The Wall, which we walked through a little while ago, is a sign not simply of the passing problem in the politics of one region; it is a sign of the things that are deeply wrong in the human heart itself; that terrible fear of the other, of the stranger, which keeps us all in one kind of prison or another.
— Archbishop of Canterbury speaking in Bethlehem, Christmas 2006
ON THE ROAD to Bethlehem, I notice our driver is missing two fingers. I’ve had plenty of time to study and contemplate the missing digits of his right hand as it rests patiently on the steering wheel.
We’re stuck at a tiyar, a temporary military checkpoint manned by green-helmeted Israeli soldiers with big machine guns and dark sunglasses. They’ve pulled an armored personnel carrier across the road and some jeeps off to the side. The long queue of cars and trucks snake in both directions waiting beneath an infernal July sun.
Ahmed is a Palestinian taxi driver from Ramallah, a city in the West Bank where our 20 mile journey to Bethlehem began more than an hour ago. He is a middle-aged man with the first touches of gray beginning to invade his thick black hair and mustache. He is a man of few words too and only says “two years in Israeli prison” when I finally get up the nerve to inquire about the missing fingers.
A finger for each year? I wonder, but don’t ask.
I feel rude for having asked in the first place, like I was questioning someone about a birth defect or staring at the scarred and disfigured face of a burn-victim encountered at the grocery store.
Who am I to pick at the scars and reopen the wounds of other’s losses?
But his missing fingers are part of the story here. Like many things in Palestine, it is not just what is here but what is missing — what’s been destroyed, killed, lopped off and disappeared — that helps tell the long and tragic story of this place.
Two years in an Israeli prison; maybe this too has something to do with his silence as we at last begin creeping toward the checkpoint amidst the blaring horn of the truck in front of us and sharp staccato cursing from the taxi driver who’s nosed his way in beside us in a bold move to cut in front of dozens of other vehicles in the queue.
Cars continue to speed past on our right and pass through the tiyar on the far shoulder of the road. Vehicles coming from the other direction are doing the same on our left.
“Why do those cars get to go?” I ask as best I can in Arabic, a language I have not used for some years now. I’m butchering the words and I know it, but Ahmed understands anyway, perhaps because I’m pointing at the cars as I attempt the question.
“Israeli cars,” he says. “Not necessary for them to stop.”
“How do the soldiers know?”
“Yellow plates,” he says, pointing at a van coming toward us that has a yellow license plate. Israeli vehicles have yellow license plates. Palestinian plates are green.
We’re still in the West Bank, which is Palestinian territory, but that doesn’t matter. The Palestinians live here, but the Israeli soldiers control their movement with checkpoints. According to the UN, there are currently 528 Israeli military checkpoints throughout the West Bank.
“Is it like this every day?” I ask.
I find it difficult to imagine myself living this way, getting stopped on my commute to work every day by soldiers with machine guns. Showing my ID. Answering questions. Being anxious. Being afraid.
I can’t help but think that I couldn’t actually live this way. I couldn’t tolerate it. I would most likely leave and go some place else where I wouldn’t daily have to endure this hardship and humiliation.
Or maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t give up so easily. Maybe I would stay and fight. Maybe I would go to prison and lose some fingers. Maybe I’d die a violent death here.
“Yes, it’s like this every day,” Ahmed says then adds, “Only God and the soldiers know what the day will be like at the checkpoints.” He laughs and raps his pink knuckles against the steering wheel.
I already figured this would be his answer. I’ve been traveling for two weeks now throughout the West Bank and have crossed dozens of military checkpoints, some of them permanent like Kalandiya, which you cross on the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah; other checkpoints, like this one, are tiyar.
In Arabic, tiyar means “flying.” These flying checkpoints can land anywhere and at anytime throughout the occupied territory of Palestine.
The Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints are always young. They are often cranky and agitated just like the long lines of Palestinians clutching their ID cards and preparing to tell the soldiers their various stories about why they need to travel from one place to another: going to work, going in search of work, going shopping, going to school, going to the hospital, going to a funeral, going to a wedding…and on and on.
For the conscripted Israeli soldiers stuck at one of these checkpoints, the Palestinians’ stories must become both banal, boring and annoying. Or worse, maybe they’re not stories at all, but lies being told by a crazed would-be suicide bomber making his or her way to blow up a public bus in Jerusalem or a crowded Tel Aviv café.
