“Did you see the wall?”
The question legitimately confused me the first time someone asked.
The Western Wall
The stones of the last standing Temple wall were painted orange with the sunset of my second day in Israel. They were larger than I had imagined, thousands of prayers crammed into the narrow crevasses between them. I marveled at the wide, open plaza as I wrapped my hair in a white cotton scarf. I rinsed my hands at the metal fountains, and entered the area where women were permitted to worship. Hundreds of women were packed tightly into this narrow area – some pressed bodily against the stones, some crying, some rocking in prayer, some kissing the wall, and others stroking the stones as if they were a lover. I patiently waited my turn, then slid up next to it. I felt out of place – a bumbling tourist – but I placed my hand against the stone. I was shocked! Rather than being rough, the stones had been rubbed smooth with a slight sheen as if they’d been polished. Perhaps foolishly, I closed my eyes and prayed for peace. As I was passing through the metal detectors to leave the plaza, I reflected on the golden hope I held in my heart.
I would lose that feeling by the time I saw it again…
The second and final time I saw the Western Wall it was early morning and I had wanted to catch the sun rise but the weather had thwarted my plans. It was raining, just slightly, but the sky was a hard steel gray. I’d spent the previous day meeting with a Palestinian family whom had their home invaded and taken over by Zionist activists. I had been following the conflict for the last six years, but you don’t realize how terrible things really are until your boots are on the ground and you see it all – and more – for yourself. The wall was no longer magical to me, it was just another chess piece in the game of oppression. The plaza that I had, just days before, marveled at was no longer marvelous to me. It was just another place where Palestinian homes were demolished to make way for Zionist agendas – which, incidentally, left the “displaced” Palestinians in Shofat refugee camp where Settlers could wake up each morning, look out their windows and sip coffee while they watched the misery of the camp’s inhabitants play out before their eyes. I stood on a platform above the plaza – decorated with a banner calling for a united Israel that included Judea and Samaria (read: Palestine). I felt my stomach drop, I realized how foolish my prayer had been and it was the first of many times I felt utter disgust.
The Separation Wall
I stood at the edge of a plateau that overlooked a bypass highway. Our tour guide had brought us here so that we could get a taste of the breadth of the Separation Barrier. He directed our attention to the furthest point on the western horizon, and I followed as he traced his finger along the land to the farthest eastern point.
“That is all Separation Wall,” he said in a beautiful Israeli accent. Later he would take us to the base of a portion of the wall; grey, looming nearly 30 feet above you and spray painted with anti-occupation sentiments. You’ve read about this wall, but until you can put your own hands on it you’ll never understand its grim reality; stretching like a venomous snake for 440 (and still growing) miles inside the Green Line. Every year it gobbles up more Palestinian land, separating families, communities and homes themselves. All in the name of Israeli security. Complications you’d never think possible exist because of this thing, ranging from land stealing to broken families.
Click for larger picture. Photo Credit: Wealth of Poverty
Imagine being a Palestinian who was born and raised in Jerusalem, your family has been there for generations and you know no other home than Al-Quds. One day you meet someone, you fall in love and eventually get married. There’s only one problem – your partner lives in Bethlehem (West Bank). For any other couple in the world this wouldn’t be a problem, you’d simply move one place or the other and live happily ever after. This is not the case for Palestinians, and it all comes down to residency. Do not listen to the lies that the Israeli government tells the press – Palestinians in Jerusalem are NOT citizens. They are “resident aliens” – a person living in Israel but is not a citizen (think of someone living in your country on a student visa. It’s fairly similar). Your partner is labeled a citizen (by the very loosest of terms) of the West Bank, and despite being married the chances of them obtaining a permit to come and live with you in Jerusalem… well, you’d have better chances at being struck by lightening on a sunny day. At the same time, you cannot move to the West Bank because your residency would be revoked. This means being separated from your extended family and friends, no home, no work and no possibility of ever returning. The end result is a “part time family,” meaning you will live and work in Jerusalem during the week and only see your significant other and children on the weekends. Before you think this is some expectation to the rule, I can tell you that it is more common than you’d like to think.
During my trip I accompanied a friend to his family home for dinner. The Separation Wall pressed against the northern facing wall of his home, wrapping around the back end and cutting his garden in two. Over tea he told me about how the military told him that if he didn’t sign the rights away to this portion of his land so the wall could be built, that they would simply demolish his home. He went on to describe how not only had the wall split the village in two, but also his family. You see, just on the other side of the wall in his backyard was a small home that belonged to his mother. She was officially considered the West Bank, and he was officially considered to reside in Jerusalem. Just as with the weekend families, the same rules applied – his mother would never obtain the permit to come see him and if he made the decision to live with her then he would lose his residency. When I asked how he saw his mother, he took me to the roof of his home and called her to join them. They proceeded to hold a perfectly normal conversation by calling to each other over the 20 foot gap between their homes. To say I was shocked would be the understatement of the year.
