Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Designed to separate its people from the Palestinians, Israel began construction in June, 2002 of the wall, also called the fence or separation barrier by Israelis and the ‘apartheid barrier’ by Palestinians, a huge complex of concrete walls, fences, checkpoints, ditches, watchtowers and electronics that runs partially along the Green Line, the border between Israel and the West Bank but also, increasingly, east of that demarcation and on occupied land. The barrier is planned to stretch 400 miles through urban areas and agricultural land. Today it is 57% complete.

Although world opinion, including the International Court of Justice, has condemned the barrier, Israel maintains that it is essential for security, citing the dramatic decrease in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks following its construction.

The reality of life is very different on each side of the wall: for Israelis, it provides security and peace of mind; for Palestinians, it separates them from not only their land, families, schools and neighborhoods but also interrupts the continuity of their history and geography.

I’ve recorded conversations with people on both sides of the wall: with Yusuf, a 52-year old Palestinian living in Batir, an ancient West Bank village southwest of Jerusalem and west of Bethlehem-- and also with seven Israelis living in Tel-Aviv, Haifa and in and around Jerusalem. Among them are activists, artists, a psychoanalyst, an architect, a storyteller, a professor and a physician.

Yusuf’s story is relatively simple: before 1967, Batir was in Jordan. After the Six Day War, it became part of Israel’s occupied territories. Until two years ago, Yusuf was able to move and work between Batir and Israel. Today, Batir is enclosed by the wall and Yusuf has to pass through tunnels and checkpoints to get to work.

A year and a half ago, in June 2006, I interviewed Yusuf, wanting to hear his story and to hear what he and his villagers were sensing about the impending construction of the separation barrier. At that time, he was anxious about the path the wall would take and unsure what the as yet unknown details would mean for his family and the other villagers: he was dreading the feeling of imprisonment and the severing of his life from his land, his work and family and friends in Israel and the West Bank.

One year later, in July of 2007, I met Yusuf again. By then, construction on the wall had begun around Batir and two other West Bank villages, enclosing approximately 18,000 villagers on one-quarter of the land that they had formerly occupied. The only entrance and exit now is through a tunnel and a checkpoint. He drew a map in my notebook to illustrate how the landscape and his life had been altered. It shows the wall around the village and the tunnel as the only exit into the world.

To what extent is the reality of the wall different from what Yusuf had imagined?
In his words:

Now we can see the new wall, where they are building the wall, the implications of how much it will limit us. We feel surrounded, we see the wall, we see how difficult it is, we see the dirt all around us and on us, we're shut in, we can't walk about freely, we can't come and go. How difficult all this is.

This is not just a tunnel, not a regular tunnel. If anyone wants to visit us from somewhere else, they have to go through all sorts of controls and inspections, checkpoints This is the only way to get into Batir. You can’t come and go freely.

Since most of the villages’ agricultural land will now be on the other side of the wall, the villagers will have to go through checkpoints and gates in the wall to tend to their land. The only exit from the villages will be through a tunnel into Palestine. To enter Israel requires police inspection before the tunnel and another checkpoint inspection on the other side, along with a taxi ride. Before the wall was constructed, Yusuf told me, he walked for half an hour, breathing the fresh air, so close that he could see Aminadav, the Israeli village where he has worked for 18 years, from his house.

To arrive at his destination now means getting up two and a half hours earlier, going through inspections and checkpoints, waiting in the queue with hundreds of others, paying fifty shekels or ten dollars for taxi transportation, traveling 25 kilometers and then having to go through the whole thing again in the evening after work. “Two and a half or three hours. It’s a waste of my time”, he says indignantly, “this is no way to live.” He continues:
Everyone has to go to work. To get to Jerusalem, you first have to leave the village, then go through inspection at the tunnel, then enter the Palestinian Authority, then another checkpoint at Rachel's tomb. Every day thousands are waiting in the queue, two hours, soon there will be two checkpoints.

Once the tunnel is completed, the only cars allowed through it and into Palestine, will be Palestinian. They will now be totally separated from Israeli traffic and the two peoples will no longer be able to see each other—except for the Israeli soldiers that Palestinians will see at checkpoints. If they want to enter Israel from, say, Bethlehem, they will have to go through additional checkpoints, similar to passport control.

The three-quarters of their land that now lies outside the wall, land the villagers had never agreed to sell, will become a mandatory sale to be negotiated with Israel. But, Yusuf says, it’s not financial compensation that preoccupies them. Rather, they grapple with how hard it’s going to be to live within the wall and without their land. He shakes his head as he tells me:
“This is their livelihood and their only livelihood. They've always lived from this. They're thinking about how to get their freedom so they can earn a living.”

Yes, you might say, if life is so impossible, let them leave. But where should they go? What kind of work will they do? Other Arab countries are not exactly extending a hand of welcome. And once they leave, they may not be able to return.

