Book Excerpt

A Wall in Palestine

René Backmann, Translated by A. Kaiser

Picador

CHAPTER 1

EVEN THE QUALITY OF THE LIGHT

One morning in early August of 2002, the residents of Chiyah, El-Azariyeh, and Ras al-Amud, the Palestinian villages that form the eastern boundary of Jerusalem, discovered that pieces of paper printed with a message in Hebrew had been tacked to the trees during the night. The message, bearing the stamp of the Israeli Defense Forces, was a military order informing residents that some of their land was going to be requisitioned by the army to erect a wall. It listed the plots of land that would be affected and specified that those who wished to file an objection had one week from the time that the notices had been posted to do so. In the time it took to translate the flyers into Arabic, access the land title registry, identify the requisitioned tracts of land and the path of the future wall, the week was over.

"Finding a lawyer to bring our case before an Israeli court and have it translated into Hebrew would have taken us at least another whole week. Assuming, that is, we managed to raise the money," says Terry Boullata, principal of an elementary school in Abu Dis and an impassioned activist for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Four years later, she still hasn’t come to terms with the brutal legal maneuvering of the Israeli army. Sitting on the flowered sofa in her living room, this energetic woman in her forties is agitated. While serving coffee, then cold drinks, she chain-smokes, glancing out the window at her concrete enemy every time she mentions it. "Why is it that for us, the soldiers are satisfied to nail military orders to trees, but they’ll go door to door, house to house, to explain to the settlers that they’re going to be evacuated from Gaza? What happens when the rain washes away the message or when the wind tears it loose?"

The residents never filed an objection in the manner required, so on August 14, the bulldozers, protected by a large detachment of soldiers, began demolition to clear the way for the wall and to open a roadway for construction vehicles. As a first step, concrete blocks in the shape of upside-down Ts, each about two yards high, were haphazardly set down by cranes. There was enough room in between some sections for a child or a slim adult to slip through. But: "We could see that there was something temporary about that wall," remembers Terry Boullata. "It prevented cars from getting through, except at crossings controlled by the Israeli army. For people on foot, it was exasperating and humiliating, if not entirely insurmountable. But when the checkpoint was moved from Ras al-Amud to Abu Dis, along the planned route of the wall, it was clear that something else was in the works. In fact, it appeared that the Israelis intended to transform the municipal boundary of Jerusalem, which had been arbitrarily drawn after the annexation of the eastern part of the city in 1967, into a genuine border between Israel and the territories under control of the Palestinian Authority. For those of us here, that was a disaster."

A member of an old Jerusalem family, Terry had married Salah Ayyad, the son of a successful businessman from Abu Dis, toward the end of the First Intifada. Terry was Christian; Salah, Muslim. Both were members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and had spent time in Israeli prisons for having belonged to an outlawed political party. Neither one saw their religion as an issue. "We were married during the Gulf War, but we still had a party at the Cliff Hotel, which belonged to my husband’s family, until it was confiscated by the Israeli army in 2003 in order to set up quarters for the Border Police," Terry recounts. "The municipal boundary of Greater Jerusalem, drawn by the Israelis after capturing the eastern part of the city in 1967, ran straight through the hotel. The bar was in Jerusalem, the restaurant in the West Bank. This was just one of the countless absurdities of the occupation, and it sometimes caused problems with the Israeli military bureaucracy. But it didn’t get in the way of the hotel’s daily functioning, nor did it hinder customers coming from the West Bank or from Jerusalem. They simply had to cross the army checkpoints, wait, and run the risk of being turned back. But the Palestinians of my generation have been used to doing that since birth."

By the time the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords had been signed, Terry had left the DFLP to join an organization working to reform the status of women in Palestinian society. She and her husband moved to the second floor of a little white-stone apartment building within the municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem, about twenty yards from the Cliff Hotel. The building had been built in 1958 by Salah’s family.

"I was filled with hope," Terry admits today, now regretting her naïveté. "I really believed we were finally going to have our State and live as neighbors with the Israelis. I was so full of enthusiasm that I decided in 1999 to open a kindergarten and elementary school in Abu Dis, to contribute to the education of the new generations of Palestinians. ‘New generation’ was actually the name that I had chosen for it. I borrowed thirty thousand dollars, then twenty thousand, then ten thousand, and I started with fifty children. Five years later, I had two hundred children and twenty-two teachers. It was a heady time. The school was a five-minute walk from my home. All I had to do was cross the street near the mosque, walk the length of the Palestinian parliament building that was under construction, pass by Al-Quds University, and I was at work.