The Wall also contributes to a disgusting show of “legal” land confiscation. A law was enacted so that if a piece of land lie unworked for three years, the Israeli government can take possession of it – referred to as the Absentee Owner law. You may not understand the implications of this, so I’ll tell you a story that is all too familiar to Palestinian land owners.
Let’s say you own 200 dunam of land (about 50 acres). One day, without your permission, a portion of the Barrier is erected on your land, cutting it in half; 100 dunam on the “Israeli side” and 100 on the “Palestinian side.” For all intents and purposes that land is still legally yours, but again we go back to the possibility of you obtaining the necessary permit to work your land on the Israeli side. Remember what I said about lightening? Maybe you’ll receive a permit that first year – JUST you, not your family that helps you tend and eventually harvest the olives that make up your livelihood. Not only is your land cut in half, but so is your income. For the next three years the administration isn’t so nice and you’re denied (perhaps you’ve been considered a “security risk” because you engaged in the terrorist attack of sneezing in front of a solider). Since you have not worked your land for three consecutive years you’re labeled and absentee owner and your land is taken from you. Did I mention that you’re not compensated? Say you go to court to fight it. You will loose.. I mean the law is the law. It’s all there black and white…
There are many insidious aspects of the Wall, none more dehumanizing than the hundreds of checkpoints – both permanent and mobile – that Palestinians must pass through each day. Want to go to school? Check point. Want to go to work? Check point. Want to go to the hospital because you’re sick, undergoing cancer treatments or are in labor? Check point. During my time there I went through countless check points – some I wasn’t even awake for. Hours were spent in line to walk five feet. The effect is always the same; restriction of Palestinian movement. For security purposes of course. This is the IOF (Israeli Occupation Force) mantra, and answer to any question. Can’t stand on the corner and drink coffee with a friend? Security purposes. Stopped and ID’d on the way to prayer? Security purposes. Refused entry at a checkpoint then allowed to pass through another? Security purposes. Chased off your own roof for smoking a cigarette? Security purposes. Two check points vividly stand out in my mind; Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem and Qalandia in Ramallah.
I’d been through many of the smaller checkpoints – always zipping through them without a second look from a soldier – but 300 was the first mass check point I’d go through on my own. (See a short slide show of the interior and exterior here.)It was late in the evening, the check point and the area surrounding it all but deserted save for a few coffee stands and produce stalls. I was saying goodbye to a few friends as another friend and I were to make our way back to Jerusalem via the buses on the other side of the checkpoint. My checkpoint buddy eyed the door nervously, then turned his worried gaze on me.
“It’s ok,” I said.
Was it? I had no idea. I walked up the concrete ramp to the entrance, passport clipped with a paperclip to the inside of my jeans pocket. I’d never been asked for identification before, but in Palestine you always keep it close on hand. I entered the dimly lit building and felt myself break out into a cold sweat. The place reminded me of every description of a Nazi gas chamber that I had ever read about; narrow barred in hallways leading you forward with one directional turn styles that made it impossible for you to go back the way you came. Finally it opened to a white room with many doors.
“Staight,” my friend muttered. I walked forward to an x-ray machine and another waist high turn style. I threw my backpack on the belt, and attempted to walk through the turn style. A booming voice crackled over an intercom flooding the room.
“Show your passport,” it demanded. I looked around for where I was supposed to do that, until my friend indicated a two way windowed booth next to the turn style that I hadn’t noticed. I slipped my passport in the opening of the bullet proof glass and waited. The lights were dim enough to see the soldier thumb through my passport then squint hard at me through the glass.
“Leia?” the disembodied voice asked.
“Got any brothers or sisters?” The question was odd, and before I could stop myself the smart ass in me took over.
“Yeah, Rachel. Got a brother in law named Jacob, too.” This bit of sarcasm earned me a blistering kick to the back of my calf by my friend. This was a good way to put ourselves at risk. Yet, the dimwit behind the glass grinned broadly, slipped my passport back to me and allowed me to pass. This would be the first of many, many times that my Italian name – LEIA – would be confused with the traditional Jewish – LEAH – making me negligible in their eyes.
