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Hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians met at the barricades outside this embattled village today, but instead of bullets and stones the air was filled with hands lifting sacks of rice, bags of sugar and jugs of cooking oil.
In a rare gesture in this weary land, more than 250 Israeli peace advocates delivered about two tons of food and clothing to 12,000 Palestinian residents of Beit Umar, which has been closed by the Israeli military blockade for more than a year.
“It’s a small step, but these Palestinians are seeing that Israelis can bring more than tanks and guns to their doorsteps,” Irit Eshet, a documentary film researcher, said as she lifted sacks of rice from a truck and handed them to a Palestinian boy.
The goods arrived from Jerusalem, 10 miles away, in a convoy of 75 cars and two trucks organized by Taayush, an umbrella group of mostly left-wing Jewish and Arab Israelis trying to find a common ground with the Palestinians and to demonstrate their opposition to Israeli policies.
Among the policies they were protesting were the internal restrictions on travel between villages and towns, enforced by the Israeli Army in the West Bank and Gaza through a network of military checkpoints, roadblocks and physical barriers.
The Israelis say the blockades in the West Bank and Gaza are vital security measures necessary to reduce attacks against the military and settlers. They did, however, ease the blockade around Bethlehem as a seasonal gesture.
Palestinians and some outside agencies contend that the effects of the blockades have been felt broadly across the West Bank and Gaza, devastating the Palestinian economy.
A recent report by the United Nations found that the restrictions cost Palestinians between $2.4 billion and $3.2 billion in lost income in the first year of the uprising. Unemployment more than doubled, to 25 percent, and nearly half the population is living below the poverty line.
The impact is evident in Beit Umar, which has been under severe restrictions because of its location on the main road used by Israeli settlers traveling between Hebron and Jerusalem.
Roads and paths leading out of the village are blocked by piles of rubble and boulders, bulldozed shut by the Israeli military more than a year ago. Farmers cannot get their plums, grapes and almonds to market, and men cannot get to their jobs.
“Crops have just stayed in the fields because we cannot get them to market,” said Owda Al Sabarna, an agricultural engineer in the village. “People here and without work and almost without hope.”
The convoy provided a bit of hope, though not without its own misadventure. Before leaving Jerusalem, organizers had warned that the Israeli military was likely to stop the participants and force them to turn back at one of the five checkpoints between the city and Beit Umar.
But the difficulty turned out to be something unforeseen.
Instead of blocking the way, the military provided an escort for the convoy’s cars, which were festooned with yellow ribbons and signs calling for an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands. Halfway to the village, however, the large truck carrying most of the food broke down.
Two passing trucks driven by Palestinians were flagged down and the drivers agreed to carry the food the rest of the way. The Israelis spent nearly an hour transferring the food to the new vehicles.
None of the vehicles could enter the town because of the blocked roads. So the trucks pulled up as close as possible to the barricade and a human chain was formed to pass the sacks and bags across to waiting Palestinians, who loaded them into their own trucks.
Anwar Ala hoisted a load of rice onto his narrow, 12-year-old shoulders and carried it to a waiting truck. He tossed it onto the stack and paused to rest before heading back for another load.
“My father’s permission to work was taken away four months ago and we have not had enough food since then,” he said. “Maybe now things will get better.”
But few were under any illusions that today’s convoy was anything more than a symbolic act. Many Israelis oppose any assistance to the Palestinians, arguing that it will only help them continue their violence. And some Palestinians resent such help; a refugee camp down the road from Beit Umar turned down the offer of a similar convoy.
“Both sides are in a survival state right now,” said Ronni Shendar, one of the convoy organizers. “Nobody is ready to be optimistic yet.”
Indeed, while the Israelis and Palestinians were unloading food in Beit Umar, Israeli soldiers were firing tear gas and warning shots at groups of Palestinians and foreign demonstrators not far away, in the West Bank city of Ramallah.