Permission to work in Israel is granted only to men over 35 who are married with children but even this permission can be easily and capriciously withdrawn. Life has become not only harsh but unpredictable and precarious.

A year ago, Yusuf could not understand how it had come to this. What has he done to create this situation? What has he done wrong? Why are they all being punished? It is unfathomable.

A year ago, he questioned the rationale of collective punishment and punishment that seemed in no way to fit the crime. “It is hard and bitter for me to leave my birthplace, I’ve built my life here,” he says and I tell him is very hard for me to listen to his story.

Today, his voice rising in anger again, Yusuf is uncomprehending at the injustice that is dismantling his life. In his frustration, he addresses Israel through my recorder:

You can get yourself a stronger army, do something else powerful, I don't know what. You have cameras, you can see everything these days. You don't need to come over here and lock me up in my house. If you're afraid of us, why not build a wall around your house instead of around mine? Why do you take my land away? Before, you had suicide bombers, now you have rockets. What have you gained?

Every country has a right—and an obligation—to protect its citizens. This is an irrefutable argument that Israel and Israelis make whenever the security barrier is criticized. The deeper criticism—that such security is not justifiable when it imposes collective punishment on people like Yusuf and when it flouts international law—is more difficult to refute.

Those who live and want to remain in Israel are caught in the complexities of these arguments. Liberal and open-minded by nature and conviction, the people I spoke with are confused, tormented even but deeply engaged by the issues. Although they reserve the right to live in safety and in peace in their own country, they also insist they want justice for the Palestinians. Although they are appalled by and often actively protest the brutality of Israel’s occupation, recent images of suicide bombs and the more distant legacy of the Holocaust color and shape their beliefs, perceptions and actions.

The enormity of the security barrier’s presence goes far beyond its physical size—it is also a powerful socio-psychological force. As such, it both attracts and repels, creating legends, myths, contradictions and ambivalences—some of which might be reduced if the wall was built entirely on the 1967 Green Line rather than on occupied Palestinian land.

Some of the Israelis I spoke described the terror that the suicide bombings brought into their lives, the up close and personal nature of the attacks and their unpredictability: living in Israeli cities before the construction of the wall meant you could never be sure you would come home that night. A bomb could get you anywhere any time. In this context, they supported the wall or security barrier, however reluctantly, as, on balance, a necessary solution to the problem.
The proof lies in the pudding, the end justifies the means and Israelis point with restrained and reluctant triumph to the fact that terrorist attacks and suicide bombs have dwindled to virtually nothing. In other words, the wall works. But it also leads to soul-searching, discussion, divisions within families—the far-reaching consequences of what Israelis call ‘the situation’.

The Holocaust
Inevitably, Israelis point to the Holocaust—which in Hebrew is called the Shoah- to explain and justify their fear. If it can happen once it can happen again, they insist. They do not see the parallels with what Palestinians call the Nakba or catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel.

More than 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed during and after the 1948 war, resulting in 750,000 Palestinians becoming refugees. The land of these destroyed villages (along with other Palestinian land) was confiscated by the new state of Israel and Jewish settlements, parks and nature reserves were built on top of the ruins. An Israeli organization, Zochrot, the name means “remembering”, is making this history available in Hebrew so that Jews can engage with Palestinians in what Zochrot calls “an open recounting of our painful common history.”

Since most Israelis pay little attention to the Nakba and to Palestinian history it’s not surprising that the larger context for reacting to suicide bombers includes not only personal and national experience with suicide attacks but also expands to the Jewish narrative of the Holocaust and to the uprooting of Jews in Arab countries. Overlaid on this, is a visceral reaction to the very concept of a suicide bomber, an act that Israelis find particularly abhorrent and incomprehensible, as something that stands in profound opposition to the central values of Judaism.

In this context of deep-seated fear in which Palestinians are seen as not only dangerous but as alien and ‘other’, these Israelis grapple with alternative solutions-- weighing the plausibility and possibility and risk of coexistence, of dialogue, of ending the occupation, of remaining within the Green Line, rather than annexing Palestinian territory, of the quandaries inherent in removing Israeli settlements such as Maale Adumim or French Hill.

Many more questions than answers but In the meantime, Yusuf and his family and the villagers of Batir remain behind the wall, with the occupation deepening and thickening its antagonistic infrastructure around them.

A year and a half ago, as we ended our first conversation, Yusuf had very graciously invited me to visit his home in Batir, telling me I would always be most welcome. This time there was no invitation. How do you in good conscience invite a guest who has to traverse checkpoints and inspections to come to your home?

An expanded version of this essay, with interviews, was broadcast on WPKN, an independent radio station in the Connecticut area, on February 28, 29008. It can be heard at: