Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) (Monday 6 February)
PREVIOUS: Dystopia in Jerusalem
When I first heard about the Wall, I was fairly relaxed about the idea. After all, a state has the right to police its borders and to protect its citizens. Even if walling itself off from its neighbour is a sign that something is amiss (just like the idea of a US-Mexico wall which is obviously about mass psychology in the US), a state has that right.
However, the ‘Separation Barrier’ does not do that for much of its length. Only about 15 per cent runs along the internationally recognised Green Line, mostly through sparsely populated areas in the far north and south of the West Bank. It is all very well to build a wall, but most of us do it in our own garden rather than our neighbour’s. The Wall, when it is finished, will cordon off 9.4 per cent of the West Bank behind the barrier, an effective annexation of that territory. In some areas, particularly around Jerusalem and in the centre-north near Qalqilya, the Wall takes enormous, looping detours well inside the West Bank to scoop out Israeli settlements. Near Jerusalem and Bethlehem it has a weird cauliflower shape on the map. In the centre-north it forms bizarre fjords, cutting deep into Palestinian territory. What used to be short walks from one Palestinian village to another now involve lengthy detours through the interior along bumpy, rough country roads.
This OCHA map illustrates the problems well.
There are some areas where the Wall itself has sprouted mad complexities. Perhaps it was because I was reading (almost for light relief) Siddhartha Mukherjee’s rather good book about cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, that these bits of the Wall remind me of a tumour, growing pointlessly and malignantly and doubling up on itself. I saw probably the maddest bit of the Wall under construction. It slices through a rural area around the village of Al Walajah near Bethlehem.
We met a guy called Omar, who had the good fortune to have completely watertight legal documentation of his house (this is unusual, as I’ll explain later). Documents were even extracted from archives in Turkey to prove this, so he could not be turfed out of his house, high on a ridge with a fine view over towards central Jerusalem. It is about 25 minutes’ walk to the Knesset. At the moment it is about 5 minutes’ walk to his son Mohammed’s school, but when the Wall closes it will be a 45 minute hike. Omar will have his own private Wall around his house, with a tunnel under the main Wall to enable him to come and go to Al Walajah.
However, Omar’s house is only a microcosm of Al Walajah . The village itself will be entirely surrounded by Wall (although appeals are still underway to clear a small spit of territory to connect it with the rest of the Palestinian world, but with no great hopes of success) and access entirely controlled by an Israeli military checkpoint.
Al Walajah has already been shunted about a bit by geopolitics – the main part of the village was on the Israeli side of the line in 1949 (now ploughed under and forested-over) and people relocated to the other side of the valley. Under Jordan and Israel things remained stable for a while, until settlements started to intrude in the area and walls started to divide up the farmland. There is a crossroads near the village where, inescapably, people going to the village and the settlement must both pass through, and the Israeli-imposed solution is to seal off the Palestinian village.
People in Al Walajah are stroppy about it, unsurprisingly, but in a non-violent way. Apparently during previous conflicts and intifadas the people of Al Walajah were mocked by others for their lack of militancy and adherence to peaceful methods. This appears to be their reward. While I am temperamentally sceptical about claims about the other side’s “real agenda” it does seem obvious here that the intention is to make Palestinian life in the village unviable and then to take the land to accommodate further settlements. The form of peaceful resistance chosen by activists in Al Walajah is to plan, at least for a while, for it to survive while the majority of its working-age men are elsewhere. One of the things that struck me about my experience with political Palestinians was that some of the most impressive advocates and activists were women, and Sheerin Al Araj, a community leader in Al Walajah, was very much in that mould. The Palestinian cause would do well to use the talents of its women when talking to the wider world. There is a freshness and immediacy about the way Sheerin speaks about what is happening in her village, and about wider political issues. Palestine is certainly no theocracy; one sees more all-covering burkas on an average day in north London than one does anywhere in Palestine – Palestinian Muslim women wear stylish headscarves and are not afraid of stating their own opinions and taking a lead.
While the intelligence and non-violence of Al Walajah’s campaign is impressive, I was left fearing what would happen given the crushing state power (aided by European construction companies) exercised against the people here. Sheerin commented depressingly in an aside that ten years ago, when the Wall and settlements started to appear, that she used to try to explain things rationally to her children, to be understanding, balanced and dispassionate about it. But now she, and people here, have been trampled on so much that she doesn’t have the energy to rationalise anymore and finds the simplest explanation ‘They are doing it because they are bad people and they hate us’ hard to argue against. Flattening people and communities like this breeds hatred. The ugly mutilation of the landscape in turn breeds ugliness, despair and violence. The dark, science-fiction futurology of the embattled Israeli left begins to look credible.
NEXT: Conscience and power