Small red ribbons fluttered in the early evening breeze among the olive groves of the West Bank village of Falamia, leading like a child’s paper trail from the greenhouses and fields of vegetables up a gentle rocky slope towards the brow of a wide hill.
There the trail ended and the devastation began. Olive trees lay upended or their trunks had been cut close to the ground, the leaves on the branches already shrivelling in the late sun.
“The ribbons mark the path of the fence Israel wants to build through our lands,” said 29-year-old Sami Dahir, a civil engineer whose family owns 250 dunums (60 acres) of farmland. “Each day they inch closer. If we don’t do something soon, they will reach the wadi and we will lose everything.”
The farmers have much to lose. Falamia, a village of 650 people close to Qalqilya that claims a heritage dating back 1,300 years, has 7,000 dunums (1,750 acres) of land nestling in the foothills that rise from the Israeli coastal plain. The climate is mild and a series of wells provide plentiful water. Before the Intifada Falamia supplied fruit and vegetables to much of the West Bank.
But since Israel’s military invasion of the territory in April, the villagers have found it almost impossible to distribute their produce and have returned to subsistence farming. Despite one of the best harvests in years, olives are left unpicked on trees and a small brown van drives around the village, its loudspeaker declaring a bargain five kilos of potatoes for $1.
Now, says Rasheed Abu Mohamed, the mayor, the farmers face losing their fields as well as their markets.
According to the ribbons and painted red crosses on rocks and greenhouses marking out the route of the fence, Israel intends to demolish hundreds of greenhouses and taking control of seven of its eight wells.
Although the physical barrier of the barbed wire fence will cover only a few metres, the “sterile zone” of trenches and military roads either side will take up 50 metres in a snaking path through the main wadi.
There is a further problem. “The military zone of the wall will stretch almost up to our houses,” said Dahir. “Only a few hundred dunums will be accessible from the village’s side of the wall. There will be a much larger area of land untouched on the other side but how are we supposed to reach it? We have asked the army many times but we get no answers.”
He adds bitterly: “If we lose our farmland, I tell you now Israel will create a village of 500 Osama Bin Ladens.”
Despite the anger, quite how the villagers can hold back the tide is unclear. The contractors have been working non-stop on the fence around the northern West Bank since it was approved by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in June.
Progress on the first 110km section of the fence, from Salem close to Jenin in the north to Kfar Qassem close to Qalqilya, has been slower than expected. The completion date has been put back from January to July next year. It is still unclear whether there is a commitment to seal off the south of the West Bank around Hebron.
But completion of sections close to Jenin, Tulkarm and Qalqilya has been a priority because the cities lie close to the Green Line, the 1948 armistice line that separates Israel from the West Bank. The government claims most Palestinian militants enter Israel through these areas. On Monday a suicide bomber killed three in the Israeli town of Kfar Saba, just a few kilometres from Falamia.
In the village that day attention was concentrated on hampering the contractors’ work. Two dozen international and Israeli activists hugged trees as armed guards overseeing the construction set upon them. Five activists were injured.
Next day the protest briefly gained a higher profile when the French consul arrived in the village on a fact-finding mission. The French government has sponsored an irrigation project on 1,500 dunums (400 acres) in the area since 1993 and is lodging objections to the crop destruction with Israel.
One of the questions the French consul has raised is why the route of the fence is running through Falamia at all: the village is more than a kilometre inside the West Bank.
There has been plenty of speculation about why the Israeli government has refused to follow the Green Line, using it instead as a rough outline for the fence and arranging significant detours in places, often without any obvious gain in security.
In a recent report, Israeli human rights group Btselem suggested that Sharon agreed to divert its course in several locations to reinforce his message that the fence is a security barrier rather than the demarcation of the political borders of a future Palestinian state.
At a few sites, the group says, the choice of the fence’s course is entirely illogical from a security point of view, with the barrier being built on low-lying land overlooked by Palestinian hilltop villages.
Another explanation provided by Btselem is that the government caved in to pressure from several powerful settlements in the West Bank that are close to the Green Line.
When Sharon made a field trip to an area near Qalqilya in late June he changed the route of the fence on the spot, announcing that it would pass four kilometres east of the Green Line so that the large settlement of Alfei Menashe would be included on the Israeli side. It may not have been unconnected that the settlement houses 1,300 families of army officers.
Falamia also has influential Israeli neighbours. Moving the fence to the village has diverted it away from the Kokhav Yair settlement, which lies on the Green Line and is home both to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and to the former Chief of Staff and the new Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz.
