Photos and Text by Lydia Aisenberg
When the present Intensive Arabic Semester group of students began their program they undertook an introductory tour of the Wadi Ara, Dotan Valley and Amir mountain range areas. With only a short time left to visit Barta’a village, they were promised a lengthier visit to the fascinating village at a later date.
A promise is a promise – so a second visit arranged recently during which time the students had the opportunity to walk over the dividing line between West and East Barta’a, to engage in conversation with local Palestinian businessmen and teachers from the Palestinian Ministry of Education girl’s high school in East Barta’a which falls under the Palestinian Authority. Born in Tulkarm, Mahmoud runs a small shop selling kitchenware in East Barta’a. His business premises are a hop, skip and jump from the ditch that was the pre-1967 border between the State of Israel and the then Jordanian controlled West Bank, and today the dividing line between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority enclave of East Barta’a stuck between the security fence a kilometer and a half behind them and the no-go (for most Palestinian residents) West Barta’a situated in the State of Israel.
Mahmoud, a former teacher who spent 30 years teaching the Arabic language in Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, speaks very good English and is more than happy to chat to the IAS students. Taking them across the street to stand in the shade of an empty shop, Mahmoud begins by telling the students that although he was born in Tulkarm these days he has two homes, one in that Palestinian autonomous town (an Area A), and another in East Barta’a (Area B).
The gentleman also has two wives, each with a number of children and he plies between the two West Bank households, both coming under the Palestinian Authority but one autonomous and the other, East Barta’a, a post-Oslo designated Area B coming under the Palestinians for infrastructure and so forth but with Israel having the last say on security.
A number of Palestinian flags fly above the businesses but there are more yellow Brazilian flags – left over from the World Cup – than that of their own black, red, white and green blowing in the breeze. There are still a number of Turkish flags to be seen, quickly hoisted in to place during the recent Gaza flotilla controversy. Mahmoud says that he left teaching Arabic in Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because he tired of living so far from his birthplace and family.
“I am Palestinian and want to live as a free man in a Palestinian state,” Mahmoud states emphatically when answering a question of whether he would rather be living over the other side of the ditch on the Israeli side or continue living on the east, Palestinian, side of the divide.
“Over there,” he says pointing to the houses close by that are on the Israeli side, “life is hectic, expensive and not for me. I prefer the way things are over here, it’s less of a pressure pot.” Mahmoud shows the students his papers. His identity card is contained in a bright orange plastic cover – straight away identifying him as a Palestinian resident of the West Bank and not from over the other side of the ditch. His wife was born in Barta’a and lived there all her life and by marrying in to the extended Kabaha family, Mahmoud gained the right to also become resident there and be able to conduct his business close to the Green Line and the Israeli clientele who come bargain hunting over the line.
He also has another piece of paper, that which allows him to pass through the checkpoint behind East Barta’a and continue on his way to Tulkarm. He is not allowed over the Green Line to Israel. When asked about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Mahmoud is emphatic that most Palestinians share his views on that subject. “Enough is enough, we need to get down to finding peaceful solutions, enough with the violence and suffering – we want to live peacefully in our own state,” he says. When asked by one of the students what percentage of Palestinians felt the same way, he said the majority.
Saying farewell to Mahmoud the students make their way to the distinctive yellow domed mosque of East Barta’a, neighbor to the local high school for girls. The large wrought iron gate is open, teachers are having a meeting. Permission to enter and to chat with the teachers is given by Ghada, an English teacher whom the writer has known for many years. During the conversation with five or six teachers – all ladies as after all it is a Muslim school for girls – the students learn that some of the teachers haven’t received salaries from the Palestinian Ministry of Education for anywhere between one to two years. “Why don’t you go on strike,” asks one of the IAS students. The ladies burst out laughing. “Who do you think would care,” asks one of them spreading her arms, the palms of her hands turned upwards.
An interesting visit and hopefully not the last for the IAS students participating in a unique program, living in a very fascinating and in many ways unique region of Israel – Wadi Ara - with the Palestinian Authority just down the road and around the corner.