(Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)



Subject: [Givat-Haviva] A village divided
Date: Sun, 9 Feb 2003 19:42:31

From: Mohammad Darawshe <>

A village divided , The Jerusalem Post

Lydia Aisenberg takes only a few steps before she is stopped, again.

"Lydia! I'm so happy to see you! Come sit and have a coffee."

It's a scene that repeats itself as Aisenberg---the only Jew for miles---strolls the familiar streets of Barta'a, an Arab village that straddles the Green Line.

"I've been coming to Barta'a for 15 years, and know many of the people by name. They really appreciate that I haven't stopped coming these past two years," says the kibbutznik from Mishmar Ha'emek.

The visit takes Aisenberg into Area B, in the Palestinian Authority but under Israeli military jurisdiction.

"I go where I know people," she says, shrugging. "When I can't remember their names, I just call them Mr. or Mrs. Kabha, and they smile."

After 33 years in Israel, Welsh inflections still permeate her Hebrew.

"The story of this village intrigued me from the time I started working as a guide at the nearby Givat Haviva Jewish-Arab Center for Peace in 1987. I've been bringing groups here ever since. I call Barta'a 'the village with a split personality.' It's a place where politics are thicker than family ties. I feel very much at home here, and value the friendships that have formed over the years. You don't walk away from that so easily now, do you?"

West Barta'a resembles a typical Arab-Israeli village. The roads are paved, if potholed. There are some well-tended, bougainvillea-lined lawns, but the central square is a neglected garbage dump. Although the villagers are mainly secular, a new mosque dominates the skyline. Soldiers monitor comings and goings from a checkpoint at the village's entrance. East Barta'a is governed by the Palestinian Authority, and suffers from neglect. The village council has no budget, and the infrastructure is collapsing. 

As the winter rains fall, its dirt tracks churn into mud. Some 3,000 west Barta'ans are Israeli citizens. The 4,000 residents of the eastern half of the village are subjects of the PA. A shallow wadi, easily traversed by foot or vehicle, splits the two. The new security fence (currently under

A picture of the hole the Islamic fundamentalists have dug for Israeli Arabs

construction) will skirt the village from the east, effectively making east Barta'a a PA enclave with no easy access. On the day we visit, the village is abuzz with rumors that the army plans to clear land for another fence, this time along the pre-1967 border, by razing 50 recently constructed homes and businesses. Over the past two years, Barta'a has taken over from tension-ridden Baka a-Sharkiya (just over the Green Line from Baka al-Gharbiya) as the main shopping market for Arab Israelis from the Wadi Ara area. Dozens of stores and stalls---many operated by West Bank Palestinians---have sprung up on both sides of the village.

"It's become the Dizengoff of Israeli Arabs," jokes Lydia. 

"We talk in terms of 'over here' and 'over there,'" says Ramsey Kabha, 45, as he pours the first of many coffees that afternoon. "My great-grandfather was from Barta'a, and my father Ahmad is the head of local council. This is my home."

Every morning, about 120 children---offspring of east Barta'ans who married women from inside the Green Line with Israeli citizenship---cross the two-meter ditch into Israel for school. Some of their older siblings study in Wadi Ara high schools and Israeli universities. Ramsey, who lives just on the Israeli side of the garbage-strewn wadi, voices a commonly aired grievance among west Barta'ans.

"I pay taxes. They don't. From our point of view, it's best to return to the old border. They may be our family, but we don't need them. Let them live their lives, and we'll live ours."

He recently converted his caf into a shoe shop-cum-minimarket.

"It used to be easier to make money, but people can't afford luxuries any more. I blame the Jews, because they're in charge. The way they treat us disturbs me. I used to travel into the territories to bring merchandise, but now the soldiers won't let me move. I don't believe it's going to get better. All the millions being spent on electric fences and lights are a waste of money. The fence won't change anything---if terrorists want to attack, they will. They'll always find the weak point. We hardly ever see Jews in the village. The only non-Arabs we see nowadays are foreign TV crews. I just want peace. I have six young children to bring up---leave us alone!"

In east Barta'a, the people have other grievances.

"It feels like we're living in a prison," Rabti Kabha, the local barber, tells Aisenberg in fluent Hebrew. "We have nowhere to go. We don't belong to the territories, and we don't belong to Israel. What used to be a 20-minute journey to Jenin now takes a whole day of nerves. I can't take my eight children to a shopping mall or beach. I can't see any future for them. I lived in Jaffa for 13 years, and enjoyed life there. No one from Barta'a has been arrested for terrorist activity. We have no fundamentalists here. The Israelis must not put a fence across the village, because we're all one family."

"I haven't been out of the village for two years," adds Rabti's 17-year-old nephew. "There's no life for me here. Like all my friends, I do nothing all day. There isn't even anywhere to play soccer."

One of his brothers works in Dubai. Another married an Irish woman and now lives in Belfast.

"I want to study languages, but I have no chance of getting into university. I see what life is like in the US and Europe on television. I will not stay here---I can get a visa to enter Ireland. I want to live!"

Aisenberg knows that there is little she can do to help them.

"But if I stop coming, what message is that to you?" she asks her Palestinian friends.

Aisenberg's work at Givat Haviva's International Department includes lecturing on Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, guiding student study tours to places like Barta'a, and coordinating overseas conflict resolution groups---until they stopped coming a year ago. In recent years, she resurrected a curtailed career as a freelance journalist by writing about such realities, notably as a columnist for Britain's Jewish Telegraph.

"In my childhood I used writing as a tool for escapism. After making aliya, escapism became a luxury. Now there's an urge to share some of my  experiences with folks overseas. I don't know how to write about people like these," she later confides. "If I give away too much detail or mention names, they could be accused of cooperation with the Israelis. I don't want to be the angel of death."

Back on the Israeli side, we meet carpet salesman Hassan Monasra, 40, from Hebron. More warm handshakes and pungent coffee ensue.

"The situation 'inside' is really difficult," he tells his old friend. "But at least I can provide for my family this way. If I don't work, I cannot feed my children. I sold carpets all over Israel before the first intifada, but now all my clients are Israeli Arabs. "I get to see my wife and five children once a month. It takes me three days---one day to get there, a day with the family, and another day to get back. All those roadblocks have nothing to do with security. The soldiers treat us like a herd of cows. They leave us to sit on the ground for hours---they don't care how we feel."

As usual, the conversation soon swings to the burning issue in Barta'a.

"This fence will change our lives. If I won't be able to get across, I don't know what I'll do. We're living day-by-day right now---there's so much uncertainty."

"I ran away from Jenin because I'm a tradesman who wants to work," adds Sami Jaradat, 30, who runs the neighboring hardware store with his father Ahmad and 15-year-old brother Einad. Like many of the West Bank Palestinians in Barta'a, they sleep in a cramped, rented room.

"At night the village is silent. No one dares to go out because of the soldiers. I used to be the head cook in a Haifa restaurant, but now there's no work in Jenin---we can't go anywhere because of the curfew. Nobody knows what will happen once the fence is completed in two or three months. We don't expect that things will improve. If the situation continues like it is now, we'll at least be satisfied."

"Two days before the intifada broke out, I brought a bus full of kibbutzniks from Mishmar Ha'emek to visit Barta'a," recalls Aisenberg. "They met displaced Palestinians from the now-destroyed village R'beiya near the kibbutz. Their parents had been childhood friends, and now new friendships were starting to form. The Palestinians invited us all back for dinner in the village, but then came the Wadi Ara riots and everything changed. It never happened."

Founded in 1922, Mishmar Ha'emek is one of a dying breed of kibbutzim. The 500 members still eat in the communal dining room and live off a monthly stipend. Lydia and Itzik Aisenberg are old-style kibbutzniks: salt-of-the-earth socialist-Zionists. Their youngest son, Erez, 19, the 2000 national youth triathlon champion, has followed his elder brothers into an elite commando unit. Boaz, 31, was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident during his military service. Shaul, 28, now lives in Tel Aviv. Gilboa, 27, is working in Los Angeles. Dana, 23, is an au pair in Tel Aviv.

"I was a hippie in the Sixties---a devout pacifist. But then again, I never felt threatened until I came to Israel. I knew people who were killed in the Yom Kippur War. By the time Boaz went to the army, I realized that I wasn't a pacifist anymore," says Aisenberg.

Lydia Greenberg immigrated in 1969, on her 23rd birthday.

"There was nothing particularly Jewish about my upbringing, but I was made to feel different. When I was 10, our religious-instruction teacher in Caerphilly told me to explain to the class why my people killed Jesus. I remember bursting into tears and running out of the school. As I grew older, I was constantly hounded---why my nose wasn't bigger or where I kept my horns. Ignorance breeds ignorance."

She quit high school at 15.

"I have not been spoilt by a good education," she notes wryly. "I applied for a job in a toyshop in Cardiff--- this was in the days before the Race Relations Act, and applicants had to state their religion. The interviewer immediately crumpled my form and screamed 'Get out---I don't want any dirty Jews in my shop!' Forty years later, I'm still red with anger. What did he think I was going to do---circumcise the teddy bears? Being born Jewish was like being a hunchback, carrying a load

Lydia wanted to be a journalist
but cleaned chicken coops
for 15 years

that hindered everything I wanted to do. I came to Israel at 18 with a good understanding [of] what Zionism is, but had a bad experience at Kibbutz Usha. The kibbutzniks made no effort to get to know me---they even branded me 'English'! After eight months, I took the boat to Greece, then hitchhiked back to the UK."

On her return, she wrote a series of  letters in the Jewish Chronicle about the maltreatment of kibbutz volunteers. The articles led to a job as a reporter for the Manchester Jewish Gazette.

"Then the Six Day War broke out, and I jumped on the first available plane. I was one of 5,000 volunteers that flooded the country in 1967. I spent three happy months working at Mishmar Ha'emek, and returned to the UK with a different attitude. Two years later, I broke off my engagement to a nice Manchester Jewish lad and made aliya to Mishmar Ha'emek. During my ulpan I met Itzik, who had arrived as a youngster from Russia under the Youth Aliya program.

"I have no regrets---even though I wanted to be a journalist instead of working in chicken coops. For 15 years, I was in charge of the kibbutz volunteers and ulpan students. I am what I am today because of the influence of the kibbutz members. It's difficult for me to see the general apathy throughout the kibbutz movement and Center-Left nowadays."

Late in January, Barta'a remained in temporary limbo.

"The 42 demolition orders [an area 40 meters from the wadi has been slated for clearance] have not been carried out due to legal wranglings," reports Aisenberg. "The villagers successfully pushed their appeal through, and expect it will take six to nine months before any binding decisions are made in court." 

According to a Defence Ministry spokesperson, the separation fence will be completed along the sector east of Wadi Ara from Salem to Metzer, including the area of Barta'a, by the end of March. Aisenberg is concerned for the future of both sides of Barta'a, and has a unique solution to its problems.

"At least 600 adults on the eastern side hold Israeli citizenship, so the most logical and fair thing to do would be to give all the residents citizenship, pick up the Green Line and shove it over their shoulders, and let them be part of the Kabha family."   ##



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