Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine
Confusion dominates discussion of the Separation Wall. Most Israelis want the barrier and believe it is the only effective means of stopping suicide bombers. There are those who argue against this—claiming that once the wall is built, the bombers, nurtured by despair, will come from within the vast Arab population trapped on the Israeli side of the wall. And there are some who oppose the very idea of “fencing off” or “fencing in” as a violent and self-defeating mechanism that effectively perpetuates the conflict. But, in general, the campaign led by Israeli peace groups against the wall is not aimed at the idea of a wall as such. It is a protest at the route that the government planners have mapped out, a route that penetrates deep into Palestinian territory and protects, before all else, every possible settlement and outpost. This trajectory virtually rules out a peaceful solution based on partition and the idea of two states for two peoples in Israel-Palestine. It also perpetuates a regime of terror inside the territories, leaving most Palestinian villages encircled, isolated, essentially ghettoized, and at the mercy of bands of marauding settlers. It also appropriates large tracts of Palestinian land, practically annexing them to Israel.
This basic distinction—between the wall as an anti-terrorist barrier, acceptable to nearly everyone, and the trajectory of the wall as planned by the Israeli right—has to be kept in mind in any discussion of the legal or moral situation. Those of us active in the struggle have been involved, primarily, in an attempt to redress the gross injustices inherent in the planned route—above all, the seizure of Palestinian land, the consequent ruin of the villages and their economies, and the creation of a nightmarish world of fences within fences, walls within walls. This struggle was rewarded with very partial success in the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court of June 30, 2004.
January 27, 2003 Abu Dis
It is like no other wall.
It is nine meters high—the concrete slabs have the measurement stamped on them. It dwarfs anyone who stands near it. There is an insufferable hubris about the way it arrogates the land to itself, splitting Abu Dis down the middle. But it is the pernicious aspect that strikes you most forcefully once your eyes adjust to the new reality. It twists and turns and loops. There is a rather pleasant hilltop covered with cypresses—slotted for a new Jewish settlement, in the heart of this Palestinian town—and the wall slithers around it to ensure that this extra little piece of land, which no doubt belongs, or belonged, to someone, will now become Israel. Palestinian houses nearby are, as a result, squeezed right against the wall, which shuts out their light, renders windows and doors irrelevant.
We walk along it, first on the Jewish side, then, where there is still a gap, unfinished, along the Palestinian side. There are graffiti growing up everywhere. “Sharon knows only war.” “Welcome to the ghetto of Abu D”—in big red letters; the painter, Angela, a friend of ours, was arrested by the police before she could finish the sentence that is, after all, “anti-Semitic,” or anti-Zionist—anyway, a crime, unlike the wall itself. Perhaps even more poignant is the verse from Malachi (2:10–11), which they say was the first text to be painted on the newly finished barrier: “Have we not all a single father? Did not one God create us all? Why does one man betray his brother, to desecrate our fathers’ covenant? Judah has betrayed, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and Jerusalem.” In black letters covering four or five whole slabs; the anonymous writer managed to finish the verse. Who, I wonder, is this hidden hero, who knows the Bible, knows what words are for?
A few days later Amalia solves the mystery. She happened by, on her way to a shift of duty for Machsom Watch at the barricade, when the painter turned up with his can of paint. Religious? Secular? No one knows. Anyway, he knows his Bible. When he started spraying the verse onto the concrete slabs, the border police arrested him and took him to be interrogated. He said to them that the law allows you to inscribe verses from the Bible anywhere in Israel. This was a novel argument so, baffled, they consulted with their superiors—one can imagine the conversations going up through the chain of command. Eventually the word came down from somewhere, perhaps the general staff: he’s right. So he went back to painting the verse, with the border police officer, a Druze, and Amalia still watching. When they reached the word to‘eva, “abomination,” he suddenly couldn’t remember how to spell it: with an aleph or an ‘ayin? He consulted with present company; the Druze officer was also unsure, but Amalia apparently carried the day. The ‘ayin won.
Only in Israel.
