Today I went with a friend to Bethlehem, a friend who was intent on seeing the checkpoint and the wall. So we did.
The wall around Bethlehem checkpoint is different from the wall at Kalandia. There is a lot more painting on it, and a lot more murals rather than low grade graffiti.
The wall acts as a trail, you can walk along it, sometimes for kilometers. We walked only a little, but ended up at a quite amazing destination. It’s a graveyard, in Bethlehem, surrounded on three sides by the wall.
The graveyard was an extreme place. It feels like you are inside a military base. Death is never easy to mourn, but what of the mourners here? Are there martyrs buried here? I can hardly postulate otherwise. What must families feel visiting their dead, and their martyred dead, in a graveyard around which towers the wall which excludes them from most of their homeland and from Jerusalem. It’s a surreal place to be.
After the graveyard, and closer to the checkpoint itself we came across a series of narratives, anecdotes really, posted on the wall. This strikes me as a good idea – they are powerful, poignant stories of oppression, of brutality, racism. Not so long as your while-walking attention span is exhausted, and not so partisan to alienate relatively neutral tourists who will see these whether or not they are here to “see the occupation”.
The important thing to recognize about the wall is that, whatever you think about Palestinian political violence, the wall it is not primarily for security purposes. The second intifada ended not because the wall was built, but because Israel offered amnesty for Palestinian fighters, and because Hamas was kicked from the Westbank. Aside from trying to understand the history of the conflict, if the wall were for security, perhaps it would be built down the green line. The wall is built where it is built to separate Palestinian areas from Israeli areas. And, since there is often land in between, the wall is used to separate villages from their land so that the land can be allocated for the expansion of Jewish settlements. When land is unworked for 2 years it reverts to the state, and access state land in Israel is still basically a Jewish privilege.
The wall is often called an “Apartheid” wall. This is a good name for it, because it is an integral part of Israel’s discriminatory residency policy. If you happened to be born in the area Israel annexed in 1967 as “jerusalem”, you have a “blue card”. This means you have the right to work and travel in Israel. If you weren’t, if you were born anywhere else in the Westbank, then you have a “green card”. With a green card you are stuck in the Westbank jail, perhaps living in “Palestine”, meaning small and discontinuous areas of Palestinian semi-autonomy called “Area A”, which is still very much “inside Israel” – you live between settlements, you must pass Israeli checkpoints travelling to other Palestinian cities, and you must pass Israeli borders if you need to leave to Jordan. And, if you need to visit Jerusalem or friends or family inside, you need a permission which is often denied for no reason, and almost impossible to get if you have a less than clean record.
The discrimination isn’t wholly one-sided; if you are Jewish-Israeli, then you can’t enter legally into “area A”, and if you are Palestinian, you can’t enter into Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Of course, if you are Israeli you can easily pass between the Westbank and Israel. Also, if you are Palestinian and you are arrested at an Israeli checkpoint you have no civil rights, and will pass by military court. If you are subject to “military interrogation”, Isreal can legally use torture against you, and destroy up to “75% of your body”, (I haven’t found this written anywhere, but heard it numerous times from Palestinians I know). If you are Jewish-Israeli, or an Arab Israeli citizen, of course none of this will happen to you because you will go to civilian court, you will have proper rights like in a democracy. So it isn’t possible to say there are two governments for two peoples, with equal status for each. The PA, the “palestinian government does not have the power to protect its citizens from Israel which remains the sovereign in all the land (Israel can violate the terms of Oslo with no real ramifications whenever it pleases, meaning it remains the sovereign even if the PA has local control).
So why is it “apartheid”, after all, apartheid isn’t just about apartness, it’s also about systemic discrimination and supremacy. Well, you don’t have to visit the westbank to know that living in a settlement is a much richer life than living in an Arab town. The settlement projects are massively subsidized, have much better access to water, have much more money for infrastructure, and have easy access to the rest of Israel by bypass roads, only some of which are open to Palestinians. In essence: if you are Jewish in the Westbank, you have some intense privilege. Your settlement probably has a swimming pool, next to an arab town or refugee camp that has water one and a half days per week.
At Bethlehem, there is a lot of rhetoric about bringing down this wall, about ending apartheid. And around here, you can almost believe it. You read all the slogans and you think – ya, why not? Why not a civil rights struggle, why not an end to Israel’s racist regime? Why not co-existence based on equal rights and indigenous rights?
But I feel that this is an illusion. That the end of apartheid will not come from slogans, and Palestinian liberation is not fundamentally about protesting or even about criticizing Israel in Canada and the United States. Palestinians need to liberate themselves, to decide how to act against their oppression, and fit together as a glove to hit what is wrong with Israel.
In the end, I have no idea what will happen here. What I do know is that neither side is excited about backing down, and that the current fake peace is enforced by acts of war rather than honest persuasion.
I doubt very much, always, that Zionism, especially in the extreme forms we see manifest in Israeli settlement expansion, is an ideology which you can make peace with. The question is not whether Zionism will fail as an ideology, but whether it will fail primarily due to external or internal pressure.
The wall, in the end, is not the conflict. The building of the wall was not the beginning of the struggle, and its destruction will not be the end. The wall acts as a focus, and as an international symbol of Palestinian oppression, but because it is not a symbol defined by Palestinians it risks pushing the Palestinian issue towards humanitarian interpretations, or human rights interpretations. Those interpretations are fine insofar as they serve the struggle, but they are neo-colonial insofar as they remove Palestinian agency from the centre of the Palestinian struggle.
In fact, the way that almost everything written on the wall is done by internationals, and the way that it is always internationals who come and visit the wall, photograph the wall, buy trinkets at the wall, all these things re-inforce an interpretation of the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which places internationals at the centre of the action, and in positions of primary agency. Rather than reading books about Palestinian revolutionaries, we read about international artists who visit Palestine to do photo projects or murals on the wall. For example, this photo is part of a project done by JR using the wall as a gallery, which by taking sarcastic portraits of Palestinians and Israelis and putting them next to each other was meant to problematize the idea of the enemy in the eyes of people on both sides of the conflict here. A lot has been written about this project, and this kind of “internvention” by western academics, but which no Palestinians I’ve met ever heard about or saw this project. And when I explained it to them, they certainly weren’t enthusiastic, but rather saw it as just another art project by internationals who come here to see the wall but maintain a very thin understanding of the conflict and the history of this place.
So, the wall is a problem here in more ways than one. It’s a focus, it’s a symbol, but it’s a symbol of victimhood, a symbol of the oppressed as oppressed. So long as it is pictures of the wall rather than pictures of Palestinian Revolutionaries that grace our posters of events outside supporting the Palestinian cause we will remain within the neo-colonial humanitarian or human rights interpretation of the Palestinian cause; we will not contribute to or even notice the Palestinian Revolution.