Allam Abu Abead 88 248.
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Sitting in a somewhat squashed corner between a serving counter and shelves full of stock, Allam Abu Abead is making coffee. A shoebox-sized coffee maker sits below rows of deodorant, aftershave and perfume. The coffee maker seems to be the only item not covered in a layer of fine gray dust.
Abead is from Jenin, only 30 kilometers - but worlds apart - from his business in West Barta'a. But to get there he would have to pass through the Reichan-Barta'a checkpoint in the West Bank security barrier, about two kilometers behind East Barta'a, which lies beyond the Green Line. The gate generally opens early in the morning and closes again at around 10 p.m. On a good day one can get through the checkpoint in half an hour. However, it can often take an hour or two, depending on the overall security situation. If there is some sort of alert, or holiday in Israel, the checkpoint is often closed entirely.
Abead doesn't go home to Jenin, but rents accommodation in Barta'a, where he can usually be found at his business from morning until late in the evening. He is trying to make a living; there isn't anything else to do in Barta'a, anyway.
He shouldn't be doing business where he is, shouldn't be sleeping where he is. In fact, Abead shouldn't be this side of the security barrier at all, as his permit is no longer valid. He hasn't asked the Israeli authorities to renew it, because he objects to a new regulation that would require him to leave the area by 7 p.m.
"In the summer months we're open until late. That's when a large number of customers come. You seriously think I'm going to shut up shop and move out when there is business to be done?" he asks, pouring thick, piping hot, aromatic coffee into small disposable plastic cups.
He rents a small room in a makeshift "building" that's basically several shipping containers knocked together into shops. A second floor has been added onto the containers' roof, creating a few poky places for accommodation. Abead's bed literally hangs over a ditch - the Green Line, although in truth it is anything but that color, filled with debris, a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other insects.
Abead's story is typical of many of the Palestinians who work in East and West Barta'a. They're not supposed to be there, but everybody knows they are, including the security forces. As long as things are quiet and nobody rocks the boat, the successful center of commerce - the main source of income for many West Bank families - will continue to thrive.
Abead's own shop is divided into two sections. The main entrance area is full of Arabic music CDs and video cassettes. A few steps down, the second section sells toiletries and houses the coffee machine and computer. Wires stretch up and over the wall, under the doorway and out. During our conversation a young man is in and out, trying to do something with all the wiring to reconnect Abead to his computer.
When asked if he imports from Asia as many other shopkeepers do, he laughs heartily. "Are you kidding? I'm not big enough for that. I buy stock from wherever I can. Buying is no problem - it's the selling that's the difficult bit," he says with a smile.
A few women come in to purchase some items. They are slightly put off whatever has interested them, as the cellophane bags are covered in dust. Using two fingers, one lady picks up the item by its corner and, careful not to spread the dust, lays it gently on the glass countertop. She seems to be saying that she wants it, and Abead begins to wipe it off with a rag.
The troublesome dust is kicked into the shop by the heavy traffic outside. The village's infrastructure can't cope with the volume of vehicles that pass through the narrow main road, both sides of which are lined with shops. After the second intifada, anybody who could turned one of their home's front rooms into a store for rent. There are dozens of hole-in-the-wall enterprises in Barta'a, and where there is some space, buildings are hastily erected to open yet another "bizziness," as one gentleman calls his shipping container kiosk from which he sells felafel. That particular container literally straddles the Green Line ditch.
Abead pays rent on his shop to an Israeli Arab, and pays more rent to another Israeli Arab for the box in which he sleeps. He pays taxes to the West Barta'a municipality, which is now working to spruce up the main square on its side of the Green Line - laying pavements, surfacing the road and building a small park. He doesn't, however, pay VAT on the goods he sells, nor tax of any other kind. Not to the Israelis and not to the Palestinians. East Barta'a comes under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority. But thus far, the tax man from Jenin (the PA headquarters for the northern West Bank) has yet to call on him. Although it is rather difficult to understand how the PA tax authorities could demand that a Palestinian illegally doing business in Israel - West Barta'a - pay up.
He speaks very good English, somewhat hesitatingly, as he doesn't get to use it often. He spent time studying in Iraq and lived in a house in Baghdad. He is unmarried but has a lady friend in a nearby Israeli Arab city - where he is also forbidden to go, as he is not allowed over the Green Line, or security barrier for that matter. In this area, the barrier doesn't run along the Green Line, but veers a few kilometers into the West Bank.
Before the last intifada, he had a business in Jenin. He moved it to Baka a-Sharkiya in Wadi Ara. For a number of years a very successful market operated there, part of it in Baka a-Sharkiya (East Baka) in the West Bank, and part in Baka al-Gharbiya (West Baka) in Israel. In those days, one could buy fruit in Israel, walk a few paces, and buy vegetables in the West Bank - somewhat like in Barta'a today. After a number of Israelis were murdered at the Baka al-Gharbiya and Sharkiya market place, and more in the general vicinity, the IDF destroyed hundreds of shops and stalls. Abead's East Baka business was also flattened. He moved whatever stock he could save to Baka al-Gharbiya, and started all over again while maintaining a similar shop in Jenin, run by a relative.
Abead's Baka al-Gharbiya shop was in the center of the sprawling town. He was arrested twice for being in Israel without a permit. "When a construction or agriculture worker comes across illegally, it's not so easy to catch them. They move from place to place and are in areas off the main roads. I, on the other hand, stayed in the shop, [which was] on a busy main road and very easy to find," he explains, offering more coffee.
At one point he sat in the Kishon Prison. His cellmates were an Israeli Druse and a Russian immigrant. "We all got on very well under the circumstances," he says with a chuckle.
Since it was too easy to be picked up in the center of Baka al-Gharbiya, Abead moved his business once more, this time to Barta'a.
He answers questions candidly. His knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deep, often quoting what was said, done, agreed upon and reneged upon in the Madrid, Wye and Camp David agreements. His comments on Fatah-Hamas relations cause the listener to understand that he sees nothing positive for the Palestinian people in the near future. He believes the infighting between the two camps is detrimental to the Palestinian cause and that corruption in Fatah is a leading factor in the current situation.
Abead said that unlike many Palestinians, he does believe that the Holocaust happened and sees Hitler as an evil man. "I don't hate Jews, most of us don't. We hate the situation. The Holocaust was not the fault of the Palestinian people and should not be used to deprive the Palestinians, as has been done," he says with great feeling.
As far as he knows, Jews left Iraq and other countries to go to Israel voluntarily, not as a result of being persecuted and too frightened to stay. He listens with interest to stories about some Iraqi Jews, but seems to hold on to the belief that they left not because they were threatened, but because they wanted to live in Israel.
Asked how he perceives Israel's Arab citizens and what sort of relationship he had with the Israeli Arabs in Barta'a, Baka al-Gharbiya and elsewhere, he answers: "They are part of us, but at the same time they are different. They are actually in a worse situation than us, the Palestinians. When something happens to us they feel it very strongly and same with us when there are problems for them. They have an identity crisis, we don't."
Turning to Jenin, Abead says he knows many people who cannot provide sufficient food for their children. "It is better to be a refugee in Jenin than one of the established families. The registered refugees continue to get aid from UNWRA - basic supplies - whilst the local Palestinian population not considered refugees get nothing, go hungry."
As far as limiting the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel, Abead says he doesn't understand why only a limited number of married men with children are granted permits.
"Because I'm single, I can't get a permit to work in Israel. I don't understand the Israeli logicâ€¦ really. If I had children and my children were suffering, I would be pushed toward doing something drastic. If your children were hungry, don't you think that would be the situation?" he asks. "Where's the logic here?"