Oct 13, 2012 If Walls Could Talk

I have a confession to make; we are still on the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions tour with Ruth Edmond, but my Israel/Palestine PTSD was flaring up and I needed a break. Standing on terraces, looking at the ravaging of the landscape, staring up at blocks of concrete walls  splattered with graffiti and topped by curls of barbed wire, the wall (don’t call this a fence) weaving between homes and stores, I experience a kind of grief and exhaustion. We are witnessing the rape of Palestine, and I feel such a sense of violation that is worse each time I am drawn back, like a reoccurring bad dream, stimulating old memories and adding to a growing list of new outrages. Back at the hotel our voices join Vincent Harding’s powerful tenor once again, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, Builders Must be strong…. Don’t get weary…” The music from the past propels me into the present, re-energized.

Ruth is discussing the endemic discrimination against Mizrahi Jews from countries like Yemen, Iraq and Iran, who arrived in Israel (were often sprayed with DDT and housed in tents reminiscent of 1948 Palestinians), and ultimately settled in the tough buffer zones at the edge of the State. Now the problems are less pronounced, but Mizrahi are still largely absent from academics and higher positions in society. As has been reported in the news recently, Israel is experiencing a spasm of discrimination against Sudanese and Eritreans who have fled oppressive regimes, walking across the Sinai, entering Israel across the long, poorly guarded Egyptian border.  About a month ago there were race riots in south Tel Aviv where shop windows, cars, houses, and even a kindergarten were smashed.  (I heard whispers of a Jewish Kristall Nacht with poor Mizrahi Jews, the bottom of the economic ladder, turning their rage and racism like thugs on the African refugees.) One of the instigators, (a member of the Knesset?) called the asylum seekers a “cancer.” The Israeli authorities are building a new prison for the refugees who face round ups, three year prison detentions, and deportation.  Physicians for Human Rights Israel recently documented a family that was sent back to Sudan; the Israeli authorities delayed their luggage, two of the four children died of malaria (without their medication) and two were seriously ill at last report.

We stop at a beautifully landscaped Jewish settlement called Ma’ale Zeitim, graceful gardens, stone walls, and neat, well-planned suburban looking red-roofed housing. This looks like a lovely place to raise a family. I, however, am particularly interested in the area of E1 that is visible from the street where we have parked.  There is a wide expanse of sandy rolling hills, blue grey in the cloud shadows, splotches of vegetation, and the occasional highway and bulldozed area, possibly for more wall. When I was last here in January 2011 there was much disputing about a police station under construction in E1. There was also a proposal to build a twelve square kilometer development between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.  This would further isolate East Jerusalem from the West Bank, negate the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, expand the Israeli border, and create a huge buffer zone. With the help of US physician, casino owner, and gambling magnet, Irving Moskowitz, I can see the large completed police station (for Judea and Samaria) in the distance on a roll of hills, three taller white buildings and a row of darker structures. This is an extensive facility; obviously capable of holding many Palestinians detainees should there be an uprising in the territories.  The old police station was purchased in this deal and is now the site of more settlement housing.

Ruth talks about the violent demonstrations that occurred around this controversy, the fact that it is illegal for Palestinians to build over four stories high (another cause for demolition), the sign on top of a garage in the area, “Kahane [a very right wing ultraorthodox rabbi] was right.” She then turns to the separation (security, apartheid) wall, one meter below ground, eight meters above, 702 kilometers, twice the length of the Green Line, and two billion dollars on completion.  Started in 2002, it is 62% completed.  In rural areas it is a “smart fence” with various sensors, dogs, and adjacent military roads on each side. 85% of its path is within the West Bank and multiple villages have been severely impacted. One family’s home is actually divided by the wall with the two brothers meeting on the roof when they need to see each other. Israelis often claim that the wall has stopped suicide bombing, ignoring the fact that such bombing stopped in 2004 when many factions abandoned such tactics, the wall was only partially built at that point, and some 140,000 Palestinians still cross illegally from the West Bank every year, mostly looking for work.  We park on a bend in the Jericho Road; for the first time in 4000 years, the road is closed; the Israelis have completely obstructed the road with the wall.  The graffiti is new since my last tormented pilgrimage: “Israel is a terrorist state,” “We are humans,” “Welcome to apartheid,” “Civil & human rights not white privilege.” For me as a Jew with grandparents who fled the ghettos of Eastern Europe, the most painful one is still there, “Welcome to ghetto Abu Dis.”

She mentions the Palestinian village of Al Walajah which is soon to be totally surrounded by the wall.  She talks of a villager who refused to move and now has a home beyond the wall, his own personal tunnel and checkpoint. She reflects on the 55,000 Palestinians who technically live in Jerusalem but find themselves beyond the wall in Shufat or Anata (within the Jerusalem municipality) and must go through checkpoints every day to get to work.  The disruptive hassle factor often becomes so demoralizing that it becomes easier to work in Ramallah, and then, they lose their “center of life” qualification and their precious East Jerusalem ID. This is commonly referred to as passive or silent transfer, mostly invisible for anyone who doesn’t care to notice.

Which brings us to house demolitions.  Ruth describes three types of demolition orders:

1.            Administrative: due to a lack of a permit (permits are virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain),

2.            Punitive: (which is a form of collective punishment against an entire family)

3.            Military: (like in South Hebron where homes were demolished to build a firing zone.

Not only that, the family is responsible for paying for the cost of its’ own demolition. Ruth notes that more than 50% of suicide bombers experienced home demolitions during childhood. After a demolition, families experience higher rates of drug use, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and mental illness. When Jeff’s ICAHD partner Salim recently had his house demolished, his wife stopped speaking for three months.

Past Hebrew University, we head to the expansive settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, population 50,000. The Bedouin Jahalin tribe lives in encampments along the way, most noted for their poverty and lack of public services. Originally from the Negev, the Bedouins moved north in 1948, and have been forcibly displaced a number of times, including to the garbage dump in Abu Dis. Eighteen clans now live on E1, tucked erratically in the sandy hills. The contrast with Ma’ale Adumim cannot be more extreme: a graceful olive tree (uprooted from some Palestinian village) sits in the first rotary, there are lush gardens, blossoming marigolds, green lawns, palm trees, and upscale housing, what has been called “water apartheid.” We circle the Doves of Peace rotary and I count five more rotaries and five more ancient olive trees, sojourning in this disconnected place, creating a false sense of historical continuity.

I can only wonder how this reality becomes normal; how people looking for good housing and  schools and a nice playground for their children can live in a place where ghettoizing another people, smashing their homes and building ugly concrete walls that devastate families and once deeply inspirational landscape can be considered a reasonable response to the fear and insecurity and land greed that drives so much of Israeli policy. I fully understand that this type of blindness and cruelty happens all over the world; but here, in the land of milk and honey, it is so up close and personal, so many worlds colliding in the space of one brief afternoon.

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated

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