I find it difficult to imagine myself living this way too. Stopping and searching thousands of Palestinians every day. Checking IDs. Asking questions. Being anxious. Being afraid.
As for me, my story is that I’m an American traveling with my wife and two young daughters, ages six and nine. I’m here helping my wife film a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it affects the daily lives of everyday people on both sides. I’m the camera man and I’m quite nervous.
“It’s always the camera man who gets shot,” a colleague who had been a Middle East correspondent informed me when I told him about our upcoming journey and my assigned role in the venture.
Anxiety began to gnaw away at my insides again. Was my wife crazy for wanting to go do this? Was I even crazier for supporting her and electing to be the camera man?
And what sort of parents take their young children to a place that received a 4-star rating in The World’s Most Dangerous Places guidebook, failing only to beat out places like Iraq and Afghanistan?
Others were a bit more blunt with their advice. The week before we were due to depart on our journey, we attended my wife’s 20-year high school class reunion at which most everyone had too much to drink.
But no one had consumed as much alcohol as Dan, who had been drinking since breakfast. I knew this because he announced it when he arrived at the party: “Tequila Sunrises and scrambled eggs with salsa for breakfast this morning!”
A thick-necked Army Special Forces guy, Dan had seen action in Afghanistan where he’d traveled on horseback and slit the skinny throats of Taliban fighters. He seemed to be a nice guy, but there’s something slightly intimidating about being around a man whom you know has killed other men.
“Dude, lissen to me,” Dan said with just a hint of slur seeping into his voice. He wrapped one of his thick arms around my neck and pulled me close. “You do not wanna go to fucking Palistan.”
“You mean Palestine,” I corrected.
“Stan, stine, whatever,” he said. “Call it God damn Fuckistan for all I care. It’s a bad and dangerous place.”
He squeezed me a bit tighter. I hoped he didn’t have a Fuckistan flashback and accidentally break my neck.
“Be fucking careful,” he said. “It’s always the camera men who get popped.”
We finally reach the front of the tiyar checkpoint. I hand our passports and Ahmed’s ID card to the soldier, throwing in a “shalom” and “yom tov” to impress him with my newly acquired Hebrew skills.
He silently thumbs through our passports.
“Where are you going?” he asks in English, rightly assessing that my entire Hebrew vocabulary consists only of the words “peace” and “good day”.
“Bethlehem,” I say, “to see the Church of the Nativity.”
But that’s only partly true. I don’t tell him why we’re really here.
We have no official papers. We are not sponsored by any news organization. Except for the people we interview, our reason for being here remains hidden like the DVD backup disks of interview footage I’ve stashed in the false bottom of my backpack just in case our video camera and laptop computer are seized by a suspicious and overzealous soldier at one of these checkpoints.
The soldier sticks his helmeted head through the open window to get a good look at my wife and daughters in the backseat. His helmet and sunglasses are covered with a thin sheen of sepia-colored dust.
Also in the backseat is Linda. She is a Palestinian teenager from the city of Nablus in the north. Linda is not your stereotypical Palestinian. She has red hair and pale white skin. If you saw her photo, you would peg her as being European, which she partly is.
Linda’s mother is British and her father is Palestinian. They met in London while her father was a university student. They fell in love, married, and moved to Nablus to have six daughters.
Linda is partly the reason we are here. She lived with us in the U.S. the previous year as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
She and her family invited us to come visit. We went even though tensions were high because of the recent kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, by Hamas militants during a underground tunnel raid on the boarder between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The soldier looks over at Ahmed, whom I’ve noticed has kept his hands on the wheel but has covered his fingerless right hand with his left. He’s got secrets to hide too.
The soldier hands back our passports and Ahmed’s ID card and waives us through.
To our left is the queue of cars traveling in the other direction toward Jerusalem. To our right is The Wall, a 25-foot high barrier of concrete and metal that separates Israel from the West Bank.
When the Israelis are finished, The Wall — or “Security Fence” or “Separation Barrier” or “Apartheid Wall” as it has variously been labeled — will be over 400 miles long, effectively encircling and enclosing the more than 2 million Palestinians living in the cities, towns and villages of the West Bank.
