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Barrier crossing daunting for deaf Palestinian girl

© UNICEF oPt/2008/Seitz
Ayat animatedly signs to her father, Magdi, and her brother, Ihab, 13, describing her daily trips across the Barta'a crossing to attend school.

BARTA'A, 29 October 2008 - The approach to the Barta’a crossing is several hundred meters long, a slope confined and monitored by metal fencing and security cameras. Security guards in crisp khakis watch from a high cement tower and two guard posts on both sides. Their automatic weapons are trained on the pedestrians below.

In the shimmering heat of summer, the massive security structure has an alien feel.

It is through this crossing that 12-year-old Ayat Kabha passes every day to go to school. She does it alone, and she does it without being able to hear the sounds of danger, or shout in fear.

I stand at the machine, and the soldier is talking to me, she motions with her hands as her father interprets. But I can’t talk, she signs.

Ayat is deaf. The only place nearby where she can learn to speak sign language and study with other special-needs children is in Jenin, a Palestinian town on the other side of the Barta’a crossing from her own village.

Since the enclosure of her village, also called Barta’a, in an enclave in the Barrier Israel built here in 2003, residents’ access to services has been severely curtailed. Even United Nations humanitarian staff have trouble accessing the six villages that are enclosed in the Barta’a enclave.

Thirteen other schoolchildren in Ayat’s village are disabled, but most of them study at the local school, not willing or able to make the trip to town.

Restricted enclave
Barta’a is only 15 kilometers from Jenin. Traversing the Barta’a crossing, however, can take hours due to extensive checking procedures. Residents of the Barta’a enclave are required to hold a special military permit to pass, and an additional permit to pass in a vehicle.

Barta’a is actually two villages in one. In 1948, the village was separated by the armistice line that ran between newly-established Israel and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. After Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, the line became nearly invisible, and today it runs unseen across a bustling market where Palestinian merchants sell cheap goods to Israeli buyers.

The construction of the Barrier has made life even more complicated for these residents. Israel began building the Barrier in 2002, citing the need to separate the West Bank from Israel for security reasons.  A series of pressure fencing, patrol roads and guard towers runs east of the village, separating the residents of Barta’a from the rest of the West Bank, and connecting the small Israeli settlements of Rihan, Shaked, and Rannanit with Israel.

In July 2004, the International Court of Justice at The Hague determined that in areas like the Barta’a enclave where the Barrier encroaches into the West Bank – some 90 percent of its more than 720 kilometers – the Barrier is illegal.
The Barrier here has two gates linking the approximately 5,500 residents of the Barta’a enclave with the rest of West Bank. One of them is the Barta’a or Reikhan crossing, which is open from 5 am – 11 pm, and where Palestinians are only allowed to transport small amounts of specified goods. The other is Shaked crossing, where only schoolchildren and farmers with permits may cross.

Limited humanitarian access
The restrictions have also deterred badly needed humanitarian aid. UNICEF staff seeking to enter the enclave must travel a 40 km detour out another gate in the Barrier and through Israel’s western Barta’a in order to avoid a search of UNICEF vehicles, which is against UN policy.

In Barta’a, UNICEF provides vaccines and related supplies for children under five years old, along with medicine and growth monitoring equipment for the maternal and child health clinic. UNICEF also provides remedial worksheets, which help students forced to stay home due to access restrictions, to keep up with their studies, and provides equipment and training for youth club facilitators who provide regular recreational activities for around 300 adolescents.

One girl's crossing
Back at Ayat Kabha’s home, her mother shares how she worries when Ayat is late. The school in Jenin finishes at one in the afternoon, but often Ayat doesn’t arrive home until 4 or 5 pm. Sometimes, when there are incidents at the crossing, it is closed for hours at a time.

“We call the taxis to know where she is,” says ‘Ula. “It would be better if she could just stay here, but with her condition, she has to go.”

Ayat’s 13-year-old brother, Ihab, attends school in Barta’a and gets home at 2 pm.

Making exclamatory noises in her throat, Ayat describes with vivid sweeps of her hands how she feels during her daily commute.
The security guards sit behind walled booths and use loudspeakers to tell the pedestrians what to do. When new guards come on duty, she says, making a circular sign on her forehead for ‘soldier’, they often don’t understand that she can’t hear what they are saying.
Often, Ayat signs, I start to cry.



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