Wall power

2009-05-15 00:00

THE distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, reputed birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, is a mere eight kilometres. But to get there, we had to cross on foot through the eight-metre-high concrete separation wall at the enormous Gilo checkpoint. It was mid-morning and the checkpoint, despite it being Easter, which is peak tourist time, was quiet. We were fortunate: I had read previously that thousands of West Bank workers with the requisite permits from the Israeli government start queuing from the Bethlehem side as early as 3 am every day to get to jobs in Jerusalem.

Once we were inside the checkpoint precinct, the “exit” signs guiding our passage confused our progress until it dawned on me that we were officially “exiting” the State of Israel.

In retrospect, it seemed obvious, but I was vaguely shocked by those signs, written in three languages, and serving to prescribe the reality of categories such as “us” and “them”, “insider” and “outsider”....

Left: Separation wall near Ramallah on the West Bank, with suspected Banksy graffiti, which has now been altered.

It was a turning point for me — a moment in which I realised that the reality of segregation in this tightly controlled, minutely contested, idiosyncratic country couldn’t be wished away or downplayed.

The checkpoint itself is a cold and complicated construction of cement, steel turnstiles, wire fences, surveillance cameras and cubicles housing unseen personnel. Its size was a clear indication that it catered for large numbers. Our passports, already well-thumbed by security personnel after being in Israel for only a day-and-a-half, were at the ready, to clarify our status as tourists, not terrorists.

The whole experience made me feel uneasy and angry; then, unexpectedly, supercilious. After all, wasn’t Israel a highly developed, sophisticated and culturally-rich society? So what was this great hulking, clumsy, embarrassing blight of a checkpoint ... It may stop the movement of aggressors but what lasting impact on the collective psyche?

Once through the terminal, we walked in the tall, cold shadow of the wall for a short distance and suddenly arrived in “another country” — Palestine. Nothing could have prepared me for the absurdity of the eight-metre -high separation wall that I could now see snaking into the distance, carving up the countryside with a breathtaking ferocity, a monument to failed human relations.

The wall may have filled me with a kind of existential awe and a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, but for taxi driver Khalid and tour operator Issa, who touted assertively for our business in Bethlehem (but never lost the respectful charm I came to appreciate from most of the Palestinians I met), it also spelt something more tangible: economic hardship. Business was poor, even for Easter time, and ready access to the city of Jerusalem is no longer an option for Arab residents of the West Bank who must apply for a permit simply to visit relatives. For Muslim worshippers in the West Bank, it also means restricted access to Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third most holy site in the world, in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City.

The wall was a looming presence throughout my seven-day stay. When we travelled one day from Jerusalem to the small Arab town of Abu Dis which borders Jerusalem, we saw how the road which used to take people into Abu Dis now came to a dead end as it intersected with the wall which went up in 2004. Made of pre-cast slabs, the wall goes up quickly, I’m told. But the effects are more lasting: the town’s residents are cut off from jobs and markets in the larger economic centre of Jerusalem.

The Abu Dis Emergency Clinic that we visited, built last year with Norwegian government funds, tries to fill the gap in health services precipitated by the wall.

Like the Arabs of Bethlehem, none of Abu Dis’s Palestinian residents can travel to Jerusalem without a permit. From what I understood, the process of securing one is an arduous one with an uncertain outcome.

I kept an eye out during my wall-watching for the work of enigmatic “pseudo-anonymous” English graffiti artist Banksy who has visited Palestine twice to draw on the separation wall, transforming it, as he is reported to have said, from “the world’s most invasive and degrading structure into the world’s longest gallery of free speech and bad art”.

I came across works that I reckoned were his, but they showed some adaptations when compared with the originals I subsequently found on the Internet. For example, what I believed was Banksy’s Ramallah picture of a boy with a beach bucket and spade standing against the backdrop of blue sky had now been filled in with sketches of bricks — perhaps by more cynical local artists?

Of course, Banksy isn’t the only artist or writer to have left his mark on the wall. And he won’t be the last. Wherever we went, the grey panels carried messages of resistance and frustration in a range of languages. “This wall must fall,” was an English scribble I saw frequently.

During one of his painting trips, Banksy was reportedly chastised by a local Palestinian for making the wall — a symbol of oppression — look beautiful. I suppose the guy had a point, but for me, the graffiti reaffirms human resilience and the right of expression, rather than trivialising the wall and its impact.

Right: The huge ‘Return Key’ in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem.

I felt this again when we visited the impoverished refugee camp of Aida in Bethlehem, passing under a big arch topped by the enormous “return key” — a ubiquitous symbol of Palestinian hope for a return to their lands. On walls separating the camp from the flashy new multi-story Intercontinental Hotel, residents had painted scenes of the villages and towns from which they had fled decades ago. The names of their home towns were written above the pictures.

The pathos of those paintings spoke more clearly to me than the frustrated comments of unemployed refugees lining the streets of the various refugee camps we visited in Palestine and neighbouring Jordan. Like the graffiti on the wall, they were powerful symbols of hope, resistance, and ultimately, of human lives trying to be lived with dignity, identity and the sense of a future.

Sharon Dell’s trip was made possible by local Muslim sponsorship with the intention of encouraging wider debate around the political, cultural and social issues in the Middle East. A daily blog of her travels is available here.

The Dividing Wall

APPROVED by the Israeli cabinet in 2002 as a way to keep Israelis safe from Palestinian attacks, particularly suicide bombings, construction of the 790 km barrier, comprising towering concrete wall panels and electric fences dotted with watchtowers, is still ongoing.

In a 2004 finding, the International Court of Justice said the construction of the wall was “contrary to international law”.

The way the barrier is named is contested, with Israelis commonly referring to it as the “separation fence” or “anti-terrorist fence”. “Seam zone” or “security zone” refers to the land between the fence and the 1949 Jordanian-Israeli Armistice line (Green Line) which the barrier is meant to follow but does not, eating into Palestinian territory.

Palestinians call the barrier the “jidar al-fasl al’unsuri” or racial segregation wall. It has also been called the “Apartheid wall”.

Critics of the barrier see it as an attempt to annex Palestinian land, including productive farmland and villages, under the guise of security imperatives and a bid to restrict Palestinian access to Israeli facilities, jobs and markets. The wall is twice the height of the demolished Berlin wall.

 

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