Notes from a young alumnus wailing at the cold new wall through the West Bank.
By Judah Slavkovsky ’03
The Wall is called the Separation Wall and the Apartheid Wall and the Security Fence and the Barrier. It takes many forms. To the west of Qalqilya it is a towering concrete barricade with watchtowers and snipers. In Abu Dis it is a line of eight-foot-tall concrete blocks with razor wire on top. Around Bethlehem and south of Ramallah it is a colossal fence, fifteen feet high, with trenches, patrol roads, and great piles of razor wire on both sides.
What does it mean to live in a place where the pace of wall construction cannot keep up with the demand for political walls?
Things to know: Palestinian taxis are barred from driving on Israeli settlement roads in the West Bank. Road-blocks are made of vast mounds of rubble. Travel by taxi goes like this: people share a taxi until stopped by a checkpoint or roadblock; everyone piles out and climbs over the roadblock or attempts to pass through the checkpoint; another taxi is found on the other side and everyone who made it through squeezes into the new taxi. Taxi drivers communicate the location and severity of the day’s blockages to one another by cell phone and radio. One time I rode from Jerusalem to Sannirya, thirty miles north. It took me all day and seven taxis.
The gnarled trunks and leafy branches of olive trees cover much of the land north of Jerusalem. In the dry October heat the dull leaves are almost all of the green in the landscape. Speckling the hillsides are agricultural villages. Most families in these villages rely on the annual fall olive harvest for income. Sannirya is one of these villages. Some of the trees here are older than Columbus.
I stand on my friend Abu Eyese’s concrete rooftop in Sannirya. From his roof I see across the valley to the south. On the far ridge are Israeli settle-ments: Sha’are Tiqva, Elqana Mas-ha, Etz Efrayim. Halfway up the ridge is a long white limestone scar snaking around the hillside and disappearing in both directions: the Wall. From across the valley I hear the whine and screech of dump-trucks and jackhammers building the wall. From below me in the street I hear the squeals and shouts of Abu Eyese’s children playing.
We are four miles from the 1967 Greenline, the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank. The wall grinding south from the already enclosed city of Qalqilya is now at Sannirya. It has cut deep into Palestinian land already, cutting off Palestinian settlements and hillsides of olives. The wall for nearly all of its length so far ignores the 1967 boundary. So begins annexation.
Harvesting olives is simple and chatty work. Families spread tarps and cloths below trees and then pluck and rake olives off the branches. As the olives rain down the conversations stretch and wander and mingle from branch to branch and tree to tree. Usually the harvest is slow, moving to the rhythm of late summer’s heat. No more. In some areas, trees within rifle range from Israeli settlements are not harvested. In some other areas, like Sannirya, foreign peace volunteers like me accompany Palestinian olive harvesters into their groves, supposedly lessening the risk of attack.
I go to pick olives one day with my friend Abeit and his young son on their land being taken by the Wall. Near the wall we walk past security guards with machine guns. Noise washes over the hillside; big machines are digesting the landscape to build the wall. Dust floats about. Shiny new spools of razor wire are snarled in piles. When we get to the new wall Abeit leans his olive-picking ladder on it and climbs up and looks toward his dust-covered trees above and gives up. “It is Israel now,” he says. We leave to pick in another valley far away. This valley has no wall, but the hill next to it is topped by a dozen mobile homes and a fortified tower: another Israeli settlement being born.
The day after picking with Abeit I am asked to pick with another family. Their trees are also on the other side of the Wall. In the morning we walk through a gap in the wire and start picking. All morning there is laughter and hard work. I try out my Arabic, they try out their English. Olives rain down on the tarps. But in the afternoon I hear a new sound: the cracking and snapping of olive branches. Branches that require more than a minimal effort to reach are being snapped off the trees. The whole branch is then thrashed on the tarp until most of the olives have fallen off. As the son of a farmer I am horrified at the carnage.
Another morning I wait at a gate in the Wall at Jayyous. There are two gates in the wall here, both locked almost all the time. The land on the far side is being confiscated by Israel. There are 2,000 acres of Palestinian farmland, 120 greenhouses, 15,000 olive trees, 50,000 citrus trees, six water wells, and almost all the pasture for the town’s sheep and goats. This morning a hundred farmers and their families with their tractors and donkeys and ladders and tarps and trucks are waiting for Israeli soldiers to arrive and unlock the gate. As the morning heat builds the crowd is eerily silent. Only the donkeys make much noise.
Red signs hang from the razor wire in front of the Wall. Each reads in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: MORTAL DANGER — MILITARY ZONE. ANY PERSON WHO PASSES OR DAMAGES FENCE ENDANGERS HIS LIFE.
Three Israeli soldiers arrive to open the gate. Each carries a machine gun. One trains his gun on the crowd of farmers. The other two unlock the gate. The town’s mayor collects every-one’s orange and green identification cards and hands them to the soldiers. The soldiers shuffle through the cards, deciding who will be allowed to pass. Some days only old men and old women are allowed through. Young men are almost always denied passage, so the best farm workers are usually kept off the land. Today only men age 27 or over and women age 25 or over are let through. Children under age 12 are allowed through only if they cross hand in hand with their mothers.
Another day the Israeli soldiers pin a new military order to the north gate in a clear plastic sheath. Shortly afterwards a box of nearly 600 permits arrives at the mayor’s office. The military order created a new zone between the 1967 Greenline and the new Wall. The new zone is called the Seam Zone. Only Israelis and anyone eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return can be present in the Seam Zone without a permit. Everyone else — Palestinian families who live in the zone, Palestinian farmers with land there, farm laborers working there, foreigners like me — needs a permit. The mayor opens the box of permits. There are only 600 permits for Jayyous’s 3,000 residents. Some of the permits are issued in the names of people who have died. Some are issued to infants at the breast. Some are issued to people who left Palestine long ago.
The farmers of Jayyous have a meeting to decide what to do: burn the permits, and lose their dwindling access to their crops, or accept the permits, and acknowledge a greater loss of their property rights. The meeting lasts all day. They decide to boycott the permits. The decision is broadcast from the loudspeakers atop the minaret of the town mosque. At the Wall, the Israeli soldiers then announce that no one will be allowed through the gates tomorrow without the permit. Another farmers’ meeting is called, but it breaks up and many of the farmers run to the mayor’s office to see if they have permits.
Israeli law states that unworked farmland becomes state property after three years.
My job at the Wall is to be present, to witness, to document. The trick is to be present and visible enough to be seen, and so perhaps to be some sort of nonviolent defense against overt abuse of the farmers by the soldiers, but not to be so close to them or so vocal that they get angry and close the gate.
One night, waiting to pass back through the gate after a day’s picking, I hang around with some boys who also spent the day in the fields. We do cartwheels and handstands in the dusty road. By the time the soldiers drive up to unlock the gate it’s pitch-black. Tonight the soldiers are very aggressive and nervous and they search faces with a powerful searchlight on the jeep. They line everyone up and start searching us. Something’s wrong. I text-message the other international volunteers in the village to come out to the gate. The soldiers announce that they are arresting three boys. A few village women, one of them the mother of one of the boys to be arrested, sit down in front of the gate to prevent its closure. The soldiers, spooked by the growing crowd at the gate, spool razor wire across the gate. Another international volunteer and I get the names of the boys and start making loud phone calls to media outlets and human rights organizations from our cell phones. The soldiers’ cell phones begin ringing. They explain that the boys are being arrested for damaging the gate. I hold the oldest boy by the arm. Our phones ring and the soldiers’ phones ring. Four more soldiers arrive. Three policemen arrive. The shouting is in Arabic and Hebrew. Eventually the policemen overrule the soldiers and the boys are released and everyone walks back to the village to eat.
Hearing gunshots peppering the night is no longer a shock to me. Hearing awful stories isn’t a shock anymore. A Palestinian man will begin to talk about how the occupation has destroyed his haircutting business, or his greenhouse, or made it impossible to visit his sisters, or about his brother in prison, and a minute into his story my eyes begin to glaze over. I’ve heard it all before.
With white skin, an American passport, and a good lie about studying olive oil or ancient religious architecture, I can get into most places. It’s not my farmland being taken away, not my children who can’t get to school, not me convulsing from nerve gas thrown into my home, not me vomiting from fear at the Wadi Nar checkpoint, not my brother detained by the soldiers. Three weeks ago I was forced into the back of an Israeli military jeep and driven away into the vast empty black night for just waiting with farmers at the Wall, but I knew I wouldn’t end up in Maggedo Prison, where prisoners are sometimes confined to boxes one meter square with knives thrust through the sides.