"Like many of my pupils and teachers who lived within Jerusalem city limits, I continued to take the same route to the school, despite the wall that appeared in 2002. There were openings in this wall where Border Police soldiers let children and people they recognized pass, when they didn’t have orders to the contrary. Their tolerance worked well for us, but I will never forget how humiliating it was to crawl through those holes, and especially to see old women in traditional embroidered dress or grandfathers in keffiyehs struggle to pass through while these young people looked on. And in spite of it seeming temporary, this wall was, for the first time, a concrete separation between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and an additional physical obstacle to what was already heavy regulation."

Indeed, since March 1993, six months before the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, the Israeli army had put into place a system of cordons and controls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip designed to regulate—in fact, reduce—Palestinian movement within the Occupied Territories and at crossings into Israel. Any travel was laden with a multitude of checkpoints and military roadblocks. Entry into Jerusalem was forbidden, except to those who had authorization from the Civil Administration—that is, the army. This authorization was difficult to obtain, and the smallest incident could nullify it. With the onset of the Second Intifada in September 2000, the military and police tightened security; ditches were dug, clay roadblocks were put up, and cement blocks were laid across the roads, paths, and alleyways that had previously allowed people to avoid checkpoints.

For those who lived in the neighborhoods or Palestinian villages on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, such as Ras al-Amud and Abu Dis, these measures were a nightmare. They had been casually breaking the rules of the occupation for years and now faced a clampdown. The Israeli authorities forbade Palestinians, whether they had an orange or a green identity card, to remain in Jerusalem between 7:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. under penalty of prison and a fine. And Palestinians living in East Jerusalem holding blue "permanent resident" cards were now forbidden to live outside of the city for more than seven years. Those who exceed this time limit and are caught by the police lose their right to residency and visiting privileges, authorization to work in Israel, the benefits of social security and the Israeli school system, their yellow license plates (like the Israelis’) for their cars, and the freedom to travel in Israel or to use the Tel Aviv airport. At the same time, the cost of living in Jerusalem, the exorbitant price of housing and its scarcity on the Palestinian side, has forced many beneficiaries of the "permanent resident" status to live in the villages or neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, while keeping a fictitious address in Jerusalem.

In those parts of East Jerusalem where, until the erection of the wall, nothing (except occasionally the checkpoints) marked a border, where no one knew exactly where Ras al-Amud ended and Abu Dis began—and borders were established communally—the circumstances of day-to-day life determined the geographic boundaries. It was like a big village stretching along the road to Jericho where everyone knew his neighbor and where families and clans had lived for generations. At the beginning of 2005, close to 55,000 Palestinians from East Jerusalem—out of 215,000—lived, in reality, outside of the city limits, and 75 percent of the residents of Az Zayyem, a town of about 3,000 people to the north of El-Azariyeh, held identity cards from East Jerusalem. In other words, putting up a wall here, between Abu Dis and Ras al-Amud, would tear families apart and sever the human, social, and economic ties established over the course of de cades.

Which is exactly what happened. One morning in January 2004, the neighborhood found itself under siege, living in a "closed military zone." Bulldozers and cranes, hired from the private sector and escorted by Israeli soldiers, took over the area. No vehicles, not even school buses, were authorized to enter or leave. The site was guarded day and night by a private armed militia, which, according to the residents, was made up of Druze and Bedouin. In place of the short temporary barrier, a cement wall almost thirty feet high, made up of slabs of concrete about four feet wide and sixteen inches thick, had suddenly been raised between neighbors. There was no longer any possibility of slipping through a gap between two cement slabs to go to work, or of climbing on a stepladder to pass a tray of knafeh or a basket of Jericho strawberries over to friends. In the blink of an eye, the other side of the road had disappeared, along with the neighbors, the storekeepers, the horizon, the rising sun—erased overnight by the wall.

For a few months, one passageway under the watch of the Border Police remained half-open. It was essentially a gap between a section of the wall and a fenced enclosure around a Christian monastery. Like everyone else, Terry Boullata crawled on all fours through the fencing to make the shuttle between Ras al-Amud and Abu Dis, until that hole also was closed up. Now she has to drive to her school. She heads toward the center of Jerusalem through the tunnel under Mount Scopus, follows the road of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement, turns toward the entrance to Abu Dis, and winds through traffic jams for a total of about nine miles, with at least one checkpoint—in other words, she must drive thirty to forty minutes in order to reach a point some nine hundred feet from where she started, on the other side of the wall.