But the most disturbing explanation to emerge from the Btselem report is that the route will allow Israel to annex huge swaths of some of the most fertile Palestinian land. Villages around Tulkarm like Qaffin, a-Ras and Kafr Sur and villages like Falamia and Jayuss near Qalqilya will be in the West Bank but between half and 90 per cent of their lands will be on the other side of the fence.
The villages have been promised that the confiscation is temporary and that in the meantime they will be issued permits to reach their land. None of the farmers believes the army’s assurances.
Eight villages, home to 27,000 Palestinians, will suffer a different fate: they will be trapped entirely on the Israeli side of the fence, but have no rights to cross the Green Line and enter Israel proper. They will also be cut off from neighbouring Palestinian areas. Israel has so far failed to explain how these villagers will be able to reach offices, schools or hospitals in the larger Palestinian villages and cities, or how farmers will trade their produce.
But it is not just the villagers whose lives will be devastated by the fence. In the case of Qalqilya, the barrier will be a wall of thick concrete some 30ft high that instead of following the Green Line will seal off a city of 40,000 on three sides. There will be one army checkpoint on the eastern side controlling movement in and out of the city.
Most of the wall on the western side of the city has been erected, smothering Qalqilya from view for Israelis driving along the newly opened section of the Trans-Israel Highway. The mayor, Marouf Zahran, says he has been told the rest of the wall will be completed in another four months.
While the city betrays signs of its former wealth, from the days when it was a dormitory town for Palestinian workers employed in Israel, as well as a convenient commercial hub used by Palestinians and Israelis and a thriving farming community, its fate is essentially no different from the villages.
Since the Intifada, Palestinian workers have deserted the city, as have Israeli visitors. All that is left is agriculture. “Before the Intifada only about a quarter of the city’s income was derived from farming. Now it is nearly half,” said Zahran.
But the wall will change that. Even the mayor is still unclear about the exact path of the wall, but from the latest Israeli plans it appears Qalqilya’s land holding will shrink from 10,000 dunums (2,500 acres) to 3,500 dunums (800 acres), barely more than the space on which the city is built. There will be almost no farmland left. A huge concrete barrier will separate the farmers from their fields.
Zahran said: “Unemployment is already at 70 per cent but in a few months it will be higher than 70 per cent. With no work, no hope, no money, the Israelis will turn us into a city filled with hatred and desire for revenge. Israel will not get security, it will get more terror.”
Israel has taken the land of the villages and Qalqilya under military confiscation notices until 2005. The orders are renewable and, given the expense of erecting the fence — $1m for each kilometre — almost certain to be extended indefinitely. Btselem warns: “Israel’s intention is not to seize the land for a temporary period but to expropriate it permanently.”
Gone with Qalqilya’s confiscated land will be 14 wells, some 30 per cent of the city’s water supply and a major source of irrigation for the city’s farmers as well as those in the villages. Qalqilya sits on the biggest of four acquifers in the West Bank and there is more than a suspicion that Israel, desperately short of water, intends to take a larger share of the supply once it controls more of the land above the acquifer.
Qalqilya is hemmed in by two large illegal Israeli settlements, Tzofim in the north and Alfei Menashe in the south. Zahran fears Qalqilya’s land and wells will be annexed to them after the wall is finished.
The city’s only hope rests on Israeli assurances that there will be a series of checkpoints to allow the farmers to access their land. The signs are not encouraging.
Five main crossing points between the West Bank and Israel are due to be administered by Israel’s Airport Authority. The nearest one to Qalqilya will be several kilometres north, at the town of Taibeh. The five crossings will be used for trading merchandise and allowing tourists entry, and two of them — at Jalameh near Jenin and Tarqumiya near Hebron — will be used for transporting a limited number of Palestinian workers into Israel.
What other access routes will be available is far from clear. The Palestinian human rights group LAW says Israel has promised some 30 local checkpoints but no money has been allocated for them.
Israeli political commentator Akiva Eldar revealed last week in the Ha’aretz newspaper that even the initial $12m allocated for the five crossing points had been transferred to the fund for the fence’s construction and that no more money for the crossings’ operation was included in the forthcoming budget.
A source in the Defence Ministry also doubted that the army had enough soldiers to staff the fence’s crossings, watchtowers and patrols, let alone man small local checkpoints.
Even if Israel does provide checkpoints and commits to the expense of staffing them permanently, Zahran is sure that there will be regular curfews when farmers will not be able to tend their fields.
“This is not about security but about confiscating our lands and destroying our livelihoods. Ultimately it’s about driving us out of our towns and villages, and out of the West Bank.”