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Palestinians, Israelis Protest Building of Security Fence - 2003-05-15

The differences between Israelis and Palestinians are wider than ever, after more than 2.5 years of violence. Young Palestinian suicide bombers continue to blow up Israeli civilians. Israeli soldiers kill Palestinian militants and civilians, demolish Palestinian homes, and confiscate Palestinian land. But, amid this violence, some Israelis and Palestinians are working together to protest what is happening.

After the last rains of the season, the fields are still ankle deep in mud, and it is not the best day for a protest march. But, that has not kept this small group of men and women, young and old, political activists and farmers, from gathering.

The coordinator for the Tulkarem farmers' union is Fayez Thanib.

Mr. Thanib says they are protesting Israel's construction of a security fence, which is to divide Israel from parts of the West Bank. He says Israel is confiscating Palestinian farmland and vital water sources to build the fence, and he says thousands of farmers in the area are being affected. He says his own land has been confiscated.

The Israeli government approved the construction of a security fence last year. It was supposed to have been built along the so-called 'green line', the official frontier, before Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war. It was supposed to stop Palestinian militants from crossing into Israel to carry out attacks. It was not supposed to become a border. But that is how local residents see it today.

They also say the fence is being built far inside the West Bank, taking more and more Palestinian land in the process, and encompassing an increasing number of Jewish settlements in the area.

Israel says the fence is vital for security; Palestinians and human rights activists say it is a land grab.

Many are calling it a new Berlin Wall, or wall of "apartheid," which will turn Palestinian communities into virtual prisons.

Among those protesting the wall is prominent Palestinian civil rights activist Mustafa Barghouti. "I am here to participate in the peoples' demonstration against the confiscation of Palestinian land and the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, which is destroying peoples' lives, taking away their sources of living, destroying their agriculture, uprooting trees and building a new 'Berlin wall.' The main thing that this will show is that the Palestinian people is alive and will not give up," said Mustafa Barghouti.

And so the crowd marches through the outlying fields to where the fence, or separation wall as some call it, is being built.

And there the Palestinian marchers are met by more than 100 Israeli demonstrators who have come to show their support. Most of the Israelis are members of an organization called "Tayush", which means "living together" in Arabic. It is a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace and civil rights group.

One Israeli woman gives only her first name, Lena. She is a nurse and has lived in Israel for the past 20 years. "We are here against the fence," she said. "That it is not good for Palestinian people. I do not know exactly how we can really change things, but at least not to be silent, not to be quiet. That is what I do not want to do anymore."

Protest organizers call for unity against the fence, in Hebrew and Arabic.

Regev Nathanson, 30, came here from Givatayim, near Tel Aviv. "It is a program of apartheid that not only separates between the two people, but hurts casually the Palestinians who live here," said Regev Nathanson. "It means they can not go to work, their villages are surrounded by all these walls and barbed wire; they can not go to their fields. Actually, most Israelis are pro some kind of separation, pro-Israeli state beside a Palestinian state, but the way that it is implemented here has nothing to do with what most of the Israeli citizens want."

PACE: Do you think people will listen?

NATHANSON: "I doubt it, but I hope someone in the world will listen and will stop [Prime Minister] Sharon's program."

Suddenly, four Israeli soldiers show up, and there is visible tension in the crowd. Some of the protesters move to keep the Palestinian teenagers back. Nobody wants a stone-throwing incident here. Some of the Israeli organizers walk over to talk to the soldiers.

Three of them look very young and very nervous, as they cautiously maneuver to keep anyone from getting behind them. The soldier in charge says they have come to protect the Israeli marchers. He says they could be attacked or kidnapped by Palestinians. He says the protesters should leave. There is more talking.

The soldier in charge says they have come to protect the Israeli marchers. He says they could be attacked or kidnapped by Palestinians. He says the protesters should leave. There is more talking.

The Israeli organizer of the protest, Gadi Algazi, is adamant the marchers will not leave. "He is trying to end the demonstration, and we insist on our right to have a common demonstration by Jews and Arabs against the face of the apartheid system," he said. "And, I suggest that they would not even try to use force against this demonstration, because we are here together, and we remain together. It is our future that is at stake. And, that is a danger to our future, the fence. They are trying to say the Palestinians here are a danger for us, but the Palestinians here are my brothers and sisters, and I want to live with them in peace and justice. So, I am not afraid."

There is more talking. Mr. Algazi and the soldiers move off to one side.

Finally, there is agreement that the soldiers will leave, and the protesters will stay only another 20 minutes, and then disperse.

And so, after a while, the crowd leaves. The Palestinians walk back through the fields toward Tulkarem. The Israelis cross back through the fence, and board buses for home.

This protest has come to a peaceful end. It is perhaps a small, but important symbol in a place where violence and hatred seem to rule the day.