Last Saturday, I went to a basketball game in the Buffer Zone with Greek and Turkish Cypriot kids from both sides of the island. The morning was coordinated by Peace Players International, an NGO that brings kids and communities together through sport, “on the premise that children who play together can learn to live together.” International Fellow Adam Hirsch told me that this was the first time the kids from the North had played a game with kids from the South, but watching them on the court Saturday morning, you never would have known it. Coaches and volunteers split the kids up into four mixed teams and led them through team-building activities and scrimmages. Most of the players were quiet at first, but before long, they were learning names, improving their passing, and bonding over a sport that they clearly love.
Secondhand info I heard today: these flags are to remind Turkish Cypriots that they are under Turkish occupation and rule. Not to taunt Greek Cypriots to the south.
So…Greek Cypriots are occupied by Turkish Cypriots, who are in turn occupied by Turks? And what about those anarchist kids who are occupying the Lidra Street Buffer Zone?
Cyprus is strikingly beautiful. Green and lush, with a mountain range to the north of Nicosia whose peaks are more like waves or erratic mathematic functions than the stereotypically triangular forms you would first think of. Yesterday was sunny and warm, and I set out for a 10-mile walk, covering the buffer zone in the north-west metropolitan area. Despite the gorgeous landscape and relaxed, Mediterranean vibe, there are still things that are profoundly weird about the island (to my excitement). For example, I went from a modern-Western style shopping mall to a militarized border with occupied Turkish territory, on foot, in about 10 minutes. And I wasn’t even walking quickly. Here are a few photos and first impressions of my time here:
I’ve already seen these stickers in quite a few places. Note how North (Turkish-occupied) Cyprus appears to be bleeding onto the rest of the island.
Oh you know, just the buffer zone at the end of the block. Maybe 100 meters past this, there are North Cyprus observation posts and Turkish flags. In between: barbed wire, tall grass.
Huge Turkish flags painted on the hillside facing south. Apparently they are lit up at night by floodlights, too. As one resident put it: “quite provocative, really.”
This Palestinian woman has lived in Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem since 1964. She only enjoyed her home for three years before a military base was built nearby, and the barbed wire began to snake through her neighborhood. Not long after, a settlement sprouted up across the street. The field where her children used to play is now filled with garbage and barbed wire stacked three rows high. This picture was taken in her driveway, not 50 meters from an Israeli fence. She said, in short, “it [the wall] is basically making life hell for Palestinians.”
This afternoon I went back to Walajeh to spend some quality time in the village on foot. Just a few kilometers west of Bethlehem, Walajeh is across the valley from settlements in southern Jerusalem and around the corner from the settlement of Har Gilo, which continues to expand and encroach on the town. The solution to this proximity, is, of course, to build a wall around Walajeh that will create a tight enclosure around the village, a Palestinian enclave in what was once Palestinian land. But, construction on said wall is not finished, so there remains some (small) hope that Walajeh’s fate may change. Numerous gaps in the unfinished wall make it easy to ‘cross sides’ so it’s also a very strange and interesting place to visit for this project. Today was the first and last time I walked on both sides of the wall in a single trip, much less a single hour or minute.
Standing on both sides of the wall like this was a powerful experience, and I’m not sure I’ve fully processed it yet. I felt exhilarated by the idea of being in two places at once, kind of like when you’re a kid and you get to stand in two states at once, or three, or four (maybe this is just me?). I also felt triumphant, like I had somehow outsmarted the wall and managed to do what it prevents by its very nature. But I was also frustrated, because this line that I stood atop of doesn’t mean anything! It does not correspond to the green line, international law, or municipal boundaries. This spot was just a green hillside until last year when bulldozers carved it into a flat road and covered it with gravel and concrete. It holds no significance beyond that which concrete and the muscle of men can lend. Alas! The joys and sorrows of a border-walking border-theory junkie.
This is a tunnel that runs under where the wall will be built. It will serve as a dedicated checkpoint for the people who live in the house in the picture below, which will be entirely cut off from the rest of Walajeh by the wall.
Right now, with gaps and no guards, the wall around Walajeh is not keeping anybody out or in. But mentally, it’s already working.
The settlement of Har Gilo is creeping steadily onto Palestinian land and so the wall is still under construction in Walajeh, a tiny village just west of Bethlehem. I’m hoping to go back again before I leave, but here are a few pictures of the wall there. It’s so odd to see it half-built. There was nothing to stop me from walking on both sides save a 6-inch concrete block that foreshadows the arrival of its bigger incarnation.
Our bus of Israeli and international activists was stopped en route to a demonstration in the village of Bil’in this morning at a temporary checkpoint in the West Bank. Because of police action, we were denied the right to demonstrate at the seventh anniversary of the world-famous protests against the wall in Bil’in. A police officer boarded the bus at 11:25am and collected everyone’s identification for a “routine check.” For myself and other internationals, this meant reluctantly handing over our passports. We sweated it out for about ten minutes on the bus, before being asked to disembark. An experienced international activist called the other foreigners together and discussed with us the merits of attempting to walk through the checkpoint sans passport. It could, he argued, confuse the police and force their hand, which would probably result in us getting our passports back, and possibly result in our arrest. Luckily, we didn’t have to choose because after another five minutes or so, our IDs were passed back unscathed.
