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Life Against the Wall

As Israel's barrier encircles their once-vibrant town, the people of Qalqiliya are losing hope.

There is a 25-foot-high concrete wall in Nahayla Auynaf's front yard. The gray mass, punctuated by cylindrical guard towers with narrow window slits for Israeli soldiers, looks from her steps like the side of an ocean liner. It is massive, cold, and alien. The shrubs, bushes, and stunted fruit trees seem to bow before it in supplication. On this August day, I struggle to make sense of it, the way I struggle to make sense of the pit that was the World Trade Center.

We do not speak. Auynaf lives with the wall. She is as drawn to it as she is repelled by it. It absorbs something deep within her. In the morning she goes out on her second-floor balcony and looks at it. Her eyes seem to implore it for answers, as if it were a Sphinx that could answer the riddle of her existence. "My old life ended with the wall," she says in Arabic.

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The wall, built by Israel in 2002, blocks her from the neighboring Israeli town of Kfar Saba, where she used to shop. It cuts her off from Israel. It makes it too hard to reach the rest of the West Bank. The lone Israeli checkpoint's guard towers, floodlights, concrete barriers, dust, stench, crowds, special pass cards, intrusive searches, and rude remarks by border police are more than she can bear. She tried to pass through once. "I could not stand the humiliation," she says. "I turned back. I went home. Now I never leave."

The wall reduced her world to its ugly perimeter. Her five boys beg to go to the seaside. The wall makes this impossible. No one goes to the sea anymore. There are days when the checkpoint is sealed, days after suicide bombings or days when the Israeli soldiers shut it down abruptly without explanation. On those days, she sometimes gathers her children and walks the empty streets. Other families do the same. It gives a sense of movement. Families pass each other two, three, four times in an afternoon. All are thinking the same thoughts. "The town would rent buses to go to the sea," she says, sadness in her eyes. "We would go for the day. We would stand in the water. We would look at the rocks and the waves. This was before."

The Auynafs' house is pleasant. It was fin-ished at the start of the uprising four years ago, when business was good and peace for a while seemed possible. The floors are marble. The kitchen has a counter and white appliances. The sofa and chairs have muted blue-and-beige-striped fabric. We sit in the living room. A large window fan, set on the floor in front of the open door, provides a weak breeze. The door frame is filled with the blank gray face of the wall. It draws our eyes to it, the way a muted television screen can distract a person during conversations. Sometimes we turn to look at it as if it were a presence in the room, someone who should be offered sweet tea or a glass of water -- or asked to leave.

Auynaf's son Ibrahim, six, sits on her lap. He has a scar on his leg, where he was shot two years ago. It happened at dusk. Israeli soldiers were firing at a group of Palestinian workers who were trying to slip into or out of Israel without proper work permits. He was watching from the front yard when a bullet went astray. He stays close to his mother now, especially when he hears gunshots. He does not like to leave home. The world frightens him.

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