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The Withering Palestinian Economy

The sun is sinking fast behind the trees of an olive grove on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Nilin. After a day of confrontations between the Israeli army and the Palestinian villagers over Israel’s building of its separation wall on Nilin’s land, the soldiers appear finally to have gone.

Overlooked by the homes of the neighbouring Jewish settlement of Hashmonaim, a handful of Nilin’s braver teenagers finally come out to work.

Jamal and Abed are sweating from their efforts to beat both nightfall and the return of the army. They stand proudly, the fronts of their T-shirts turned out to hold a bulging stash of used tear gas canisters and stun grenades. Each is worth one shekel (25c) in scrap value, and between them they have at least 50 canisters.

Nilin, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is home to nearly 5,000 Palestinians. Known as the “village of entrepreneurs”, it has more than its share of millionaires. But that looks set to change.

Traditionally, Nilin has enjoyed the benefits not only of a thriving agricultural industry on its plentiful outlying lands, but also of four factories that supply goods ranging from cola to fuel to Palestinians across the Ramallah region.

But Jamal and Abed, who nervously laugh and refuse to answer when asked for their full names, appear to be the face of Nilin’s future business prospects.

Encircled by half a dozen Jewish settlements like Hashmonaim — all illegal under international law — the village is slowly being sealed off in a fashion that may soon make its isolation almost as complete as Gaza’s.

Since May, Israel has begun building its separation barrier along one length of the village, cutting it off from 250 hectares, or 40 per cent, of its farmland. The land will be effectively annexed to the neighbouring settlements.

Copying the strategy of nearby Palestinian villages, the people of Nilin have begun a campaign of mainly non-violent protests to delay the work in the hope that world opinion, or the Israeli courts, will win them a reprieve.

In the meantime, a series of violent incidents by the army have claimed several lives in the village. The army has also experimented with new techniques to break up the demonstrations, including a foul-smelling liquid called Skunk which is sprayed on protesters.

After such clashes Jamal and Abed cash in — the Palestinian equivalent of poor children rifling through bins looking for used drinks cans. The pair dodge through the trees each evening under cover of dusk collecting empty canisters left behind by the army.

If Nilin’s farmers face the imminent demise of their livelihoods with the confiscation of their land, Nilin’s businessmen may not be far behind.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, has seen plans drafted by the Israeli army to seal off the crossroads at the entrance to the village, the only access in and out of Nilin. Currently it is controlled by an army checkpoint, the location where a bound Palestinian was shot in the foot in July by an Israeli soldier — a moment captured by Salam Amira, a Palestinian schoolgirl, on her video camera.

“Israel says it wants to prevent the inhabitants of Nilin using the road so that it can ‘secured’,” said Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem. “In practice that means the road will be reserved for settlers to reach settlements even deeper in the West Bank, on the far side of Nilin. The road will be for Jews only.”

In place of the checkpoint, Israel is proposing that Nilin be turned into an enclave connected via a tunnel to another road leading to Palestinian villages in the area. The villagers fear they will then be entirely dependent on the Israeli army’s good will to come and go.

Other communities in the West Bank have suffered similar fates in the past. Qalqilya, home to 50,000 Palestinians, was tightly encircled by the wall a few years ago.

Its many farmers, who rely on the army to let them pass through gates to their land, complain bitterly of restrictions that have made it all but impossible to make a living. They say that the soldiers often do not show up or they open the gate for only a few minutes a day.

Reports suggest that Qalqilya has seen an exodus of about one-tenth of its population since the wall’s completion.

Like Qalqilya, Nilin is close to the Green Line, the West Bank’s pre-1967 border with Israel. It is in such areas that Israel’s wall has made the biggest inroads into Palestinian land.

Ms Michaeli pointed out the plans for Nilin and similar developments elsewhere in the West Bank mean that any hope of a contiguous Palestinian state — the goal of the US-sponsored road map — is being destroyed by Israel.

“The army can open and close the tunnel at will,” she said. “And we have seen how unaccountably the army uses that kind of power in other places in the West Bank. If they want to punish the village or bring pressure to bear, they simply seal the tunnel.”

The tunnel is likely to be the final straw for Nilin’s struggling economy.

According to a report from the World Bank published last month, increasingly severe movement restrictions across the West Bank are choking business prospects.

Palestinian gross domestic product has fallen by 40 per cent during the intifada and investment has dropped to “precariously low levels”.

The report further notes that the land left to Palestinian communities has been “fragmented into a multitude of enclaves, with a regime of movement restrictions between them”.

Salah Hawaja, who leads the non-violence campaign against the barrier, said the villagers wished to avoid such a fate for Nilin.

“The wall is the first stage of turning us into a ghetto,” he said. “The tunnel and the army’s control of it will make the factories on which so many people in Nilin depend for their living unviable. No one can run a business not knowing from day to day whether he will be able to send out trucks or bring in supplies.

“We have no choice but to resist because the other option is that we watch our economy being slowly strangled to death. Israel wants us to leave this land for the settlers, but we are not going anywhere. We will continue struggling for our right to stay here.”

JONATHAN COOK is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.

A version of this article originally appeared in The National (www.thenational.ae), published in Abu Dhabi.

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Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jonathan-cook.net/

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