A paradise for split personalities and free trade

Residents in the town of Barta’a in northern Israel and Samaria (West Bank) live in a constant identity crisis between the security barrier and the Green Line.

SHOPS IN Barta’a offer all sorts of kitsch, household goods, and clothing – toys, cosmetics, socks, plants, stuffed animals, plastic slippers and  oral head scarves (photo credit: FRANZISKA KNUPPER)
SHOPS IN Barta’a offer all sorts of kitsch, household goods, and clothing – toys, cosmetics, socks, plants, stuffed animals, plastic slippers and oral head scarves
(photo credit: FRANZISKA KNUPPER)
Lydia Aisenberg greets the man across the street. She’s known him for decades. Every day he stands on the corner selling eggs – both merchant and his produce boiling in the afternoon sun.
“In Israel, it is actually not allowed to sell eggs at a street stall, but he is on the other side of the roundabout. On the other side of the border – on Palestinian soil,” the activist and mother of five explains.
Aisenberg is wearing a black T-shirt with Arabic letters and a necklace with the Star of David. A native of Wales and veteran member of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek, she works for Givat Haviva, one of the oldest NGOs promoting Arab-Jewish dialogue. She has been coming to Barta’a, the divided village, for a long time. Here, she points out, the absurdity of the Middle East conflict is particularly evident.
“Barta’a is like a Monty Python sketch,” she says.
The 10,000 inhabitants of the town live in Wadi Ara, amid green meadows. The Mediterranean Sea is just a stone’s throw away, and the Green Line is drawn right through the middle of the town. Inhabitants of Barta’a travel from one country to another every day – for work, for family visits, a dentist appointment. Green ink separates families, neighbors, business associates, and the historical mistake still awaits resolution.
“Everyone here belongs to one clan: the Kabhas,” explains Sallah Kabha. The 47-year-old has a restaurant just behind the eastern entrance, making him Palestinian. Two of his brothers married women from the western part of the city, making them Israelis. Some 6,000 Kabhas are officially Palestinians; 4,000 are Israelis. Green or blue identity card, white or yellow license plate notwithstanding – a landmark on the dusty roundabout announces the division. The “barrier-ditch” lies forgotten, full of trash.
“Residents of west Barta’a have Israeli health and unemployment insurance and can move freely,” Sallah says, while turning two kebabs on the grill.
Until the Six Day War in 1967, while under Jordanian rule, it was almost impossible to travel to the other part of the city. The houses on the eastern mountain fell under Jordanian control, while the western ones belonged to Israel. Dirt tracks around the valley bear witness to former smuggling roads. The two sides developed independently.
“Everything is double here: mosque, school, cemetery,” says Sallah. He himself no longer remembers the Jordanian era, and considers himself only a Kabha.
“But I remember,” 61-year old Masri Kabha remarks from behind the counter. “We held weddings on the hills so that our relatives could watch from the other side of the village.” A curious nostalgia seems to grasp him. “Births and deaths were announced by shouts. The cemetery was built on top of the mountain so that at least one could guess where the loved ones were resting.” Sometimes he went down to the valley to talk to friends on the other side, but he never crossed the border.
It’s better since the Israelis arrived, he states. Now you can – although half secretly – commute back and forth between the districts. After 1967, east Barta’a became part of Area B, falling under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. When the whole Arab world mourned the 1967 victory of the Israeli state, Barta’a celebrated the town’s reunification after more than 18 years. But the joy didn’t last long: In 2003, the Israeli security barrier was built straight through the fields behind east Barta’a, with adjacent areas suddenly becoming part of Area C. This has turned eastern Barta’a into a Palestinian enclave, actually an autonomous Area B zone, but surrounded by Israeli Area C territory and cut off from the rest of the West Bank.
“There are now three Jewish settlements around east Barta’a. Because of this, the barrier wall was not built along the Green Line but a little bit behind it in order to protect the settlements,” says Aisenberg, standing on a hill overlooking the barrier, trying to explain the complex situation to a young Israeli soldier. She waves a map and points to the colorful lines. In front of them, a typical Palestinian landscape: white rocks, dark green scrub, sprinkled with olive trees. Next to the fence, only sand.
“So you can see the footprints and know if anyone has tried to cross the border,” says the soldier. He does his daily patrol here but does not know the area that well, he says apologetically. Lydia is not surprised. For most people, the patchwork called the West Bank is no longer intelligible.
“Above all, this conflict is a geographical one. It’s about land, paths, bridges and junctions – and the confusion over them.”
Surprisingly, Sallah does not seem to mind the wall. He is happy that east Barta’a is in the middle of nowhere, between wall and border. In neighboring Jenin and Umm al-Fahm, clashes with law enforcement are common, but Barta’a is an island.
“Since the wall was built, we live in peace,” Sallah states. Ironically, the isolation has fueled economic recovery. As the place is cut off from the authorities, it developed into some kind of free-trade zone. On weekends, up to 20,000 cars push through the village, some with Israeli, others with Palestinian plates.
“You have to get out of here by four o’clock. Otherwise you will be in a traffic jam forever,” advises a carpet dealer on the main street. Next to him, a shop offers all sorts of kitsch and household goods. Toys, cosmetics, plastic slippers, glitter, neon – screaming colors on every stand, headless mannequins in floral head scarves.
The village has turned into a no-man’sland, some kind of Wild West Middle East fantasy. Cars sometimes have no license plates and many people own weapons without a license, says Rateb Kabha. His hair salon consists of a single swivel chair and a mirror. On the TV screen, soap-opera stars move in silence. Kabha’s younger sisters live with their husbands in the west. Sometimes Kabha goes to visit.
“If I get caught, I pay a hefty penalty,” he says, raising his eyebrows above the golden frame of his glasses. “But the laws are never set in stone. It all depends on the Israeli policeman you meet.” One of his sons – Kabha has eight children – has been in an Israeli jail for 17 months already; he will be released in three weeks.
“Some children threw stones at a military patrol and he was there,” Kabha says, blowing smoke into the air. The prison is in Beersheba. As Kabha cannot go there, he sends his ‘Israeli’ sisters with their Israeli ID cards. Easy – and no big news in Barta’a. The strange has become the norm.
“The absurd has penetrated every aspect of life,” says Lydia. “You arrange yourself. At some point you will not notice it anymore.”
Kabha gets up and apologizes. The muezzin calls for prayer. It is late afternoon. “Whoever wishes to leave the village should do so very soon,” he says. “The traffic jam, the commuters...”
He points his finger into the air, moves it from left to right, listens and chuckles. Slightly offset, two voices in a distance, almost synchronous, emanate from the western and the eastern mosques.