Sun sets on an encircled town

QALQILIYA, occupied West Bank (IPS) - Qalqiliya has been an encircled town since the Israeli West Bank barrier was built around it in 2003. Only one narrow gate guarded by Israeli soldiers allows access.

The anger, disbelief and protests over this situation have become muted. The people of Qalqiliya are waking up to the reality of near imprisonment. The town’s legislators spend most of their time in Israeli prisons without being charged of anything.

“The wall is killing the people of Qalqiliya”, says Emat, a 25-year-old shopkeeper. “Nothing comes in, nothing goes out, we can’t make a living. The people here are almost dead.”

Behind Emat’s empty street is the entrance to the daily vegetable market. A quiet one by Arab standards, with a total of about 20 vegetable stalls. Ten years ago, thousands of Israelis came to this market, making Qalqiliya the richest city then in the West Bank.

The economic damage caused by the wall has been enormous, says deputy mayor Dr. Mohammad Hashem al-Masri “Next to the thousands of Israeli customers we lost, they blocked access to our fields, practically putting a definitive end to our agriculture. Moreover, there used to be 13,000 Qalqiliyan commuters working in Israel. That number has shrunk to about 1,000.

“Qalqiliya was a place where Palestinians and Israelis bonded”, he said. “But that time is over.”

Things have admittedly gotten better compared to five years ago. At the start of the second intifada in 2000, the town was completely sealed off for three years. “No one was allowed in or out. We were all prisoners then,” says al-Masri, who is a pharmacist. “Due to the imprisonment we suffered from an infected atmosphere. About 45,000 people were living on four square kilometers and couldn’t get out, which turned all infections into epidemics.”

Once the city was opened, a little, a new problem arose. “More than 1.5 percent of the people are diagnosed with minor or major depression”, says al-Masri, suggesting that the real number is probably much higher.

“There is unemployment, poverty and stress,” says Arwa Shanti, manager of the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) in Qalqiliya. “Since the wall, more cases of depression and other psychiatric disorders are coming in. The number of stress-related diseases like hypertension, diabetes mellitus and myocardial infarction keeps augmenting. And the patients are very young: in their twenties, thirties or maximum forties.”

Governing Qalqiliya has been difficult the last couple of years, and not just because of the wall. Since the 2005 municipal elections Qalqiliyan legislators have spent more time in Israeli prisons than in the municipality.

The present mayor, Sheikh Wajeeh Qawwas won the elections while in jail. He was arrested in 2002 and not released until 2006. He took up his responsibilities as mayor in May 2006, but was arrested again a month later, this time together with deputy mayor al-Masri.

Al-Masri was released earlier this year after serving two full years under administrative detention. The case against him was that he was a member of Hamas. “I have nothing to do with Hamas,” he says. “I am just the representative of my clan.” He won the elections representing the Change and Reform party, associated with Hamas. “I have paid a very high price,” he says.

Wajeeh Qawwas is still being held in the Israeli prison Megiddo under administrative detention.

“Administrative detention means they hold a secret file against you,” says Qalqiliya’s international relations officer Nibal Yalud. “You are not charged with anything, and you do not appear before a judge. It suffices to say that you are a threat to security to keep you in prison.”

At least 600 Palestinians are being held under administrative detention. Israeli human rights associations have complained of the recklessness with which these arrest warrants are being issued.

Despite dealing with such difficulties, the municipality of Qalqiliya has been praised by the World Bank, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Development Business (UNDB) for good governance. According to the Palestinian Authority’s office for administrative and financial control, the Qalqiliyan municipality is number one in transparency in the Palestinian territories.

Now, the deputy mayor wants to turn Qalqiliya into an agricultural export center again. “With all we have, greenhouses, seedlings and nurseries, we want to export vegetables and plants to the outside world.”

This might help the economy, but may not change the feeling of frustration among the inhabitants. “I used to go to the area on the other side of the wall to pick mandarines and oranges”, says civil servant Wafa Milehm. “We used to go there for picnics with the family. I went there to pick wild flowers.”

“There is a meaning to picking a wild flower,” says Nibal Yalud. “You do it to break the routine, the bureaucracy of life. That’s not possible any more in Qalqiliya.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2008). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.

Related Links