It has been raining heavily; it is cold and a wind whips us as we pick our way among the vast puddles, through the mud. There are not many people around the wall; a street that I remember as full of life only four months ago, when I was last here, is now utterly deserted, the wall slicing through it like a scalpel. Men wrap their keffiyehs around their faces. On the main street, to the right of the wall, I look around: there is another gap here, soon to be filled; in the meanwhile, huge piles of vegetables in sacks are waiting to be heaved over the wall to the other side. The new economic plan for Palestine. I want to bring our students and colleagues here on Thursday to see it with their own eyes.
We sit in the offices of Nihad and Abu Jihad, in a dull cold building over the Akbar Hair Saloon. A man in some distress is filling out a form while our host speaks over the phone in a flood of Arabic. There is a small electric heater, and we hover around it, waiting. How many rooms like this have I known; how many hours have I spent in dusty third-world offices; how much cruelty does it take to effect the alchemy of pure despair? We talk of Thursday. What will happen if the army stops us? There is, it turns out, another route in. Muhammad Abu Hummus, from Isawiyya, knows it well; he will show us. Will there be microphones that work? Where shall we stand? Where will the speakers be most clearly heard? What if, what, when, how, why?
Shie is with us this morning—he is young, calm, soft-spoken, self-possessed, a musician; another one of those miraculous unassuming Israelis who will do anything, risk anything, in this quixotic quest for peace. Or perhaps we have given up on the quest and are doing it now, all of us, merely out of a sense that it must be done, even if we fail, as seems to be the case. Out of loyalty to the others, to our friends, to a notion of categorical values. Because it is right and the least we can do. Where do people like Shie come from? What is it in this tortured country that still regularly produces them and impels them to act? He will spend the morning here on Thursday, getting things ready for our arrival with the large group of students, professors, and doctors.
We poke around the main street; we make our plans. The weather is supposed to improve. “I’ll worry about the weather,” Yigal says to our hosts. “You take care of the microphones.” As we talk, I feel ever more keenly, in my body, what it means for these people to be living here, futureless, encaged. A vast sadness envelops me, fierce beyond thinking. It deepens as we begin the short ride back to Israel—a kilometer or two away. We pass the chink in the wall that still allows people from Abu Dis to reach the hospital, Makassed, on the Mount of Olives. Old women, heavy in their thick black dresses, are painfully clambering across, over the rocks. Soon this crack will be stopped up, and the only way to Makassed will be through Ar-Ram and the army checkpoints—a journey of several hours to reach a point less than a hundred meters away, but separated by the wall. Those who are really sick will die. We hear later that as many as two-thirds of the hospital staff will also be prevented by the wall from coming to work: the hospital, too, may die.
As we drive up to Mount Scopus, Muhammad points laconically to the hillside, now inside the university fence. This, he says, was his family’s land; and there was more, on the other side of the road, which has also been seized. He is unemotional about it; it is just a fact, like the rain, the Jews, the demonstration we are planning together, the wintry rocks. He speaks good Hebrew, but still we find ourselves struggling to explain to him in our halting Arabic what the Hebrew word siyut, “nightmare,” means. “I don’t understand,” he says. “You know,” I say, “there are dreams—some are good and sweet; others are bad.” “What is a bad dream?” he asks, still unsure. Shie answers: “Like Sharon.”
May 16, 2003 Maskha
Could Jews really build ghettos for Palestinians? It seems unlikely, given Jewish history. If anyone knows what life in a ghetto means, we do. But, as Isaac Babel says, reality has no need to be probable and is only too happy to follow a well-devised story. In this case, there is perhaps a certain tragic logic to the story.
Our bus drives past Qalqiliya, where we get our first glimpse of the wall from various sides and angles. Tall gray slabs circle the city. There is only a single opening, both exit and entrance, controlled, of course, by the army. Qalqiliya has, in effect, become a large prison; similarly, Tulkaram, the other major city along the “seam” between Israel and the territories. The market that once flourished in Qalqiliya—the main outlet for this part of the West Bank—is now dying. The roads that connected the villages to this small town, and to one another, are completely blocked. We drive along one only to see it come to an end; after a hundred meters, there is the standard ominous, immovable boulder. The end of the road. At the turn, a tank sits phlegmatically, a soldier standing beside it, guarding the new wall that snakes and slides over the hillside above. It is not yet finished, but that won’t take long.