"The problem today is deciding whether or not I should keep my school open. The majority of my students and teachers living in East Jerusalem can no longer come, for lack of transportation. I still owe the bank twenty-five thousand dollars. How am I going to pay them back if I lose a good part of my students? In a single year, seventy-seven out of two hundred have left. I had thirty-four students in sixth grade before the wall. Now I have six. And I have to pay my teachers, who are working even if they have only a handful of students. How will I manage?"

The worst part for Terry is that the wall has divided her own family. Her husband, Salah, who has an orange ID card from the West Bank, is not authorized to live in Jerusalem. In order to travel between Abu Dis, where he works, and Ras al-Amud, he is forced to play a game of hide-and-seek with the police and the Israeli army. Like most Palestinians, he used to cross the invisible line between the West Bank and East Jerusalem by sneaking through gardens and alleyways, in order to stay out of sight from the Israeli patrols—risky before the construction of the wall, but now impossible, since there is only one heavily guarded point of passage. "Well before the construction of the first wall," Terry says, "we had asked the Israeli authorities three times for a permanent resident permit for family reunification reasons. It was refused three times for ‘security reasons,’ because Salah, like me, was imprisoned during the First Intifada. My husband ended up obtaining a permit that allows him to stay in Jerusalem from five a.m. to seven p.m., but for professional reasons only. His company sells stones for construction, and they have some big Israeli clients.

"If he sleeps here, in our apartment, he’s breaking the law. All it takes is for the Border Police to enter in the middle of the night, which they have no problem doing, and he will be arrested, imprisoned for at least three months, and fined. As for me, I would have harbored a West Bank resident who does not have the right to be in Jerusalem past seven p.m.—even if he is my husband—so I risk prison and a fine, too. I will also be punished if I give Salah a ride in my car." Regulations forbid anyone holding a blue ID card from East Jerusalem to transport a Palestinian from the West Bank in his or her vehicle, even if they are husband and wife. The police could confiscate her car and revoke her license, and she could face six months in prison and a thousand-dollar fine.

There was one solution for Terry and her children: they could surrender their ID cards for East Jerusalem and go live in Abu Dis.

"Out of the question," Terry says. "That would be falling into the Israelis’ trap. They make our daily lives more and more difficult so that we will leave. My daughters, who are thirteen and eighteen years old, go to school in Beit Hanina, on the north side of Jerusalem. They would have to change schools, and I don’t want to add more trauma to their lives. And I also want to continue using the Tel Aviv airport for trips abroad. Even if every time I use it I run into endless problems with security because of my former political activities, it’s still quicker and less expensive than passing over the Allenby Bridge at the Jordanian border and using the Amman airport. So we chose to live on different sides of the wall: me here, on the East Jerusalem side, and Salah in the family home in Abu Dis. Our daughters, Zeina and Jasmine, spend three nights with me and three nights with their father. That’s the life the wall has condemned us to!"

ROLLING UP HIS RUG, ON WHICH HE HAS JUST FINISHED MIDDAY PRAYER, Hassan Ikermawi glances desperately around his small souk, which smells of cumin, saffron, and freshly roasted coffee. "Before, at this time of day," he says, "customers were practically on top of each other." Besides the two kids counting their shekels in front of the candy rack, there’s no one here at the Al-Hilal grocery store that Ikermawi runs, to his chagrin, on this embankment on the far eastern boundary of Jerusalem. Nor are there any customers in front of the freezers of ice-cream bars that sit outside under an awning protecting them from the burning sun of the Holy Land.

At a gas station next door, the same despair is felt by Youssef al-Khatib. An unemployed engineer now working as an attendant at the station, he dozes off in his rundown office, a newspaper on his lap, while his young employee watches a soccer match on an old television. "No one has come by for more than an hour," says the Ronaldinho fan, in his worn soccer jersey and grease-smudged overalls. "I was able to watch the whole first period and go buy myself a Pepsi at halftime without one customer stopping by."

"This station has belonged to my family since 1955," says Munir al-Khatib, Youssef’s brother. "Before the wall, we had a good business going. Really good. Now we have a hard time making ends meet. We have lost four fifths of our revenue."

Across the way, on the other side of what was Jericho Road, it’s worse: most of the stores have been closed down for months. Iron doors are locked down over the windows and covered with posters and graffiti.

