I have never seen such a rocky place as the West Bank. Among undulating hills and valleys, patches of dirt are scattered among rocks of all sizes. A small field of plowed soil is a rarity. For thousands of years, people have moved rocks so they could grow plants. The steep hills have been cut horizontally with terraces dug by hand and animal power. The terraces are supported by stone walls, some looking relatively recent, some stretching back thousands of years. Some of the olive orchards which line the layered earth look as old. These ancient walls blend into the landscape and support an agricultural economy, a way of life sustained by the people of this rocky land for thousands of years.
Recently a new type of wall has appeared in the West Bank. Twenty feet high, sunk deep into the ground, topped with barbed wire, the Israeli walls of separation prevent movement, separate people and interrupt that very life.
The official political separator between Israel and the occupied West Bank is the Green Line, drawn on maps in 1949 to separate Israel from its neighbors at the end of a year’s warfare. In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel occupied Palestinian territory beyond the Green Line: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Nearly 50 years later, the conflict over this land continues.
The major separation wall generally follows the Green Line, but small and significant deviations reveal a long-term Israeli population policy of separating themselves from Palestinians and expanding their borders. The wall bulges out to encompass less inhabited hills and valleys. It bulges in to exclude Palestinian villages and urban settlements from the rest of Israel. Walls extend deep into the West Bank to surround the many Israeli settlements that have been created there.
Every Israeli wall separates Palestinians from their families, their friends, their customers, and their culture. Shepherds are separated from grazing lands and water supply. Villages are separated from one another. People are prevented from access to stores, hospitals, government buildings, and each other.
Walls keep people out and people in. From the Great Wall of China to more modern walls in Berlin and on our border with Mexico, if walls are long enough, they can control entire populations. Walls become security measures when the enemy is defined as everyone on the other side.
Walls mean control and control varies by the category of people. In 1977, I could negotiate the annoying checkpoints in Berlin, cross the wall, and wander around a city that no longer exists. East Berliners could only watch. Except the privileged ones, whose greatest privilege was that they could go anywhere.
The new walls of Palestine funnel all people through a network of gates, where privilege is doled out by religion and nationality. We passed all the checkpoints with ease. Once a young soldier bent over to talk to us in the back seat. Our role was to identify ourselves as Americans, and she waved us on. Israelis, identified by their license plates, drive through, barely slowing down. Cars with Palestinian plates, and the much more numerous Palestinian walkers, are stopped. Some walls are impenetrable: many roads in the West Bank have been built only for Israeli settlers, connecting isolated enclaves back to Israel. Other walls are just difficult. A delay of hours, plus humiliating treatment, must be part of every Palestinian’s plan for negotiating a checkpoint.
These walls are part of a larger scheme to shape the population of Jerusalem and the West Bank in Israeli interests. The walls operate in conjunction with colored identification cards to segregate Palestinians into exclusive categories. Those with blue cards are considered to be residents of Jerusalem, and can move more freely than those with green cards, “West Bankers”. Green card holders can enter Jerusalem, which they have considered their capital for centuries, only with special permits. The entire system of walls, identification cards and checkpoints makes travel by Palestinians in the West Bank difficult and time-consuming.
The Israeli government is worried about the demographic future. What does a state that proclaims itself Jewish do with a Palestinian minority that threatens to grow? The wall is one answer – exclude some, prevent others from entering, encourage them all to leave.
Israel uses wall-building to promote ethnic exclusion. Other more coercive methods are also being used to reconstruct the population of the West Bank. In September 2014, new plans were revealed which would move thousands of Bedouins away from their villages just east of Jerusalem into one new “Bedouin township” miles north and east, near the border with Jordan. That expulsion would clear a large area for future Israeli settlements. Protests by Palestinians and some Israelis have interfered with these plans, which appear to violate the Geneva Convention about treatment of an occupied population.
Even the privileged have to submit to the power of the wall. We started on the ancient route from Jerusalem to Jericho, just over 20 miles, cut thousands of years ago into a rolling landscape of rocky slopes. But just outside of East Jerusalem, we ran into a wall, towering over us, turning the road into a parking lot. Go away, the wall said.
Walls are bad for both sides. These walls will eventually fall, too, but not until they have harmed the lives of all the people of Palestine.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 3, 2015