The bus parks at the bus stop for the large settlement of Elkana, still growing, metastasizing through the hills. We proceed on foot past another blockade, another set of boulders, to Maskha, where a fleet of ancient, banged-up cars and Transits will drive us over the rough tracks toward the protest tent. We have crossed into another world: I remember crossing the Sheikh Hussein Bridge into Jordan and finding these same rickety old taxis waiting to take us to Amman. But here they are manned by unemployed drivers with literally nowhere to go, nowhere to drive to anymore. The wall hems them in on every side.
We get out at the bottom of a hill, climb up to where the wall-to-be is suddenly before us: a huge gap in the surface of the earth, two deep trenches in the middle of which the electrified fence itself will soon pass. Slightly to the north, the fence is already in place, mostly wire and steel and visually somewhat less menacing than the Qalqiliya segment. But appearance is deceptive, for what becomes clear as the eye adjusts to the terrain is the true meaning of this new border. It meanders, wanders, loops through the hills, extending to include every possible Jewish settlement, circling the towns, cutting villages off from their fields and hinterland and from each other. We are several kilometers east of the Green Line, the border of pre-1967 Israel; and what we are seeing is the basic path of this fence, which chews deep into Palestinian territory, swallowing huge, savage bites of land. No one knows exactly how much land is being appropriated in this way. The government and army refuse to publish exact maps while the land-grab is in process.
Still, I am somewhat less horrified than I had expected to be. It is, after all, no more than a wall (plus trenches, patrol paths, prison-style watchtowers, secondary fences, tertiary fences, and so on). What human beings can erect they can also take down. Look at Berlin. One of the villagers tells me as we walk along the trench: “I don’t care so much about the wall itself. It can be removed some day. What I care about is that the Israelis will not talk to us, don’t treat us as human beings, don’t want to live together with us. We could solve the whole problem if they wanted peace. The terrorists are a tiny minority. The rest of us just want to live.”
We clamber down into the trench, slipping a bit on the rocks, climb up the other side, straddle the concrete base for the wall-to-be, another trench—and find ourselves at the foot of a hill dark with olive trees. (Tens of thousands of olive trees have been destroyed in clearing a path for the wall.) We climb up to the tents where Palestinians, Israeli peace activists, and a few foreign volunteers have been coordinating the doomed struggle against this fence. Nazih—articulate, lively, focused—sets out the basic facts as we huddle in the shade of the olives. There are now several distinct territorial zones in this small area. There is the large space between the Green Line and the fence: many thousands of dunams have been expropriated in this zone to create the fence, and the owners of the fields have, of course, not been compensated. Some eleven thousand villagers here, where we sit, are directly caught up in this limbo, effectively imprisoned within it. They belong neither to Israel nor to Palestine; their homes are now a no-man’s-land, though they are hemmed in on all sides by settlements and by the Israeli army. Then there are those villages that, like Maskha, are just on the other side of the fence, in Palestine, thus cut off from their fields, which are in Israel—the third zone. In theory, the army intends to open gates for these farmers to enter the no-man’s-land so they can work their fields—at ten shekels per entry, five shekels for a donkey. But it seems the gate will be open only for half an hour in the early morning, and half an hour again in the late afternoon. Farmers need the possibility of constant access to their fields, and the sense is that these Palestinian peasants will very rapidly be alienated from their lands. In any case, the settlers are constantly encroaching, stealing more and more. Tens of thousands of villagers will be stripped of their holdings in this way; they will be able to view, impotently, their former fields from the other side of the fence. The process is already far advanced. The army is preventing access; the future looks grim.
Actually, says Nazih, he is left with only three options: (1) He can sit at home doing nothing, that is, starve; (2) he can emigrate to Lebanon or Jordan as a refugee; (3) he can put on an explosive belt and blow himself up in Tel Aviv. The Israeli right obviously wants him to select option 2. This is the devilish cleverness of the fence: it so radically impoverishes the Palestinians caught up by it that they may well “transfer” themselves voluntarily. There is no longer any need to put a single Palestinian on a truck or bus and dump him or her at the bridge or the Lebanese border. Transfer will happen of itself, perhaps relatively quickly.
