In my last entry, I mentioned crossing the checkpoints into Bethlehem. I’m going to talk more about that in this post.
In June of 2002, Israel began construction on what is referred to as a separation barrier (which I will refer to, as most Palestinians refer to it, as “the wall”). This wall runs mainly along what is known as the Green Line, or the line agreed upon during the 1949 Armistice that set a territorial boundary between Israel and the West Bank. However, in some areas, the wall extends past the Green Line into Palestinian territory in order to enclose around Israeli settlements.* This is the case in Bethlehem, where the wall was built farther into Bethlehem in order to encapsulate a settlement. Upon doing so, that part of Bethlehem was on the other side of the wall, cut off from the rest of the city (seen in the picture below taken from Wi’am’s rooftop patio. Examples of this are also in this map from B’Tselem: https://www.btselem.org/download/separation_barrier_map_eng.pdf).
*Settlements will be explained in a later post, but for now, a simple definition will suffice. “Settlements” are groups of Israelis who build housing on territory in the West Bank and Golan Heights areas, land that is not a part of Israel, but de facto becomes a part of Israel after established by residents. The military protects these areas. To get started, Huffington post has a great article on settlements here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-greener/israeli-settlements-what_b_510890.html.
It isn’t visible in the picture above, but the wall takes a sharp turn right where it looks like it abruptly ends. It runs up and directly behind those first few buildings in the circle. All of the green you see (olive tree grove) and the building farther in the distance (Gilo Settlement) are on the other side of the wall. Everything in the circle used to be a part of Bethlehem.
B’Tselem estimates that upon the barrier’s completion (it is still under construction in some areas, including here in Bethlehem), 9.5% of the West Bank will become Israeli territory (B’Tselem 2011).
In addition to illegally annexing land, this wall imposes a host of other social and economic complications on life in the West Bank. The wall has severely affected Bethlehem’s economy. It has cut off farmers from their olive groves and other agricultural land. To access their land, farmers must then obtain permits to cross checkpoints (or points of entrance in the wall monitored by Israeli military personnel). In order for any person with Palestinian nationality to enter into Israel, they must have a permit issued from the Israeli government. Once a person obtains a permit, checkpoints can have long wait times during certain times of the day and Israeli military may choose to shut them down intermittently and sometimes without notice. For these reasons, it is more difficult for a Palestinian to work in Israel today than before the wall was in place. Since the wall’s construction in Bethlehem, Bethlehemite’s also feel that tourism has fallen. The wall deters many tourists from visiting Bethlehem because its presence implies that the area is unsafe. Many businesses have left the area in response to the fall in tourism, which makes for less employment in the city. As of latest data in 2014, Bethlehem’s unemployment rate is the highest in all of the West Bank (Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics 2014).
The social and psychological impacts of the wall are heavier than any of its physical burdens to travel or tourism. The wall makes for an imposing, militaristic air when you stand next to it. Its 30 foot tall concrete slabs topped with barbed wire and spotlights give you the feeling that you are inside of a large, open air prison. The wall is also covered in graffiti, beautiful pieces of political and social artwork protesting the wall. (Most of this graffiti is done by Bethlehemites, but British artist Banksy created a few pieces on the wall when he visited the city, one of which is very close to Wi’am).
I see the wall every day. Many people have homes, run businesses, and go about their lives alongside it, as well.
As you can tell from the picture, a portion of the wall towers right next to Wi’am. The first time I truly felt its impact was on Friday when I had my first day with the kids. When I arrived at work that morning, one little girl was sitting alone on the bench in our courtyard. I sat next to her and asked her where the other kids were. She said they went to get ice cream at a market down the road. I asked her why she didn’t go with them. With brown eyes cast down to her feet, she said that she was “afraid the soldier in the watchtower would shoot” her. I was stunned by the matter of fact tone with which she said this statement. There was no active fear in her voice. Instead, what I gathered was that she was bummed about not getting ice cream, but that she was used to it, that it was just the way things were. I decided to tell her that I wanted ice cream and that I was going to go get some and wondered if she would like to walk with me. After a pause, she looked me in the eyes for the first time and agreed to go. We walked together down the street to the market, and I watched her as she hopped over cracks in the sidewalk and balanced on curbsides, chatting about her school and her favorite music. She was suddenly a much different child, happy and carefree, than the slumped child I met just minutes before. She is seven years old, I thought to myself. No seven year old should be kept from getting ice cream because she believes that to walk on the street with her friends would mean she were in danger of being harassed or shot.
I’m beginning to see the multifaceted nature of the wall and what it symbolizes, beyond the reports of B’Tselem and the UN, beyond the unemployment rates, the checkpoints, and so on. I’m witnessing how it seeps deeply into the psyches of all who call this region home. It is always on their minds – and now on mine, too – whether or not we are actively seeing or talking about it. I am seeing the Palestinian side of this, but there is no doubt that Israelis are also affected by its presence. It’s a physical manifestation of mistrust, fear, and hostility. It affects the way people move and live here, even in the most subtle of ways, like deterring a child from getting ice cream. But that day, we all got ice cream, despite the soldiers, the wall, and the conflict.
I realize this post is heavy, so I leave you guys on a more positive note. Later that afternoon, the kids painted clay houses.
We continue work on the Youth Garden this week, and (hopefully) will have big enough paintbrushes by Friday to let the kids paint the concrete bricks outlining the beds.
Here are some pictures.
Until next time, habibis,
B’tselem. 2011. “The Separation Barrier.” http://www.btselem.org/separation_barrier
Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics. 2014. “The Labour Force Survey Second Quarter.” http://www.pcbs.gov.ps/site/512/default.aspx?tabID=512&lang=en&ItemID=1182&mid=3172&wversion=Staging