A 2005 UN report about the humanitarian impact of The Wall concluded, “It is difficult to overstate the humanitarian impact of the Barrier. The route inside the West Bank severs communities, people’s access to services, livelihoods and religious and cultural amenities. In addition, plans for the Barrier’s exact route and crossing points through it are often not fully revealed until days before construction commences. This has led to considerable anxiety amongst Palestinians about how their future lives will be impacted.”
The Wall and the numerous checkpoints throughout the West Bank have had a predictable effect on the people who live there.
“We are seeing an increasing fragmentation of the West Bank,” said David Shear, head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Jerusalem, in an interview in The New York Times. “It is increasingly difficult for Palestinians to move from one area to another. The whole fabric of life for Palestinians has been disrupted.”
In Israel, The Wall is commonly referred to as gader ha’hafrada, the “Separation Fence.”
In Palestine, it is jidar al-fasl al-unsun, the “Racial Segregation Wall.”
When I ask Ahmed what he calls it, he just says, “al-jidar.” The Wall.
“They’re closing us in. It’s like being in a big prison,” he says as we continue down the road and I film footage of The Wall. I don’t understand him but Linda, who is fluent in both Arabic and English, leans forward from the backseat to translate for me.
I’ve read about The Wall and the many reasons for and against it. In principle, I’m against it. But I also know that another one of its humanitarian impacts has been a drastic decrease in suicide-bombings in Israel. I’m also against suicide-bombings and the killing of innocent people.
Construction of The Wall began in 2002 during a wave of suicide-bombings and other terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 184 Israeli citizens, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. That number dropped significantly as sections of The Wall were completed: 104 in 2003, 53 in 2004, 24 in 2005, and 10 in 2006.
With Linda now translating, I ask Ahmed, “But doesn’t The Wall stop terrorists?”
It’s a provocative question and I know it.
“Terrorists?” Ahmed says sarcastically and laughs. “Meen irhabee? (Who’s the terrorist?) The Israelis have guns and tanks and planes and rockets. They kill Palestinians every day. Who’s the terrorist? You tell me.”
Later, I look at more statistics at B’Tselem’s website, this time on the page labeled “Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces in the Occupied Territories.” Unfortunately, the death trend on the Palestinian side of The Wall hasn’t been decreasing at the same rate as on the Israeli side: 989 in 2002, 573 in 2003, 812 in 2004, 190 in 2005, and 655 in 2006.
Meen irhabee? Who’s the terrorist? I would hear this rhetorical question again and again as we traveled throughout the West Bank interviewing Palestinians from all walks of life: young and old, men and women, students and teachers, shopkeepers, taxi-drivers and ex-prisoners.
Perhaps the most poignant had come from a man we interviewed in Nablus, a city of 200,000 located smack-dab in the middle of the West Bank. His name was Majdi. We interviewed him in the shop where he repaired cell-phones. He was wheelchair-bound by a bullet that had severed his spine.
“I’m just a guy like a lot of guys who are accused of being a terrorist,” Majdi said. “On T.V. they say all Palestinians are terrorists. I was shot at 3:30 a.m. during a military invasion. I was sitting in my home. I don’t know what kind of terrorism I was practicing at 3:30 in the morning sitting in my house. Who’s the terrorist? The occupied or the occupier?”
That night I awoke to the sound of machine gun fire coming from the southern part of the city. I could hear the unmistakable hum of tank engines too. I laid awake in the dark room, listening to the gunfire and the tanks, which sounded as though they were coming closer toward the city’s center where we were staying.
Then there was more gunfire, heavy artillery this time, followed by several explosions. I got up to check on my girls. They were sound asleep, which was for the best. I was terrified and did the only thing there was to do: I laid back down, listened to the firefight and prayed that all the bullets would miss flesh and bone and no one would get killed.
But the odds were stacked against my prayers. There had been numerous Israeli military incursions into Nablus to apprehend suspected terrorists and more than 400 Palestinians had been killed here since the beginning of the second Palestinian intfada (uprising) in 2000.
According to a 2002 report by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC), an Israeli non-governmental organization, “Nablus constitutes the main infrastructure of Palestinian terrorism and the location of the main headquarters of the terrorist organizations leaderships in the West Bank.”