"I think I’ll have to do the same thing," says Hassan Ikermawi. "Today I don’t even earn enough to cover the twelve hundred dollar rent and the eight hundred and fifty shekels I owe in taxes on the store. How can I support my wife and children? My father-in-law has a business in Jerusalem. I’m going to work for him. At fifty years old, I have lost three fourths of my customers and some of my best suppliers. Every day I had fresh fruits and vegetables from Jericho and the Jordan Valley—much better quality and much less expensive than the produce you find in Jerusalem. Even the Israelis from the Ma’ale Adumim1 settlement came here to do their shopping. For a business like mine, it was the perfect location. Before."

Anyone who may have come to visit here "before" knows that Hassan Ikermawi, a short, bearded man with oval-shaped glasses and a defeated look in his eyes, isn’t making any of this up. Here, in front of the store, the Jerusalem– Jericho Road, with its stream of cars, trucks, buses, and taxis, intersects with another, narrower road linking this Jerusalem neighborhood to Ramallah and Bethlehem. In the days before the wall, one had to wait as long as fifteen minutes to fill up at Youssef and Munir al-Khatib’s pumps. While waiting, the customers in their cars and trucks would buy mineral water, sodas, fruit, or little bags of pistachios or grilled watermelon seeds from the Al-Hilal grocery store. Today, this once-busy intersection no longer exists. It’s a dead end.

Hassan Ikermawi’s "before" is not some idealized long-ago era rendered peaceful and prosperous by imagination and time. "Before" was yesterday. The same military occupation was in place, the same Israeli army checkpoints, the same harassment, inconvenience, and lassitude. But there was not yet the wall.

It stands only fifteen feet from Ikermawi’s store. Gray, massive, more impenetrable than a tank, with cylindrical watchtowers fitted with security cameras and bulletproof windows—it is twice as high as the Berlin Wall. It crosses Jericho Road, slices in between apartment buildings in Chiyah, loops around and through various religious properties (Christian monasteries, pilgrim hostels, churches, schools, and retirement homes), and then climbs the hills to the south of the Cliff Hotel, bluntly slicing the landscape like a giant chain saw. It spans miles, and meanders through highly sensitive territory.

One might assume that Israelis live on one side of the barrier and Palestinians on the other, but this is not quite the case. Here, near Ikermawi’s store, the wall actually separates Palestinians from Palestinians. Besides the soldiers, the only Israelis present in the vicinity are a few settlement families living in two old Palestinian homes, where now flies the blue-and-white Israeli flag. This "wild" settlement, called the Kidmat Zion, is not on the list of official settlements published by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). Nevertheless, it is protected by the Border Police detachment that has set up shop in the former Cliff Hotel.

"My windows used to open onto the rising sun; they open now on this monster," says Elie Yacoub, a retiree from the tourism sector, who speaks French with a delicate, melodic cadence he learned in Catholic school. He lives two steps away from the wall of concrete. "It’s so depressing that I can’t stay at home anymore. Even deep in a book, I can’t forget about it. It changed everything, even the quality of the light. In the morning, I leave the house as soon as I can and I go visit my friends who run a hotel near the Damascus Gate, in Jerusalem. I help out, I cover for the receptionist when she takes a break, I read the international press, and I chat with the foreign tourists. I tell them what we are going through. I send them off to discover the wall so they talk about it when they return home."

A little higher up on the hill, in the direction of the Mount of Olives, concealed behind a wall of rocks and a metal door equipped with an intercom, is the Community of the Daughters of Charity. Italian, Palestinian, and Lebanese nuns maintain a hostel for pilgrims and a boardinghouse for boys ages five to thirteen, who come from Christian villages in the West Bank. From the terrace of the boardinghouse you can see all the way to the Judea Desert. The view of the wall is entirely unobstructed. "Look: our garden once extended down into the valley," explains Sister Laudy Fares, pointing to the olive, lemon, fig, and palm trees and a beautiful vegetable garden. "It was the children’s playground. In summer we organized picnics there. But since the wall, that’s all done with. The Israelis didn’t hesitate to take over a part of the valley, tear apart the gardens, and uproot trees to build it."

Excerpted from A Wall in Palestine by René Backmann.
Copyright © 2006 by René Backmann.
Published in February 2010 by Picador.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

René Backmann is an international affairs columnist at Le Nouvel Observateur foreign desk. In 1991 he was awarded the Prix Mumm, France’s highest honor for journalism.