Today I touched the wall. Hesitantly at first, just a brush with the back of my hand as I walked alongside it, but then with more resolution, a bump with the side of my fist that smarted. My walk today took me to the outskirts of Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighborhood north of Jerusalem proper. I first walked north, on the road to Ramallah, through a narrow, strange stretch of land between the imposing 30-foot form of the wall, scattered industrial parks, and once, a neighborhood with signs in Hebrew. The road was busy with busses, trucks and cars, but I turned around after about a mile, not wanting to face the Ramallah checkpoint on foot.
As I walked back into town, I crossed paths with a group of noisy kids just back from their school day, and was particularly struck by the amount of junk, and weird human stuff that had ended up tangled in the barbed wire that topped the wall. Most frequently I saw soccer balls. Somebody’s game, source of entertainment and recreation snatched up by the greedy fencing. But there were also shirts, shoes, beer bottles, stuff that looked much more intentional and much less understandable.
I continue to follow the path of the wall east, where it cuts Beit Hanina off from al-Ram. The houses are so close. Neighbors could still wave to each other across the barrier, provided they lived above the third floor. More kids meander home through the streets, stopping every once in a while to scuffle. I am also struck by how easily pigeons and crows flap ungracefully, unharmed, over the wall.
The road is windy, the wall follows faithfully. Then suddenly, I can go no further. The wall continues east, but another fence sprouts perpendicular from its side. Shorter and see-through, but every bit as serious, this barrier separates Beit Hanina from the Jewish neighborhood of Neve Ya’kov. And I am flabbergasted. I know for a fact that this fence can be circumvented maybe 2 miles south of its origin. Beit Hanina is inside the Jerusalem Municipal boundaries. So is Neve Ya’kov. The only purpose this fence can serve is to prevent local traffic between the neighborhoods. To keep Jews in Neve Ya’kov and Palestinians in Beit Hanina. And to keep me from continuing my path that would cross both.
Today, I went with Jesse and Mori to an event protesting the construction of the Slopes of Mt. Scopus National Park, coordinated by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement. The proposal would effectively annex Palestinian land, hemming in a nearby village between the wall and the park and preventing expansion. The same tactic was used south of Jerusalem a number of years ago, when the government took land for a ‘park’ and later built the settlement of Har Gilo. Today, about thirty activists, both Israeli and Palestinian, gathered to prepare the ground to plant olive trees. Most worked with shovels while Jesse and I moved some rocks out of the way. Prayer mats and yarmulkes alike were in danger of being swept away by wild gusts of wind. We only stayed for an hour, since rain threatened our work, but nevertheless, the earth on the hillside had been turned and made ready for a peaceful and symbolic means of resistance.
Here’s the audio from a multimedia piece on Silwan I’m putting together. Went back and shot today, but my plans were cut short by a settler yelling at me through the intercom/camera system outside his house. Anyway, images are a work in progress, but the audio is mostly cut together. Thoughts and feedback are most welcome.
I tagged along on a tour of Silwan with a group from Williams College today. Silwan is a predominately Palestinian neighborhood just outside of the Old City that is an epicenter of conflict between settlers and Palestinians in Jerusalem. It’s a long, complicated story, but the short of it is that Jewish settlers are moving into the neighborhood by evicting Palestinians, based on ancient Jewish claim to the City of David, a legitimate archaeological site in the neighborhood. It’s easily one of the most tense and sensitive places in Jerusalem, if not the entirety of Israel/Palestine. Mori (who works at Rabbis for Human Rights) had been invited to add up-to-date information and commentary since he does a lot of work fighting Palestinian housing evictions in the neighborhood. We also heard from a Palestinian activist who lives in the neighborhood and had been shot by a settler. More to come later, but here are some photos.
This morning I went walking in the northeast part of Jerusalem, from the Jewish (settler) neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev to the Palestinian neighborhood Sho’afat. My route skirted along the Sho’afat refugee camp, which made for some striking, but sad views.
