Last update – 16:41 27/03/2006

Maze of checkpoints separates sisters

The first question Salwa Tabari asked was how rehearsals were coming for the big concert marking the Jerusalem Choir’s jubilee year. Actually, that was her second question. The first, almost rhetorical question, was: Why did it take you so long to get here? The visitor, Fadwa Tabari, smiled. She knew that her sister had been on pins and needles since noon, awaiting Fadwa’s second visit in four weeks. The two sisters, one a musician, the other a librarian and Arabic teacher, have lived together since they were born. The separation has been hard on both of them.

The rare meeting between the sisters is one example among many of the social repercussions of travel restrictions imposed by the Israel Defense Forces on Palestinians in the West Bank. Since the start of the second intifada, all forms of travel in the West Bank have become an ordeal. Residents travel only if they have to. As reported in detail in Friday’s Haaretz, the IDF has blocked off major roads with various kinds of barriers: permanent checkpoints, mobile checkpoints, locked steel gates, concrete blocks, ditches and fences. Israel has shredded the West Bank into a group of disconnected enclaves.

Salwa Tabari, a Jerusalem native and resident of Ramallah, has been conductor of the Jerusalem Choir since 1973, and is a founder of the Conservatory of Music in Ramallah. Three months ago, when the chill in her stone house in Ramallah began to exacerbate her bodily pains, she was moved by ambulance to a women’s residential treatment center in Qubeibe, a village southwest of the city.

Before the intifada, the drive from Ramallah to Qubeibe took at most 15 minutes. But now it is at least an hour away, along narrow, potholed or recently improved rural roads that are jammed with traffic. In the past five years, Israel has cut off Palestinian access to the main road that leads to the residential treatment center, although it continues to serve residents of nearby Israeli settlements, residents of northern Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line and other Israelis.

Two hours by taxi

The trip is an hour’s drive if you have a private car. But Fadwa and Salwa Tabari don’t. So to the one hour of travel, you have to add another hour waiting for the group taxi to fill up. And then you also have to include the time it takes to stop in every one of the eight villages through which the taxi to Qubeibe passes. First it heads west, then south, and then southwest. A total of 40 kilometers, which seem like 80 and can take two hours, not one, because the taxi ends up waiting a long time for passengers. Folks are not traveling much. A round trip costs NIS 20, which is a lot of money in a society reeling from unemployment and poverty. Geographically and psychologically, to many residents of the nearby villages, Ramallah – along with its educational and leisure institutions – has become a faraway, virtually inaccessible metropolis.

The long, arduous and expensive trip is the reason that Fadwa Tabari cannot visit her sister as frequently as both women would like. But Salwa Tabari will soon be coming home. The hardship is on the center’s permanent residents. They seldom see their families, especially those living in the area of Bethlehem and Hebron. The long circuit these families have to make – from East Jerusalem, through narrow Wadi Nar and a number of army checkpoints – is very long and expensive. The distances also wreak havoc on the center’s budget. Because of the harsh travel conditions, every purchase of medication or medical equipment is extremely expensive. In the end, these items come at the expense of other things the management would like to have to improve patients’ welfare.

Each social enclave has its own response to the crisis. For instance, the villages Masha and Bidia have a high percentage of car owners who have not renewed their vehicle registration or insurance. What is the good of paying these fees when there is nowhere to drive, or no money to pay for double or quadruple the amount of fuel to get from point a to point b? Residents of the village Dier Dibwan, which is east of Ramallah, are sending their children to study in the United States instead of to a private school in Ramallah. The direct road, which enters eastern Ramallah from the villages (a seven-minute drive) was blocked off to limit the amount of Palestinian traffic near the settlements of Ofra and Beit El. The bypass route, which enters Ramallah from the north, not only takes 40 minutes, but is also slick and dangerous in the winter. The parents were afraid.

Parents in Abu Dis and Sawahre were also afraid for their children’s safety. The narrow, dangerously worn-down streets passing through these towns now carry all Palestinian traffic between the northern and southern West Bank. From there, the road continues through the bottlenecked Abu Dis checkpoint. The parents had 40 speed bumps put down to slow traffic. Only the prolonged waits at military checkpoints equals driving through the packed, narrow streets in terms of wracked nerves and tests of patience. Is it any wonder that taxi drivers in the West Bank report a negligible number of trips along this route, due to the excessive length of the journey and the duration of the trip?

Conversely, the expense of repairing vehicular damage caused by the potholed roads has increased. Often, given the lack of demand, a driver will return from Hebron or Bethlehem to Ramallah with an empty taxi.

Changing social patterns

The enormous distance that has been carved out between West Bank enclaves – in terms of both travel time (and waiting time) and kilometers – has altered social patterns: large family gatherings and visits with relatives, including elderly parents, have grown more rare. Clerks employed in government offices have left their homes in cities and villages that used to be a 30- or 40-minute drive from work and have moved to Ramallah to spare themselves the time and expense of travel. Frequently they live on their own, far from the family. High-ranking officials admit that they are deterred by the prospect of traveling in the West Bank due to the uncertainty in the travel time. Others opt to ride in the vehicles of diplomats and international aid organizations.

However, the Jerusalem Choir, founded in 1956 by Christian residents of Ramallah, clings to its customs. Apart from brief intermissions, it has continued to hold weekly rehearsals and perform for audiences every few months. There was a time when it would move freely between Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah, and its members came from these three cities. Today, the Jerusalem Choir gathers for rehearsals only in Ramallah.

Salwa Tabari, born in Jerusalem, who remembers roller-skating near the old Schneller orphanage, where her family lived until her father became headmaster of the Friends School in Ramallah – is no longer able to enter the city of her birth. The long and winding trip to Bethlehem dissuades even those much younger than her. Given these upheavals, is it any wonder that she sticks with the practically permanent repertoire at the choir’s public performances: Mozart’s Coronation Mass, Vivaldi’s Gloria, and Haydn’s Mass in Time of War?

Giornalista di guerra e scrittrice


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