On March 27, 2002, a Palestinian suicide-bomber carrying a suitcase full of explosives walked into the dining room at the Park Hotel in Netanya, a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, where 250 Jewish guests were celebrating the Passover. He pressed a trigger hidden inside his suit-coat sleeve and detonated the bomb. The blast immediately killed the bomber and 28 guests. Another 20 people were seriously injured, two of whom would later die from their wounds.
That suicide-bombing, which became known as the “Passover Massacre,” was the catalyst for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launching Operation Defensive Shield, the largest military operation in the West Bank since the Six-Day War in 1967.
Speaking to the Knesset, then-Prime Minister Arial Sharon stated that the purpose of Operation Defensive Shield was to:
Enter [Palestinian] cities and villages which have become havens for terrorists; to catch and arrest terrorists and, primarily, their dispatchers and those who finance and support them; to confiscate weapons intended to be used against Israeli citizens; to expose and destroy terrorist facilities and explosives, laboratories, weapons production factories and secret installations.
The orders are clear: target and paralyze anyone who takes up weapons and tries to oppose our troops, resists them or endangers them — and to avoid harming the civilian population.
During Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF invaded Bethlehem, Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. In Bethlehem, hundreds of Palestinians fled the advancing Israeli forces and holed up in the Church of the Nativity, some of them squeezing into the underground catacombs where there is a silver star hammered into the stone floor that supposedly marks the exact spot where Jesus was born.
The IDF surrounded and laid siege to the Church, shooting out windows and, reportedly, “accidentally setting fire to the main sanctuary with an errant flare”. The siege lasted for 39 days, during which 9 Palestinians and the Church’s bell-ringer were reportedly killed.
In Jenin, a Palestinian refugee camp located in the far north of the West Bank, the IDF sent ground troops into the tight maze of narrow streets to nab suspected terrorists and locate bomb-making supplies and facilities. The IDF had superior fire-power, but the Palestinian militants had the home-field advantage, laying booby-traps and ambushes, one of which resulted in the death of 13 IDF soldiers.
The IDF changed tactics and began plowing through the camp in armored Caterpillar D9 bulldozers that weigh 50 tons and have a blade the size of a truck. Conflicting reports of the number of casualties, ranging from 5 to 500, bounced around the media and it was unclear how many people had been killed in Jenin. According to the UN, 52 Palestinians (30 suspected combatants and 22 confirmed civilians) and 23 IDF soldiers were killed during the battle.
In Nablus, IDF soldiers went house-to-house in search of terrorists. Dozens of Palestinians were killed. Some of them were “suspected terrorists” and “enemy combatants.”
Others were in the wrong place at the wrong time and became “dead civilians” or, in military terms, “collateral damage.” Some were shot in their homes and in the streets.
Others died from exploding bombs. Homes in the Old City were bulldozed with families still inside and the downtown market was set on fire. It was unclear whether this had been intentional or due to another errant IDF flare.
Today, Nablus is surrounded by the IDF. Numerous military checkpoints are located along every road leading in and out of the city, which is slowly being strangled to death. The local economy is in shambles. Shops and schools are closing and the unemployment rate has soared to 60 percent. Poverty and desperation spread like an aggressive cancer.
Meanwhile, the IDF continues to regularly invade the city to hunt down suspected terrorists. During these invasions, young Palestinian men, many of them still in their teens, shoot it out with the IDF — usually, I was told, with Israeli-made machine guns. Posters of those who have been killed by the IDF are plastered all over Nablus.
You can’t go anywhere in the city without seeing one of these “martyr” posters. They’re colorful and gaudy like posters for action movies. The young men always strike serious, tough-guy poses in which they hold one or two machine guns up as though they’re Rambo. But they’re not Rambo. In this movie, the ending is always the same: the hero is shot and killed and B’Tselem has to update the statistics on its website.
We left Nablus the next day. At the Huwara checkpoint — a barren, hot and cruel place on the road to Ramallah — we waited with hundreds of other Palestinians crammed like cattle beneath a corrugated roof.
You must cross Huwara on-foot then catch a cab on the other side. A porter with a rickety push cart had already taken our luggage over to the X-ray machines and metal detectors. We waited and waited. And waited.