I stood on the other side of the turn style/booth/x-ray machine waiting for my backpack to be spit out. As my friend showed his green, Palestinian ID I took the time to stow my passport away and retrieve a sweater from my pack. Perhaps one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen began flirting with me in that narrow exit way. The draw back? He was dressed head to toe in black riot gear – 2 percussion grenades hanging from his bullet proof vest and an enormous semi-automatic gun in his hands. One thought echoed in my head, “are you fucking kidding me?!” My friend finally exited the turn style and just as quickly as the soldier’s smile widened for me, he had slammed my friend against the wall so brutally I thought he’d broken something.
“Woah! Hey!” I ran bounded towards them and pulled my friend out of his grasp. If there is anything, ANYHING you should know about soldiers it’s this – don’t touch them. They will give you flying lesson you’ll never forget.
“What the hell are you doing?” This bit of sass earned me the first of a number of times that a weapon would be pointed at my face. I nearly threw up. Or passed out. Or shit my pants. I’m not sure which held priority in that moment.
“This is my tour guide,” I lied through my teeth. “I cannot find my way home – I mean Jerusalem – without him.” There were a tense couple of moments before he let my friend go. As we scurried through the exit, towards the busses headed to Al-Quds I turned to look at the solider – he winked at me and blew a kiss. What. The. Fuck?
Qalandia I didn’t go through, only stood around in the bedlam that is morning “rush hour.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians are packed like sardines waiting for hours to be let through so that they can go to work, school, doctors – you name it. Along the perimeter were a host of produce stands, coffee vendors and people cooking all manner of food for their breakfast. The trash that accumulated in the area was of mythic proportions. At one point I watched as an ambulance rushed to the checkpoint, then stopped and waited 30 minutes. A friend followed my furrow browed gaze, then explained.
An ambulance with Israeli plates cannot go into the West Bank – the same goes for Israeli rental cars – they must wait until a Palestinian ambulance comes. I’m sure you can understand the complications that can and do arise – the worst being the check point being shut down for.. oh yeah, security purposes. As we waited, the driver hopped out of his cab and came to sit with us. The person in the ambulance was a woman in labor, on the verge of giving birth. Apparently this is a common occurrence – many children are born at Qalandia. The driver recounted how many people had died waiting for an ambulance. I remember looking at the dirty ground, the packed lines, and the harsh barrier walls and thinking that , in the eyes of the Israeli government, the Palestinians are not people – they are animals to be corralled through a check point and ultimately slaughtered.
Just a few short weeks ago Trump signed an Executive Order allowing for a separation barrier of our own to be built on the US-Mexican border. What was particularly striking was his reasoning for such a wall – security purposes. If that doesn’t send chills down your spine, then you haven’t read this post closely. Regardless, however, if Trump builds his $20 billion wall, I find I’m more concerned about the inner landscape of American hearts.
Dig deeply within yourselves and ask if our intentions, as individuals, are any different from Trump’s policy. I submit that, as a whole, we are not. Rather than a towering 30 ft. separation barrier built on some imaginary boundary line, we build our walls inside our hearts out of fear, and for reasons of personal security we cut our communities in two by refusing to empathize with each other. We would rather be ignorant and comfortable behind our walls, issuing morality judgements on something we disapprove of rather than extending ourselves with mercy and compassion. Each time we turn a blind eye to injustice, each time we allow fear to master us we add another hate filled brick to the growing barrier of apathy that we’ve erected around ourselves. The only thing we’ve succeeded in doing is hurting each other, and in the process we’ve shut out God.
In his play, ‘Doctor Faustus’, Christopher Marlow posits – through the voice of Mephistopheles – that Hell is the state of being where we are separated from God. That is what we create for ourselves when we erect walls – both internal and external. We cut off God when we refused to recognize the humanity of the Other. We isolate ourselves from God when reacting in fear rather than the love taught to us by the Beatitudes. We must tear down these walls – in every manifestation – and unite ourselves in the way God urges us to. Not as Democrats or Republicans, not as Liberals or Conservatives, not as Americans, Israelis, Mexicans, Palestinians or Canadians – not even as Jews, Christians or Muslims.
No, we must unite as brothers and sisters – the same blood racing through our veins as our common human ancestors. We ARE family. We must love and protect each other because we ARE – as God’s question to Cain so simply implies – we ARE our brother’s keeper.
I know this is hard. Change always is…but it CAN be done. Start small. When you’re walking down he street tomorrow and you see someone you’d normally revile, check yourself. Open your heart to them, smile and say…”Good morning.”
Until next time – I wish you all peace and welcome you to comment on what you think.
For more information on the Wall and more in-depth facts on the ground please visit: