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15 July 2010

Gated community: life inside the West Bank Barrier

15 July 2010
West Bank

The West Bank Barrier snakes around the villages of Biddu, Beit Surik and Beit Ijza, north west of Jerusalem, separating them from four nearby settlements – and much of their land.

Movement restrictions and the Barrier have shattered the economy of this formerly relatively prosperous area. Many people used to work in Israel and Jerusalem, but with this option no longer available unemployment now stands at 50 per cent.

Agriculture, formerly a secondary source of income, has become increasingly important.

Seasonal gates

But around half Biddu’s agriculture land, and 70 per cent of its grazing land, is enclosed behind the Barrier. A complex series of gates and permits govern farmers’ access to their fields.

The Israeli authorities class the gates around Biddu as seasonal, so they are open for a total of just three months each year. Each day they are open, farmers must time their entry and exit to their fields with the opening of the gate.

Access denied

The system is unreliable and erratic, badly affecting the quality and size of the harvest. Opening times are often not respected. People who arrive once the gate has been closed, even within the agreed 30-minute period, are not able to enter, while others get stranded on the wrong side.

UNRWA, in coordination with the OCHA, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has monitored access through the agricultural gates for two years.

On several occasions, the UN agencies have had to intervene to help people crossing. Last year, the gates were closed during important harvest months, leaving most of the fruit to rot.

Although UNRWA has discussed ways of improving farmers’ access with Israel’s Border Police and Civil Administration, the situation continues to deteriorate.

Health care and jobs

The restrictions have not only affected residents’ access to their land. The Barrier also cuts them off from their old health centre in Jerusalem, and movement restrictions make travel to the clinic in nearby Ramallah difficult.

In Biddu, 95 per cent of residents are refugees registered with UNRWA. To ensure they receive adequate health care, the Agency opened a health centre in nearby Beit Surik in 2005. It now serves 14,500 patients from the surrounding area.

For some of the most vulnerable refugees, UNRWA also provides short-term employment, with the financial support of ECHO, the European Union’s humanitarian aid department. On a hill above Biddu, some workers created a park for the local community. One worker, Daoud Saleh Badwan, said: “UNRWA and the programme help people invest in their land. We fear if the land is not used it might be encroached upon and used for the Wall.”

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