There were five lines, but only one seemed to be moving through the tall metal turn-stiles where a soldier stood on the other side with his machine gun trained on each Palestinian as he or she walked through the turn-stile and approached the processing booth. Bags were checked. Pant legs lifted. Men frisked. Some were sent back, cursing the soldiers under their breath.
The Palestinian men told us to go over to a side gate, which was for foreigners, women with small children and the few who had V.I.P. status in a place where it seemed that no person was very important.
“Who are you?” the soldier at the gate asked me.
“I’m Scott,” I said.
I was angry and feeling cocky.
“You are American?”
“Yes I am.” I handed him our passports.
“This is your family?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting to get through this ridiculous line.”
He shook his head. “Where are you coming from? Where have you been?”
“We went to Nablus,” I said.
He shook his head again. “You shouldn’t go there. Nablus is full of terrorists.”
I thought, meen irhabee?, but didn’t say that.
“Weren’t you scared?” the soldier asked, looking up at me curiously, perhaps referring to the previous night’s incursion.
We had heard that the IDF had invaded Askar refugee camp at the south end of the city. Askar is a dismal grid of narrow streets crowded with poverty, raw sewage, piles of rusting cars, and 15,000 Palestinian refugees. Askar and its neighboring refugee camp, Balata, are often the targets of IDF incursions. We had gone there one morning to interview people, but no one would agree to talk with us.
“Yes, a little bit scared I suppose,” I said, not admitting to him how terrified I’d been.
“I recommend you don’t go into the Palestinian territories,” he said, handing me back our passports. “It’s dangerous and once you go in, we cannot guarantee your safety.”
Cannot guarantee my safety?
I wanted to tell him that the only way he could guarantee my safety and that of the Palestinians living in Nablus was to pack up his machine gun and grenades, climb into his tank and drive back to Israel.
But I didn’t say that. He was the one who called the shots at Huwara. He was the one in control, the one who could tell me what to do and where to go or not go.
As I passed through the checkpoint and walked along the chain-link fence and concrete barriers — an American in Palestine who has known nothing his entire life but the freedom to go wherever he wanted to go in his own country — I felt for a fleeting moment what it must be like to be a Palestinian: I felt powerless, humiliated and cowardly for not telling the soldier off. But mostly, I was just angry.
Later, reflecting on that anger, it occurred to me that this is where rage began. Experiencing that daily could I deny that the fire of rage would not grow in strength, consuming me from the inside out until there was nothing left but a dark husk of hatred?
One of the promises of The Wall is that it will remove the need for military checkpoints like Huwara. While this may be the promise, it hasn’t been the practice. According to the UN, the number of checkpoints in the West Bank has actually increased 40 percent since 2005.
Many are quick to either abhor or defend The Wall. Its harshest critics claim that it is a form of racial apartheid, perhaps purposefully using the wicked word “apartheid” to equate the Israeli’s treatment of the Palestinians to be on the same despicable level as the racist segregation policies carried out against blacks by the elite whites of South Africa. In fact, accusations of apartheid predate construction of The Wall.
In 2002, Desmond Tutu returned from a trip to Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine and gave a speech entitled “Apartheid in the Holy Land,” in which he made comparisons between what he observed in the occupied territories with what he had experienced in South Africa during the dark days of Apartheid.
“I’ve been very deeply distressed by my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa,” Tutu said. “I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”
The Walls’ defenders say that it isn’t “apartheid” at all; rather, it is an unfortunate but necessary “security measure” for preventing Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel. According to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, “The Security Fence is a central component in Israel’s response to the horrific wave of terrorism emanating from the West Bank, resulting in suicide bombers who enter into Israel with the sole intention of killing innocent people.”
According to a 2006 ITIC report, there have been 147 suicide bomber attacks in Israel since September 2000. The Ministry of Defense reports that The Wall has resulted in a 90% decrease in terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank. The statistics from B’Tselem bare this out.
While the goal of The Wall is to thwart terrorist, the Israeli government has pledged that, “Every effort has been made to avoid including any Palestinian villages in the area of the Security Fence. The Security Fence does not annex territories to the State of Israel, nor will it change the status of the residents of these areas.”
According to OCHA, The Wall has prevented thousands of Palestinian farmers from moving between the villages where they live and the agricultural fields that they work and depend upon for their livelihood.
