too old and sick to interview, Etkes told me. According to Palestinian human-rights lawyers Raja Shehadeh and Jonathan Kuttab, Gharib originally owned and farmed the land around the house. Using its expansive interpretation of the old Ottoman law, Israel declared the land to be state-owned. Gharib's long legal battle ended with him owning little more than the house, and with the settlement spreading around him on the ground that was once his fields.

When the security barrier was built between Beit Ijza and Givon Hahadashah, the Gharib home was on the wrong side of the line. The "solution" was the gate, the walled driveway, the fenced house.

This is the reality, a short drive from Jerusalem, from the other side of the fence, a world away from the morning commuters but created in their name. This is the end of the road: the land sliced and resliced, down to an enclave of a single house. Surely we need to turn around and find a path to a different future.

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