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Email from Baqa

The Guardian – 18 March 2002

The Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiya (Western Baqa) sits uncomfortably on the Israeli side of the green line, the border separating Israel and the West Bank until the Six Day war of 1967. The muddy road running through Baqa’s chaotic open-air market ends abruptly at a barbed-wire fence guarded by soldiers. On the other side is the town’s Palestinian mirror image: Baqa al-Sharkiya (Eastern Baqa).

The twin towns, located in northern Israel, are separated only in a formal sense. The army checkpoint is in fact 75 metres inside the Palestinian Authority, an implicit admission by Israel that it would be impossible to cut the market in two. Elsewhere, movement between the towns is blocked by earth mounds. They do not deter children from riding over them on bicycles – or Palestinian adults slipping past them to shop and work in the market, or possibly commit armed attacks.

The migration moves in one direction. As the Palestinian economy disintegrates, leaving most West Bank men unemployed, Baqa al-Gharbiya has become a magnet for those wanting to earn a crust.

But while Palestinians are desperate to cross into Israel, not all of Baqa al-Gharbiya’s 18,000 inhabitants are keen to stay there. One – Adel Kaadan, a 44-year-old nurse – has been fighting a legal battle for seven years to set up home in nearby Katzir, a community open only to Jews.

Although Mr Kaadan is one of Israel’s one million Arab citizens, he is barred from living on most state-owned land: some 93% of Israel. Farming cooperatives like the kibbutzim and moshavim, immigrant development towns and luxury hilltop settlements (mitzpim) like Katzir are almost always exclusively Jewish, and remain so through selection committees that weed out Arabs.

Two years ago Mr Kaadan made headlines when the country’s supreme court ruled that excluding him from Katzir was illegal. Human rights groups hailed the judgment as the end of Israeli apartheid. But the ruling has not been enforced – and some suspect it never will be.

Baqa’s cracked and potholed streets are regularly flooded with sewage, and there are no leisure facilities. The school attended by Mr Kaadan’s daughters is barely fit for human habitation. The crumbling temporary classrooms leak rain in the winter and asbestos all year round. In the past decade there has been a spate of cancer deaths among pupils.

Katzir, by contrast, sits atop a hill with clean air and dramatic views. It was established by Ariel Sharon, when he was housing minister in the early 1990s, as part of his “star points plan” – an attempt to sprinkle Jewish outposts along the green line to erode the demarcation between Israel and occupied territory.

The benefits to Katzir’s 1,000 or so residents are clear: government-subsidised homes, tidy streets lined with flower beds, a community centre, theatre, swimming pool and children’s play areas. The school, with class sizes half those of Baqa’s, gets extra money to encourage after-school projects and events.

Mr Kaadan says: “I pay the same taxes as the residents of Katzir but we get nowhere near the same services. When the school finishes at midday, my girls have nothing to do apart from watch TV.”

The opposition of Israel’s Jewish citizens to overturning 50 years of segregation and discrimination is deep-seated. Justifying the continued exclusion of the Kaadans, Katzir’s mayor, Dov Sandrov, recently said on Israeli radio: “I wouldn’t be surprised if one day it is revealed that the ones standing behind this affair are the Palestinian Authority and the funds are from Iranian and Saudi sources.”

In the meantime, Mr Kaadan is carrying on his fight. “There is an assumption in Israel that Arabs cannot appreciate beautiful things. Parks and pavements are good enough for places like Katzir, but we don’t need nice things. It’s simple racism.”

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