Trapped Palestinians forced to apply for resident permits

Friday, November 7, 2003

JUBARA, West Bank -- The Palestinians of Jubara were alarmed when Israeli soldiers began posting notices on telephone poles and at checkpoints around their small West Bank village.

The military had already trapped them in a tiny pocket of land between Israel and its West Bank security barrier, giving them only sporadic access to their schools, clinics and fields across the fence.

The notices told of an unprecedented new order: everyone must apply for a special permit to remain in Jubara -- the village has about 300 residents. The notices did not specifically mention expulsion, but Palestinian officials and villagers said they understand this to be the implied threat.

The new restrictions affect nearly 7,500 Palestinians living in what Israel calls the "seam zone."

"This is where my livelihood is. If they kick me out of here, how will I care for my nine children?" said Burhan Odeh, 38, who has olive and orange groves in Jubara.

U.N. officials said the order is unprecedented in Israel's 36-year occupation of the West Bank.

"It really turns the right to live in your own home into a privilege," said David Shearer, head of the local U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"We do not intend to dislocate people from their homes. Yet we need to take into consideration that people who do not need to be near the fence are not near the fence," said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman.

However, residents will not win automatic approval.

"Anyone who wants to get a permit should apply for a permit. If we are convinced that a person has business in the area, then this will be taken into consideration," she said.

People in Jubara refused to apply for the permits, which have to be renewed each year. The army issued them anyway, using a list of residents but initially leaving off about 20 people, some of whom had served time in Israeli prisons.

One of the 20 was Odeh, the farmer.

"They said they had turned me down for security reasons," Odeh said as he waited behind concertina wire for soldiers to open a gate so he could visit his mother in a neighboring village. "I've never had any problems with the army."

The army has since agreed to grant the 20 permits, but only for three months, and Odeh fears he will eventually be expelled from the village he has lived in since he was 12.

About 90 miles of the barrier have been completed in the northern West Bank, mostly following the invisible frontier with Israel, but periodically dipping into the West Bank. The planned route for the southern section would cut deep into the West Bank to protect Israeli settlements, trapping many more Palestinians.

"If the residency regulation is extended to where the new wall is supposed to go, then tens of thousands of people will be in exactly the same situation," said Shearer, who said he had no problem with the barrier itself, just its route.

President Bush has expressed concern about the security barrier, saying it could interfere with conditions for setting up a Palestinian state.

The new order, issued Oct. 2, turned the areas between the barrier and Israel into closed zones. No Palestinian can enter or leave without a special pass and no one can live there without a residence permit. Israelis are exempted from the regulations.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat called the new orders "a depopulation program."

Others also were worried about farmers cut off from their fields and workers cut off from their jobs who might be forced to move away to support their families.

"It's a direct expulsion and an indirect expulsion," said Jamal Juma, who is coordinating a campaign against the barrier for Pengon, a private Palestinian organization. "This will destroy their lives, destroy their culture, destroy everything, destroy their future."

The problems created by the barrier were visible throughout Jubara, near the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem.

Trash was piling up because garbage trucks were unable to enter.

Farmers were forced to hire people on the other side of the fence to pick their olives, sometimes paying them with half the harvest.

Children trying to get to school hoped soldiers would be there to open the fence.

On a recent day, dozens of children ages 6 to 15 waited after school in the hot midday sun behind the mustard yellow gate, some for more than an hour, until soldiers standing nearby let them cross back into the village.

But the residency permits have caused the most worry here and inspired sharp debate among the villagers. Some eventually accepted the permits, fearing they could be thrown off their land if they didn't. Others rejected the idea, hoping that by refusing the passes they could make the new order unworkable.

Saleh Jbara, 51, appeared confused about the purpose of the permit, but he agreed to accept it after one of his sons, left off the initial list, was approved for three months.

"If I didn't get this for my son, where would he be right now?" he asked.

But Yousef Tahseen, a 30-year-old construction worker born in Jubara, defiantly rejected his.

"They can't kick me out," he said. "This is my home. This is where I'll die."

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