AL RAM, West Bank — From a second-floor perch above tiny Martyrs' Square, Sarhan Salaymeh takes in the bustle of his community's noisy main street. Jitneys crowd the narrow thoroughfare, shuttling shoppers to the clothing outlets, jewelry stores and produce shops that have rapidly multiplied here on Jerusalem's northern fringe during the last decade.
It's a vibrant tableau -- one that should bring cheer to the Palestinian municipal leader. But Salaymeh is not smiling. Instead, he is worrying about the approach of a barrier that the Israeli government plans to erect along the highway leading here from Jerusalem, just five miles away.
Salaymeh and other Arabs say the controversial divider will sever this suburb from a city that many residents here consider their native home, even though they have moved outside its limits. They say the barrier, which is already under construction around Jerusalem, could spell ruin for Al Ram and nearby Arab communities.
"When they block the road there, what will happen?" Salaymeh said, sweeping his arm toward the planned site of the barrier, which elsewhere combines wire fencing, concrete barriers, high-tech sensors and cameras. "What will happen to all these people? This whole thing will vanish eventually."
As community leaders fight to get the wall scrapped -- or at least diverted -- some residents and businesses already have moved back into Jerusalem to avoid being excluded from the city when the fence goes up. Predictions are that more will follow -- one indication of how the fence is beginning to alter life in a place where community ties are laced messily across formal boundaries.
Arabs have never relinquished claims to Jerusalem and envision it as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The fate of Jerusalem promises to endure as one of the most vexing of the issues standing in the way of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
In recent years, Jerusalem residents have left the city in search of cheaper land, more space and fewer restrictions on building. Rights activists have charged that Israeli policies have pushed Arabs from Jerusalem in an effort to solidify Israel's hold on the city.
An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 residents of these communities have retained Jerusalem residency status and carry Israeli identification cards, lending them access to Israel's health insurance and social security benefits and enabling them to travel freely inside Israel without the permits required of other Palestinians who live in the West Bank. Many of them fear that once the fence is up, Israel will take away their residency.
"They probably will make the decision to move back," said Israel Kimhi, who heads research on Jerusalem at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
Although experts say a housing shortage in Jerusalem makes unlikely any large-scale return by residents, an Arab influx back to the city would represent an unintended byproduct of the fence for Israel and surely would heighten anxieties among Israeli officials already concerned that Jerusalem may someday lose its Jewish majority as a result of differing birthrates.
The barrier is to stretch more than 400 miles along the edge of the West Bank and in some cases deep inside it. Israeli officials say the divider, which they characterize as temporary, is needed to prevent would-be suicide bombers from entering Israel to carry out terrorist attacks on civilians. The head of the Shin Bet, the nation's domestic security service, has said that existing segments of the wall have prevented attackers from crossing in areas that were once porous. Military officials say the fence has diverted would-be attackers to areas where it does not yet stand.
Palestinians fear that the fence amounts to a land grab by Israel under the guise of security.
In a speech Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to speed up construction of the fence, despite vehement denunciations by Palestinian leaders. Sharon warned the Palestinians that if there was no progress in peace talks during coming months, Israel would move to cut itself off from the Palestinians and withdraw to a "security line." The barrier, once completed, could well serve as this provisional boundary.
Although Israel has already completed nearly 100 miles of the barrier -- generally in the countryside of the northern West Bank -- its planned path in and around metropolitan Jerusalem has been a lightning rod for attention in the Israeli and Palestinian media.
Plans for the latest phase envision the barrier generally following northern and eastern bounds of Jerusalem, whose eastern half was annexed by Israel after the 1967 Middle East War. Palestinians fear that the fence would permanently enclose all of Jerusalem within Israel and scuttle hopes of regaining their land.