It is thus not accurate to call the fence an “apartheid wall,” as some of the Israeli left has been doing. True, conditions on the wrong side of the fence are horrific: roads that are open only to Jews, total confinement in prison-like enclaves for the Palestinians, and so on. In reality, however, this is a wall for transfer—or, as Nazih says without pathos, for taking the land.
Nazih’s in-laws live in Bidiya, a village hardly three kilometers away from Maskha—but Bidiya and Maskha are divided by the fence. For him to visit his wife’s parents means, now, a long nightmarish trip over the tracks and back roads and past the army roadblocks. When the fence is finished, even this may become impossible.
Various Palestinian ecological groups have tried to map the new reality. Since the fence is also meant to include the Jordan Valley within Israel, what is left for Palestine is a ludicrously reduced bubble in the north, including Jenin and Nablus and Ramallah, and a discontinuous bubble south of Jerusalem. And even these enclaves have settlers ensconced at points within them, breaking them up into still smaller units. It is worse than any Bantustan, and no Palestinian leader could ever accept this. But then no Palestinian leader is expected to. They no longer matter. What is more, a large portion of the most fertile fields in the West Bank lie exactly in this area near the Green Line in the north, from Jenin south to Qalqiliya, in the limbo zone of the fence. Some say a major percentage of the good land, the breadbasket of Palestine, is being annexed to Israel. The same applies to the available water, for the fence controls perhaps 80 percent of the mountain aquifer.
As we begin to take in this reality, with the fence coiling through the hills beneath us, past the red roofs of settlement after settlement, the police and army turn up in force. They have already ordered the Maskha people to take down the protest tent and evacuate the foreign volunteers. Today they are, it seems, only checking, and we are happy to be here at this moment when they happen to appear. Perhaps our presence deters them, but they will surely be back soon. Monday is the deadline, and there is no hope. Naama, my former student and the leader of today’s expedition, says that what is needed here is a Gandhian satyagraha, a campaign of nonviolent resistance, but where are the thousands of Israelis who would join it, where is the Gandhi to lead it? Nearly all Israelis like the promise of this fence. They have, and seek, no idea of its human cost and no understanding of its deeper purpose. They also probably have no particular compunctions about taking a little more land.
As we leave the village—clambering over the trenches and concrete a second time—one of the young Palestinians starts to harangue me. “There was an opportunity,” he says, “but already it is wasted. Is it not true that the Israelis don’t want to make peace?” “No,” I say, “it is not true; most Israelis want peace very much and would agree to any reasonable compromise.” “But they elected Sharon,” he says. “The Labor Party, Meretz, all the left have lost everything. Israelis want Sharon. They don’t care what happens to us.” There is no way I can explain to him, no time—it is very hot, and we have to leave; my Arabic begins to fail me. Still he follows me to the edge of the roadblock, the boulders that cut him off from the world, crying to me: “Why won’t they let us live beside them?” I cross the roadblock, picking my way over the rocks to the edge of Elkana, brutal, immovable Elkana.
Maybe all will change nonetheless. Maybe the fence, someday, will be another pathetic, scorned reminder of these times. Maybe the Bantustan model is not, after all, our fate. Who can say? But I am more disheartened today than at any time in the last two years, more sick in soul than I was that day the settlers beat me in Twaneh. I can’t reconcile myself to the human suffering that we are knowingly inflicting. Some part of me is still incredulous at the fact that Jews are the ones who are doing this. I am the witness who cannot believe his eyes.
By 4:00, dusty, burned, I am back in my fenceless, well-appointed house in Jerusalem. Edan is home for Shabbat from basic training. Despite everything, I am proud of him as I see him coping, even thriving, as if I were reliving an anachronistic memory from the time when it was all right to be proud of a soldier-son. At dinner he says with his usual, casual sweetness: “It’s quite a challenge doing the army with parents like you.”