However, this did not mean that our path forward had been blessed by the police. On the contrary, we had been deemed a potential security threat and were ordered to return to Jerusalem. A loud discussion in Hebrew ensued, while more officers arrived on the scene and began filming us, recording our faces for posterity. I’m not sure what, if anything, will become of this footage. There wasn’t much to see. We were just standing there. They already knew exactly who we were from our passports. I’m sure they had already updated our information in whatever huge database the Israeli police are maintaining on its population and those who enter their country. Even so, I put on sunglasses and ducked a bit.
Then, the police gave us an ultimatum: get back on the bus in five minutes, or be arrested. All of this in Hebrew. The internationals were getting spotty translations from anyone with a spare ear and the presence of mind to think bi-lingually. Then our party began to splinter apart. A few attempted to walk forward, sat down, and were arrested. I got back on the bus with a handful of others. Another man sat down and refused to move. Four officers carried him to a police car. All in all, eight activists were arrested, Israelis and internationals alike. They squeezed seven people into the police cars (over capacity, I believe), and one man, an Israeli-Palestinian, was left behind to wait for another vehicle to take him away. I don’t know what happened to him.
About ten of us remained on the bus, but our adventure with the police was far from over. They had kept the drivers’ ID, and were holding it until we were back in Jerusalem and they were satisfied that our venture in the West Bank was spoiled. We had no choice but to follow a police car for perhaps 20 minutes until they finally let us go somewhere in North Jerusalem. During the ride, I learned that the police had known of our plans (unclear how) and set up the checkpoint specifically to intercept us. We had received a very unusual military order, only valid in the West Bank, featuring a map with a red box drawn around Bil’in. The police were preventing “suspicious” people from entering this area. Another bus (maybe from Tel Aviv) was also stopped.
We headed to the police station in Giv’at Ze’ev where the other members of our party were detained. We learned that the detention center only had room for half of the people they had detained, so some were inside, while others waited outside in the increasingly nasty weather. Clouds blew in and the temperature dropped. There were rumors of snow in Ramallah later on, and we were all expecting rain. We also learned that the majority of the activists had just been detained, not arrested, and they could only be held for three hours. However, it is subjective when the three hours starts, so we worried that the activists waiting outside might not start their three hours until the first group was released and they could be moved inside. With Shabbat approaching, this could make things unpleasant for getting home that evening.
Some of the activists were making phone calls to lawyers, another pair ran off to buy food for the detainees. We waited for maybe an hour and a half, and the suddenly most of our companions were released. The Israeli-Palestinian, who had actually been arrested “for refusing arrest” was not among them. By this time, food had arrived and it was 3pm. We tore into the bread and fruit outside the station as it began to rain.
It was extremely frustrating to be prevented from going to the protest in Bil’in, especially because this was my one and only chance to attend. However, the experience reminded me of a paper presented at a Border Conflicts conference I attended last Fall which argued that modern borders are being moved back into countries, manifested in airports, cities, and of course, checkpoints. They are no longer geographically tied to the borderline itself. This paper was based on the situation in Ukraine, but the theory was demonstrated clearly today in Israel/Palestine. What better case study than a country where borders operate on a de-facto basis and are still being formed and defined? The police who stopped us at the checkpoint today represent a wall that is every bit as real and physical as the concrete blocks that loom in the West Bank.
Today I traveled to the village of Biddu to meet this man. His house, on the outskirts of the village, has been a flash point for clashes in his backyard and the courtroom for the last 9 years. In 2004, Israeli soldiers destroyed his grove of 123 olive trees and piled up rubbish around his house; they were claiming land for the construction of the wall. There was a scuffle. His father threw rocks, a brother was tackled and arrested. But in the end, the soldiers took the land and the family was devastated. But they fought back. For 9 years, they went to court every month, being gouged by an Israeli lawyer for his services, but without a foreseeable alternative, they trudged ahead. And miraculously, they won their case. The land was returned, they planted new olive trees a month ago. The trees are young and tender in freshly tilled dirt, and there’s no telling whether the bulldozers will return to uproot them. But for now, they are safe again.
Last Friday, I attended a Women in Black vigil in downtown Jerusalem and spent about an hour getting to know the women who come every week to protest the occupation. They come donned in black to “symbolize the suffering and tragedy of both the Israeli and Palestinian people,” but also wear smiles and are happy to chat with passers-by. Every Friday, for 24 years, they have come to Hagar Square to raise their signs: cardboard cutouts of a black hand with white lettering that read ‘Stop the Occupation,’ and black banners with translations in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. They are a mixture of Israelis and expats who have made Jerusalem their home. Some are Jewish, some are not.
For a few months now, they have been joined by counter-protesters across the street. They are all men, and come with large Israeli flags and signs declaring their support for the IDF and the government. The pro-government group usually receives nothing but enthusiastic honks and cheers, while the Women in Black endure glares, taunts, arguments, and worse every week. But this doesn’t faze any of them. Without fail, they will arrive at 1pm, calmly and courageously stand up for their beliefs, then head home at 2pm to farewells of Shabbat Shalom and wishes for a good week.
The international movement of Women in Black began in Jerusalem in January 1988 and chapters have since formed in many countries for a variety of issues, from Mafia violence to inter-ethnic cooperation. The Women in Black movement in Israel won the Aschen Peace Prize (1991), the peace award of the city of San Giovanni d’Asso in Italy (1994), and the Jewish Peace Fellowship’s “Peacemaker Award” (2001). In 2001, the international movement of Women in Black was honored with the Millennium Peace Prize for Women, awarded by the United Nations Development Fund for women (UNIFEM).