May 13, 2006

Israel Village Tries to Breach Barrier with Palestinians

By Dean Yates

KIBBUTZ METZER, Israel (Reuters) - Dropping the jeep into low gear, Doron Lieber powers up a rock-strewn track, past tall grass and thistle bushes.

At the top of a hill, the long-time resident of this Israeli communal farm stops as a finished section of a barrier being built by the Jewish state in and around the occupied West Bank comes into view. On the other side lies the Palestinian village of Qaffin.

When this part of the barrier was finished three years ago, it largely cut contact between Metzer and Qaffin, two villages that had long set a shining example of peaceful co-existence.

But unlike many Israelis who welcome having nothing to do with Palestinians after years of violence and dashed peace hopes, Lieber and other leaders of the communal farm are trying to breach the razor-topped barrier to help their neighbors.

A few months ago, Metzer arranged for 10 tons of wheat from an Israeli farming association to be given to Qaffin. Plans are now being drawn up to build a joint greenhouse to grow food for export to Europe.

For Metzer, the motivation is a mix of the dovishness that has long characterized their kibbutz in northern Israel as well as a healthy dose of pragmatism.

It also comes despite memories of a dark night in November 2002 when a Palestinian gunman from the town of Tulkarm crept into the kibbutz before the barrier was finished and shot dead five people, including a mother and her two boys.

"If our neighbors don't have a life, we won't be able to live in peace," said Dov Avital, general secretary of Metzer.

That life is grim, said Qaffin mayor Taisir Harashi.

The barrier cut Qaffin off from half its land, where olive trees are grown, and largely stopped men working on construction sites in Israel, Harashi said. Unemployment was at 80 percent.

"When you lose your income, you can imagine the problems," said Harashi, talking in his village of squat stone homes that was a 15-minute walk from Metzer before the barrier was built. It is now a 20-minute drive -- if Israeli troops at a checkpoint wave you straight through.

"Life has stopped. It's paralyzed. Many people cannot get enough food," added Harashi.

When completed later this year or early in 2007 the barrier will consist of more than 760 km (470 miles) of razor-topped steel fences as well as concrete walls.

Israel says the barrier stops suicide bombers and is likely to form the basis of the Jewish state's final borders that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends to impose by 2010 if peacemaking with the Palestinians remains frozen.

Palestinians call the barrier a land grab and say it denies them the viable state they want in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.


Harashi said Qaffin's farmers often struggled to get permits to work their 1,250 acres of land on the other side of the barrier. Sometimes gates were shut for security alerts or farmers' names were not on lists of those allowed in.

At times, Metzer's farmers have offered to help, lending tractors to Qaffin's farmers who make it through during the harvest, because they cannot bring such equipment in.

The latest plan is the greenhouse on Qaffin land on Metzer's side of the barrier where spices and vegetables will be grown, said Lieber. He hopes the project can get started this year.

An Israeli-Arab non-governmental group will find donors, but Metzer also needs permits from the Israeli army so Qaffin's residents can cross the barrier to work in the greenhouse.

"We will turn the world upside down to get the permits," said Lieber, an affable, stocky 52-year-old dressed in sandals, tan shorts and a short-sleeved blue denim shirt.

Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said the Supreme Court had ruled that Palestinian farmers should be given reasonable access to their lands.

The barrier was also providing vital security, he added.

"The point of the fence is that communities are safer from the sort of killing that took place in Metzer," Regev said.


Metzer, a small community of one-storey bungalows, was established by Jewish immigrants from Argentina in 1953.

Its ties with Qaffin and nearby Arab Israeli villages grew as the decades passed. Weddings, funerals and work were shared.

But the attack by a 19-year-old Palestinian gunman in 2002 left its mark.

"A lot of naive beliefs were shattered that night. We are more pragmatic but not enough to let the killing change our way of life," said Avital, 51, whose predecessor was one of those shot dead.

Mechanical engineer Yitzhak Rotem, 61, added: "I think the fence is very important, but I do not agree to take something from others."

The World Court ruled in 2004 that the barrier's construction was illegal because it cut into territory captured in 1967. Israel's Supreme Court rejected that ruling, although it has ordered parts of the barrier to be re-routed.

If Lieber seems to have an earthy faith in the future, Harashi is bursting with pessimism and frustration.

"The greenhouse idea ... is a good thing. But I have never seen such a thing being done here. The Israeli government doesn't trust the Arabs," Harashi said.

Sitting around a table in Qaffin drinking coffee with Harashi and other leaders of the village, Lieber clearly feels relaxed with his Palestinian hosts. He cracks jokes in the Hebrew language that many of them understand.

"I think Metzer may be the only place in Israel cooperating with its Palestinian neighbors," said Harashi.