It is impossible to visit Palestine without being overwhelmed by the generosity and warmth of the people there. Nonetheless, everything we did and heard was done in the shadow of the wall. Within hours of my arrival in East Jerusalem I found myself in front of what is now known as the "Apartheid Wall". It is an extraordinary structure made up vast, grey slabs of concrete that measure over 8 m in height. Elsewhere the dull, totalitarian monotony of the wall gives way to fences, razor wire, trenches, guntowers and military emplacements.
It was only after a few days walking along the route of the wall that the magnitude of the project became clear. When the 730 km wall is finished it will snake through towns, cities and villages and cut through agricultural land right across Palestine. Worse still the completion of the wall will result in a number of towns being completely encircled- creating Palestinian ghettoes surrounded by barbed wire and concrete.
Every day we met with Palestinians in school halls, olive groves, orchards and people's homes and heard the human stories behind this massive project of social control. People complained of land confiscation, damage to agricultural equipment, the disruption and destruction of their livelihoods and the breaking up of extended family networks. A particular source of resentment and anger has been the uprooting of thousands of much cherished olive trees. For Palestinian farmers the olive tree is more than a source of income - it is a symbol of their relationship with their land and culture, as one villager in Qubeida put it "these trees are like our children". There can be no doubt after the testimonies that we heard that the wall has led to the further impoverishment and greater militarisation of the Occupied Territories. The Palestinians are also incensed that 16% of the population of the West Bank will end up on the Israeli side of the wall (1). Not surprisingly this has led many people to conclude that the primary function of the wall is to divide and control the Palestinian population rather than guarantee Israeli security.
Further controversy has arisen because the route of the wall has been clearly chosen to legitimise and make permanent the illegal settlements that have mushroomed all over the Occupied Territories. An estimated 98% of the settlers on the West Bank will live on land annexed by the wall (2). The settlements, which resemble something you might expect to see in a Las Vegas suburb with large semi-detached houses sometimes with their own swimming pools, make for a bizarre sight in the middle of the rolling hills of Palestine. Many settlers are religious fundamentalists who think they have a god given right to harass and attack Palestinian villagers. We also learned from villagers that the settlements have their own private road system which Palestinians are forbidden to use and that in an often parched region settlers regularly siphon off water from neighbouring Palestinian villages. To add insult to injury in some of the villages we visited we saw effluent from the settlements being pumped out onto Palestinian land.
In most of the communities that we visited popular committees have been set up to fight the wall. These popular committees have attempted to halt construction solely through mass non-violent civil disobedience and we regularly witnessed ordinary villagers courage and determination in the face of overwhelming military might and intimidation. In one village we visited, Budrus, near Ramallah, where the resistance has been particularly strong there have been over 40 demonstrations over the past year. Often the men, women and children of Budrus have sat or stood unarmed in front of military bulldozers. Despite many injuries and arrests the bravery of the villagers forced a temporary halt to building work and "glorious Budrus" has become a beacon to other communities fighting the Apartheid Wall (3). Support for this grassroots resistance has come mainly from left wing NGOs, the ISM and perhaps most notably from Israeli anti-Zionist groups such as the Anarchists against the Wall. Interestingly, in the vast majority of communities that we visited the role of Israeli activists was warmly acknowledged and clearly valued.
In many of the places we stayed non-violent civil disobedience has been met with brutal and sometimes deadly force. In Beitunia a teenager was shot dead on a demonstration. And in Biddu, where three people had been shot dead and two others had died from the effects of tear gas, the grief and anger was still palpable. The campaign against the wall has also resulted in an unprecedented event - the shooting of an Israeli citizen by the Israeli army during an attempt by anarchists to dismantle a fence along the route of the wall. Because of the deep-rooted racism of the Israeli military we, as Europeans, rarely received the sort of treatment that is doled out to Palestinians on a daily basis. Nonetheless, we did get a small glimpse of how peaceful protest is dealt with in the Occupied Territories. Over the three weeks of the march the Israeli military used sound bombs, arrests, beatings, tear gas and, after I left, live ammunition to intimidate protestors.
We also witnessed on several occasions how arbitrary detention is used to coerce and control Palestinians. There was a striking example of this following the march to Budrus. While we were meeting locals an Israeli snatch squad seized a 14-year-old boy who was sitting on steps close to the edge of the crowd. He was blindfolded, tied up and put in the back of a military vehicle. After a stand off he was released but nobody, including the boy, thought that this situation was abnormal. I learned in countless conversations that detention without trial, torture and arrest are a rite of passage for most Palestinian men. Hashim, a political activist from Budrus , has a tu[oca; story. A man in his early thirties Hashim explained in a quiet and uncomplaining way that he had been detained several times without trial and had been beaten in custody. Over the past fifteen years Hashim has spent over seven years in prison, a year and half of which was spent in solitary confinement (4).
For many of the people I met in Palestine history is a nightmare: a series of barely comprehensible catastrophes the latest of which is the Apartheid wall. In Beit Sira a small village north west of Jerusalem, a local man brought us up onto a roof and pointed out where, on the plain below, three villages were razed to the ground after the 1967 war. Then he pointed to a large settlement on a hill established as a military base in the 70's that became a settlement in the 80's and had grown ever since. Finally he pointed at the route of the wall at the edge of his village-the most recent encroachment on his land and freedom.
The wall along with the checkpoints, the roadblocks and the military incursions has become part of the vast and complex machinery of repression deployed against the Palestinians. Nonetheless, I left inspired by the courage and solidarity of the Palestinian people and convinced that their culture and history will not be wished out existence by the Zionists in the Knesset (5) or their backers in the Pentagon or that any wall can contain the desire for freedom.
By Dec McCarthy
(1) This percentage is from PENGON a Palestinian NGO (2) This percentage is from PENGON (3) Work on the wall has restarted in Budrus and the resistance continues (4) Name has been changed
(5) Israeli parliament
This edition is No83 published in November 2004
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