Although Sho’afat Refugee camp is within the Jerusalem municipal boundary, the wall isolates it from the city. Most services are provided by UNRWA, not Israel, and the municipal infrastructure is astonishingly bad. There’s garbage everywhere because no one comes to pick it up. The houses are in bad shape, and 20,000 people are crammed into a neighborhood intended for 1,500. Thanks to the wall, it’s become sort of a lawless land that isn’t taken care of by Israeli or Palestinian police, with the exception of Border Police raids, checkpoints, and tax collection. It was shocking to see the state of the camp, while just 200 yards away, Jewish settlers live in comfortable, new apartments. Furthermore, while the vast majority of the Separation Barrier is fenced, there is a wall in urban areas to protect Israelis from gunfire, which was a legitimate problem in areas of Jerusalem during the Second Intifada. But here, there’s no way the wall would be effective at doing this. It seems to me that the wall is much more important visually and psychologically than it is in terms of security.
This morning I went on a great tour of East Jerusalem with the Israeli NGO Ir Amim. I wanted to share a few quick edits yet today. We’re getting ready for Shabbat here, and although I’m not Jewish, the friends I’m staying with are, and I’m excited to do Shabbat with them. So no posting this evening or tomorrow.
When I stepped off the bus in Bethlehem, I was immediately swarmed by taxi drivers looking for work. Slightly overwhelmed, I tried to wave off a few of them and walk down the street, but I ended up talking to one of them who offered to show me the wall, and I decided to take him up on it. For the next several hours, Yousef drove me around the city to see the sights, told me about the city’s recent history, and shared his perspective. It was invaluable, and I know I made the right call in hiring him.
Yousef smoked out the window of the cab as he told me about his seven sons, who are between the ages of 7 and 25. He’s sending them all to university, somehow, with his meager salary working two jobs, and some family help. In the mornings, he is an Arabic teacher at a local high school, which, apparently, is a persona he cannot shake in the afternoons. He tried his best to teach me a few words in Arabic, and quizzed me on what I’d recited at unexpected moments, like when I had just gotten back in the cab. In the end, only a few things stuck after I finally had the sense to break out my notepad and jot down phonetic notes and translations.
After seeing the city and stopping for prayer and postcards in Manger Square, we drove a ways out of town to a hill where I had a view of everything from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. From there, the landscape looked rugged, unforgiving, unimaginably ancient. We could pick out Jewish settlers’ communities by their red tile roofs. They seemed more numerous than the Palestinian housing. A small Israeli military base kept watch near the road, ensconced in barbed wire. Yousef told me that if he were president, he would institute a one-state solution (with a presidency that rotated between Israelis and Palestinians) which was something I hadn’t heard before. When I mentioned it to Jesse later, he told me it was actually a pretty common idea among Palestinians.
After our excursion to the hill, Yousef invited me back to his home for tea. This is a very common gesture of hospitality and I was thrilled to accept. He taught me a few Arabic greetings for his family members and I managed to remember them during the short drive to his village. At the house, I got to meet 4 of his sons, and his wife, who prepared a delicious, traditional Palestinian soup in addition to mint tea. They were so welcoming and generous and I felt very comfortable in their home. Their youngest son, Akram, took this picture of myself, Yousef, and his wife using my camera. He was a pretty good photographer after a few tries and a quick lens change to account for the dim living room.
We headed back to the Bethlehem bus stop and parted ways. I was a little nervous about the checkpoint but didn’t have any trouble at all, but several other passengers were checked outside the bus. It was astonishing to see the security installations around the road to Bethlehem. Consisting of a tunnel, walls around the highway, numerous watchtowers, and a 5-lane checkpoint, the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is essentially a military fortress. These installations and accompanying laws have prevented Yousef from visiting the City of David since 2001 despite its proximity. Unfortunately this is a very, very common situation for Palestinians living in the West Bank.
Here’s a quick photo from Bethlehem. More soon.
