On the Road to Nowhere, Merchants Pay the Toll

Once-thriving businesses along Route 505 in Mas-Ha, West Bank, have all but collapsed since the arrival of the $2.5 billion, 456-mile separation barrier.
Once-thriving businesses along Route 505 in Mas-Ha, West Bank, have all but collapsed since the arrival of the $2.5 billion, 456-mile separation barrier. (Photos By Ilan Mizrahi For The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 21, 2007

MAS-HA, West Bank -- From the Zeituna Restaurant to the Basel Furniture store, business once thrived along the road that runs through this Palestinian village, conducted in a language no longer spoken here.

For years Hebrew was the lingua franca of Arabs and Jews on Route 505, an Israeli-built highway that rushed bargain hunters from the Jewish state to Arab-owned businesses in the West Bank and Palestinian laborers to jobs inside Israel. Now, the highway is a road to nowhere, the flaking Hebrew signs along its empty length symbols of Israel's abrupt economic break with the occupied Palestinian territories.

The highway has been blocked at the western edge of this village by the $2.5 billion barrier Israel is building to separate Jews from the Palestinians of the West Bank, splitting a largely shared economy whose shops, factory floors and restaurant terraces once provided a rare meeting place for two peoples. Now they are living increasingly estranged lives in the land they are unable to share.

"Just traveling this kilometer and a half would take you an hour on Saturdays," said Ibrahim Amer, 53, who sells plastic furniture from a row of mostly shuttered storefronts under a large Hebrew sign at the village's only intersection. "As you can see now, no one is coming."

Since the September 2000 start of the most recent Palestinian uprising, the Israeli government has imposed stiff restrictions on Palestinian trade, permission to work inside Israel and movement among West Bank towns and cities. More recently, it has severed the economic link between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the main territorial elements of the unrealized Palestinian state.

In a process that has accelerated sharply since the January 2006 election victory by the radical Islamic movement Hamas, the isolated Palestinian economy has imploded while Israel's has thrived on increased trade with Europe and the United States. Industries in Israeli settlements have also benefited financially by employing low-wage Palestinian laborers barred from Israel.

The Israeli government says the steps it has taken help ensure Israel's security in the absence of a peace deal. But Palestinian officials argue that the impoverishing effects of the economic separation spawn unrest in the territories and increase the potential for attacks inside Israel.

Israel's economy is nearly 40 times larger than that of the territories, even though its population is less than twice the Palestinian one in the territories. The lopsided effects of Israel's economic withdrawal have left much of the territories economically lifeless.

"We knew them," said Ruven Hirak, 51, an Israeli economics professor at Bar-Ilan University, who lives in the wealthy Jewish settlement of Elqana along Route 505 just beyond the separation fence from the village of Mas-Ha.

Grocery shopping in Elqana's busy central mall one recent afternoon, Hirak said of his Palestinian neighbors, "I sat with them in restaurants, bought from them, and some of them worked here.

"Now," he said, "there is no relationship at all."

The Road From Mas-Ha

Among the first Palestinian stores that Israelis encountered along Route 505 was Hisham Amer's home-improvement shop, the name of the paint brand Tamour written in Hebrew above the entrance. In pressed cotton pants and a plaid shirt, Amer watched a Ramadan soap opera in his unlit shop one recent afternoon, unbothered by a single customer.

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