“Jayyous village is located east of the Barrier, but approximately 70% of the village’s agriculture and all their irrigated land are located west of the Barrier,” reads the OCHA report on the impacts of The Wall. “Access to this land in conjunction with further land leveling and [olive] tree uprooting, are threatening the community’s ability to support itself.”
In other villages, homes have been destroyed and farmland confiscated to make way for The Wall. On average, there is a 60-meter wide buffer zone on either side of The Wall that includes deep trenches, fencing, barbed wire and roads for military patrol vehicles. In addition to the concrete slabs, there are sniper towers located at regular intervals that are half again as tall as the 25-foot high slabs.
The legality of The Wall has been challenged both by Palestinians and by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). There are currently 41 petitions regarding the legality of The Wall waiting to be heard by Israel’s Supreme Court, which has already heard 96 such petitions since construction began in 2003. In two of these cases, the Supreme Court ordered the Israeli Government to alter the route of The Wall to ensure that negative impacts on the Palestinians would be minimized.
In July 2004, the ICJ issued an Advisory Opinion declaring the Wall illegal and calling on Israel to dismantle it. Israel’s Ministry of Defense responded, “In the Response, the State [of Israel] argues that the construction of the fence is consistent both with international law and Israeli domestic law…Israel did not consent to the hearing of this issue before the International Court of Justice. The position of Israel was, and remains, that the issue which the Advisory Opinion deals with was not appropriate for consideration by an international legal forum.”
The Palestinians claim that regardless of the ICJ Advisory Opinion or what the Israeli government officially claims, the real purpose of The Wall is to illegally grab Palestinian land for the construction of more Israeli settlements in the West Bank, of which there are already many.
According to population statistics (2004) available from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 145 Israeli settlements spread throughout the West Bank that are home to more than 230,00 Israelis. Amidst the otherwise barren brown landscape and dilapidated Palestinian villages, the red-tiled roofs of Israeli settlements stick out like red pin-heads on a map.
The Palestinians claim that the Israeli settlers have no legal right to be in the West Bank, pointing to the 1949 armistice boundary, the so-called “Green Line,” that was established around West Bank at the end of the Arab-Israeli War.
The Israeli side of the Green Line encompasses 78 percent of what was Palestine in 1947. The Green Line, which is called such because it was drawn in green pencil on a map at the time of its inception, is not an official border. It is used to differentiate between those areas within the Israeli side of the Green Line, which are administered as part of the State of Israel, and the areas outside it, which are either administered by the Israeli military or in agreements with the Palestinian National Authority.
The Wall does not currently follow the Green Line and according to the UN, “The Barriers planned path extends into West Bank land in many places…only 20% of the Barrier’s length runs along the Green Line.”
The Palestinians see this as blatant land-grabbing. To the Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, however, it is viewed as reclamation of what was already their historic homeland of Eretz Israel, which includes all of what is currently the West Bank.
The Green Line runs right through the middle of Israeli and Palestinian claims to rights over the land that they have both come to occupy and the settlements in the West Bank and now the building of The Wall could be viewed as an attempt by the Israelis to change the physical facts on the ground so as to erase the Green Line from the map and make it and any Palestinian claims to a homeland irrelevant.
There is evidence that the recent disputes over The Wall’s deviation from the Green Line is just the latest development in a decades’ old plan.
Speaking to the National Press Club in 2001, Winston S. Churchill III recalled a 1973 interview with Ariel Sharon:
“What is to become of the Palestinians?” I asked.
“Oh,” Sharon said, “we’ll make a pastrami sandwich of them.”
I said, “What?”
He said, “Yes, we’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlement, in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlement, right across the West Bank, so that in twenty-five years time, neither the United Nations, nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”
Traveling throughout the West Bank and seeing the number of Israeli settlements that had been built in the 33 years since Churchill and Sharon had that exchange, it was evident that the making of the “pastrami sandwich” was well underway.
Why do we build walls? Most walls are built to keep people out. The Great Wall of China, the world’s largest man-made structure and nearly 4,000 miles long, was built to keep out the Mongol hordes.
Other walls — like the wall that was built around the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis or the Berlin Wall that separated East Germany from West Berlin — are built to keep people in.
