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Weeping Wall 

Life along the Israeli "security barrier"

Last year, Israel began building a network of "security barriers" to protect itself from Palestinian terrorists. The walls and fences cut off much of the West Bank territories from Israel, but they managed to incorporate parts of the territories on the Israeli side to accommodate Jewish settlers. Editor Ken Edelstein visited the wall last spring and talked to Arabs and Israelis on the Israeli side.

My first morning in Israel, my cousin Shai and I biked from his parents' house in a small Jewish town called Kochav Yair through an olive orchard and across Highway 6 to the Arab city of Tira.

Shai wanted to introduce me to "Ibrahim," a Palestinian friend who's lived and worked in Tira for several years. Then, we'd travel a loop that would take us through the Jewish city of Kfar Saba and to the old border with the West Bank, where Israel is building its controversial "security barrier."

Shai's not your typical Israeli, if there is such a thing today. He grew up both in Israel and Atlanta and, after seeing action in the Israeli Army, lived for two decades on the West Coast. In 1997, after he put aside enough money to pay off his daughter's college tuition, Shai quit his job in LA and started traveling the world by bicycle.

He ended up in Kochav Yair, an upper-middle-class enclave where his father, his mother, his brother and his brother's family live in a four-story duplex perched on a rocky slope off a suburban-style cul-de-sac. Shai's brother, Zvi, tends a lovely garden and keeps parrots, whose racket gives the compound a semi-tropical feel.

Sitting on an embankment behind the house, looking over to olive trees on the nearby hills and listening to the distant bleats and jangles of a Bedouin's herd of sheep, you might mistake the place for Tuscany or Provence. A Mediterranean breeze rustles the leaves of a eucalyptus grove down in the ravine, just as it might in Italy or France -- the major difference being, those lands aren't constantly at war.

Shai lives in a small room under the garage. He spends most of his time on landscaping projects and occasionally travels to the West Bank to protest the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements on Arab land.

Much of the rest of the time, he bikes. He strikes a unique image pedaling solo across the Israeli countryside in faded shorts, a ragged T-shirt and a worn bandanna -- none of the bike-geek regalia favored by most Israeli cyclists. A lone cyclist biking like a happy-go-lucky maniac through an Arab town must look pretty non-threatening to the locals.

So Ibrahim, a curious 20-something from the West Bank, had become Shai's friend, along with a handful of other Arabs in Tira. This morning, Ibrahim was particularly happy to meet his friend's American cousin.

"Do you have room in your house in Atlanta?" he asked, as he offered us a deliciously strong cup of coffee. We laughed, knowing it was a bitter joke. US Customs wouldn't have to think too hard before barring the gate from a young male Palestinian without a passport.

Born and raised on the West Bank, Ibrahim wearied of the violence, corruption and, most likely, the lack of opportunity in his village. So, during the 1990s, when people still thought there might be a chance for peace, when conditions were good enough to commute from the West Bank to Israel proper, he found a job in Tira, one of Israel's more prosperous Arab towns.

Ibrahim is smart and congenial, with a good feel for business and people. He's done well. He worked his way up to being manager of a small business that Shai frequently visits. (To protect Ibrahim, I've changed his name and am leaving out details about his business.)

At first, he moved relatively freely between the West Bank and Israel. But four years ago, the Second Intifada -- a Palestinian rebellion against the West Bank occupation -- broke out on the heels of the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded with typical heavy-handedness: bulldozing terror suspects' houses, assassinating terrorist leaders, and killing lots of innocent bystanders. Relations between Arabs and Jews spiraled downward, and Israel closed the West Bank's access to jobs in Israel.

To visit his relatives and to bring them money, Ibrahim was forced to sneak into the West Bank through a field that separated Israel from the territories. Returning to Israel through the field was even more dangerous. He learned to run in a crouch low enough to keep his head and back from poking above the crop. Otherwise, the border patrol might have shot him.

Last year, Israel finally began to build the security barrier, a heavily patrolled wall and fence to prevent terrorists from sneaking in from the West Bank. Ibrahim decided his future lay on the Israeli side of the barrier.

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