This day has been incredible. I just got back from an open mic where everyone was amazingly talented. Picked up a CD from a spoken word poet. Lots of song, performance, generally mind-blowing people and ideas. Lots of commentary on Jewish identity, some of which I understood, more of which I wish I did. Young Jerusalem expats are the best. I’m just too exhausted to say more now, but might lay awake thinking about everything for hours. Everything here is so intense, the pace of life is astonishing.
I walked today, expecting to hit a wall. Literally.
Starting from the center of Jerusalem, I traveled south by foot and bus, towards the barrier. My borrowed map was nearly falling apart, but with a little help from my trusty compass, it was good enough to get me to the zoo, my first destination. Here, the ground fell away into a steep valley where train tracks ran amid construction. A road lay parallel to the tracks, and then the ground rose again sharply, mimicking the undulating landscape around the city. Somewhere between the tracks and the hill was the Green Line, but there was nothing to suggest it, save this sign.
I continued with the main road toward the east, hoping to find a checkpoint nearby. Before too long, an empty Egged bus pulled over and opened its doors. The driver shouted at me in Hebrew, I tried to wave him away and explain I couldn’t understand him, but he wasn’t having it and motioned for me to come closer and talk with him in simple English. He ended up giving me a free ride to the next intersection, which was pretty cool. He also didn’t seem to believe me when I told him I was just ‘out for a walk.’
After a delay at the Mall, for public bathrooms, free wifi, and pudding, I continued East, now eager to reach Beit Safafa, a neighborhood that was awkwardly bisected by the Green Line, leading to residents receiving different forms of Jerusalem ID and hence very different privileges. On my way, I passed these Palestinian boys perched on the side of a hill:
I ended up not actually venturing into Beit Safafa today in favor of continuing south toward Bethlehem in hopes of reaching the wall, or at least getting a glimpse of it. For the next half hour, I climbed a huge hill toward Gilo, a neighborhood on the very southern outskirts of Jerusalem. I crossed the Green Line and didn’t notice it until I got back and looked at a map.
I had a spectacular view of Jerusalem during my climb, looking back on the city as the sun got low, and panting slightly from the climb. I kept my eyes peeled for a checkpoint on the crest of the hill, and I thought I had a likely candidate picked out, but when I got to the top, I was disappointed to see it was just a lonely petrol station. I scrambled up a steep rise and through a quiet neighborhood. I found an alleyway with steps that faced south and drew in a sharp breath when I turned the corner.
My first glimpse of the wall. It was actually shocking to see in person, even after reading about it, looking at pictures, thinking about it, for months. Two girls sat casually in a park behind me. Everything seemed so normal. But here it was. Massive, unyielding. This is no memorial or history like what is left in Germany. This is now and real.
I didn’t make it any closer today because the sun was getting low and I wasn’t entirely sure how I was getting back. So I turned my back on the wall, for now, and descended the hill. I caught bus 32 which careened through rush-hour traffic into the city center. At King George Street, there was a huge traffic jam created by a crowd of people in the street, completely blocking traffic. They had anti-racist signs and were jumping energetically, positioned squarely in front of a bus. The bus driver finally navigated a corner and started shouting in Hebrew and opened the doors. About half the people on the bus disembarked. Confused, I decided to stay on the bus and stick it out. I shortly realized that he was likely informing us of an impromptu route change, because we didn’t end up where I expected we would. Nevertheless, I navigated back to Nachlaot without incident and collapsed on the couch, stiff and sore from nearly 9 miles of walking. We had an awesome pasta dinner, and some nice company. Tomorrow, I’m heading to Bethlehem to continue the walk up-close and in-person.
“Northward beyond the dwindling downs the land ran away in flats and swellings of grey and green and pale earth-colours, until it faded into a featureless and shadowy distance. Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains”
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
This quote, printed on a dirty, wrinkled piece of paper, is packed in a waterproof bag in my backpack. Jerusalem tomorrow. Ready to roll.