Walls are built for protection. Walls are built for control. But whether or not a wall is built to keep people out or keep them in, whether it is built of concrete, metal or stone, whether it is topped off with razor-sharp concertina wire or shards of jagged glass, a wall’s foundation is always the same. In the end, all walls are built upon fear — fear of the other, fear of the unknown and, finally, fear of fear itself.
The American Heritage Dictionary definition of fear is “a very unpleasant or disturbing feeling caused by the presence or imminence of danger”. Danger is defined as “vulnerability to harm”. Intense and overpowering fear becomes “terror”. Terrorism is the “use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.”
At its core, a “war on terrorism,” then, is a war against any person or group of people who uses threats, force and violence as a means to an end. The very phrase “war on terrorism” takes on the absurdity of Orwellian double-speak when one takes a moment to deconstruct it.
While it may be convenient for established and recognized governments to insist on excluding their own acts of force and violence from the definition of terrorism, it does not change the facts on the ground.
A “war on terrorism” that is fought with bombs and bullets, invasions of other people’s homelands and the coercion of its population is dichotomous, incompatible and unsustainable. In the end, a “war on terrorism” cannot be fought and won with bombs and bullets nor the building of walls with sniper towers.
A “war on terrorism” is won by creating a world in which there is no room for terrorism to exist, which begins with those who have power in this world leading by example and not using force and violence against others with the intention of intimidating or coercing them — even when the stated ends seem to justify the means.
Governments, of course, don’t want their people to see a “war on terrorism,” or any war for that matter, for what it really is.
“They want their people to see war as a drama of opposites, good and evil, ‘them’ and ‘us’, victory or defeat,” wrote journalist Robert Fisk in his book The Great War for Civilisation, “But war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit.”
Leaning out the taxi van window, I’m filming footage of The Wall as we drive parallel to it on the road to Bethlehem. It is massive and its dull gray blots out the horizon, forming a clear line between the brown earth and pale blue sky.
Here on the Palestinian side, The Wall’s otherwise drab gray is punctured by bright graffiti just as you would likely see on the walls of an inner-city ghetto. We’re passing a giant portrait of Che Guevara with his intense, dark eyes staring back at us.
Next to Che’s portrait is a painting of a giant white dove with two spikes driven through its wings and into its sides, pinning it to The Wall with blood dripping down from the wounds. The image is strong with allusion to the crucifixion of Christ and the symbolism of peace being crucified on The Wall.
Words and phrases in Arabic, English, Spanish, Italian and even Korean are spray-painted here too. Words like “salam” (peace), “freedom” and “libertad” (liberty).
“We’ll bring love here one day and this wall won’t stand in our way,” reads one of the phrases spray-painted next to a large caricature of Gandhi.
The road pulls away from The Wall and begins to descend slightly. As I pull the camera back inside the van, I realize the bitter truth of the phrase I’ve just filmed. It’s true: there is no love here.
Like Ahmed’s fingers or the homes and olive groves that used to be where The Wall now stands, like the sons and daughters, the fathers and mothers who have been killed and buried on both sides of this long and bloody conflict, love is another one of those things that has gone missing from this place. If it is ever to return, it will need to be brought from some place else, reintroduced and relearned by generations of Israelis and Palestinians who have come to know only hate, violence, distrust and a terrible fear of one another.
I know that it is this that must change if there is ever to be a lasting peace here. And while I don’t know exactly how to make this happen, the caricature of Gandhi reminds me of where the process of change begins. Ghandi said, “We must be the change we want to see in the world.” It begins right there for all of us. It is that simple, and that difficult.
It’s a tough mandate and at the moment it has moved far beyond the cliché of “easier said than done.” I came here full of hope, but it’s being drained out of me as we interview everyday people and I become filled up with the sad stories unfolding here on both sides of this damn wall. I brought love here too, but it’s slowly drowning in this sea of hate I’ve been plunged into where my heart thrashes about wildly to keep itself afloat.
I’m here on the Palestinian side of The Wall; Israel is on the other. And as that wall between us disappears from sight on the road to the birthplace of Jesus Christ, I realize that in the end, this wall is nothing more than an outward expression of the real and much more daunting wall that must come down; the one built around the heart, the one that “keeps us all in one kind of prison or another” — the one that cannot be torn down and destroyed by hate and violence, but only by a violent love for one another.