After seeing patients in a PMRS clinic in Qalqilya, a northern West Bank city located against the Green Line, I join Suhad Hashem, an extraordinary, feisty activist for a “wall tour” of the city, the first city to be completely encircled by the separation wall in 2002. This is my third tour in nine years and the “prison” has certainly evolved. We pass a shabby UNRWA hospital, and she informs me that the people of Qalqilya were given refugee status even though they were not technically refugees, because they lost so much of their land located on the “wrong side” of the Green Line in 1948. They also have the only zoo in Palestine! All sorts of metaphors spring to mind: the animals in a cage, the zoo keepers also caged; my bet is the animals receive better treatment than their care takers.
We walk towards the North Gate through a bustling souk filled with fruits and vegetables. From 2002 to 2005, no permits were given to allow workers to leave the city to work in Israel, a form of collective punishment to the entire population. In 2006, it became possible for workers to leave through this military terminal: metal corridors like cattle chutes, much barbed wire and fencing, a guard tower, then a security building, a total of eight turnstiles, and Israel on the other side. 5,000 laborers from all over the northern West Bank line up at 3:00 am to get through every day. This was all built inside of the West Bank, annexing twelve kilometers of Qalqilya to Israel. The men must present permits, their bodies are checked and a handprint is taken every time. Suhad has gone through this gate and found it utterly humiliating. She reports that usually there are young female soldiers to increase the humiliation for the older Palestinian men. The laborers are picked up by an Israeli bus, for Arabs only, (think Selma, Alabama), and then are taken to the Tel Aviv industrial areas, or to black market industries, or to sorry no work today. The workers have no protections from trade unions and there are many stories of terrible abuse, but people are desperate for work, any work. At the Azzun Atma crossing, a different bus also stops at the Israeli settlement of Oranit but the settlers objected to the presence of Arabs on the bus, so the police enter the bus, take all the Palestinians’ IDs, throw them off the bus, and the men are forced to walk a distance to another site where their IDs are returned. (What century are we living in? Liberal Zionist folks in the Tel Aviv bubble, is this okay with you? Apartheid anyone? )
Suhad reports that 50% of the Palestinian permit requests for access to their own land are rejected by the Israeli authorities, or permits are only given to one family member when it takes the whole family to work the land. Where the wall is a fence, it consists of barbed wire, a military road on each side, a trench and then more barbed wire, again more land seized to create a no man’s land. Recently the Israelis have allowed Palestinians to farm right up to the wall area, so I see neat rows of crops and plantings now where there used to be rubble. Before the wall, this was a major greenhouse area, Israelis shopped in Qalqilya, and there was a vigorous agricultural export business. That abruptly ended with the wall and that area is now a parking lot and the garbage strewn souk in which we are standing. Thus wealthy families have been reduced to poverty. Suhad’s family owns land on the other side of the wall and she remembers their lush lemons and orange groves; it pains her now to buy these in the market because she cannot reach her own trees.
We walk down Western Street, once a vigorous commercial area, now dead, and visit the Asharqa School which has the misfortune of being located adjacent to the wall, the eight meter high, three meters under the ground concrete version. She tells us stories of Jewish settlers dumping sewerage into the yard of (?another) school adjacent to the wall, and destroying part of the school yard. The children in these situations live with the wall shoved in their faces; they are the first to see the IDF incursions, the first to choke from the tear gas, and they have predictable psychological difficulties. The Israelis have added electrical fencing on top of the wall and security cameras every few hundred feet. On the other side of the wall, the land in front of the concrete barrier has been filled in and planted with trees so the wall is virtually invisible to those who choose not to see.
Qalqilya has flooded twice since the wall was constructed and the rain and sewerage mixed together to create an awful soup, so there are now some grated drainage openings at the base of the concrete. As we walk along the military road, trying to grasp the ugliness and consequences of this imposing prison, there are pools of open sewerage and the foul odor of dormant puddles.
Suhad speaks with a mixture of urgency and outrage. The big reason for all of this land grabbing, she explains, is that Qalqilya sits upon the largest water aquifer in Palestine, 52% of the water in Palestine, and the Israelis want to control the water sources. People say that water is more important than oil and gold in these parts. We are looking at the latest graffiti on the towering cement walls. There is the famous one of a child in a bottle, Qalqilya, and a snarling pig, Ariel Sharon, and a giant hand with keys and chains dangling from the fingers. There is an elegant mansion opposite this site, adjacent to the olive samplings in the no man’s land, and the house is under demolition orders because it is too close to the wall which was obviously built after the house. The owner’s child died of a chronic illness because he was unable to get a permit to continue the child’s high level treatments in Israel. The authorities have punished the home owner and he is no longer allowed to be on his roof, where he is able to look over the wall at the flourishing settlements and bypass road. Suhad herself lost her 60-year-old mother, a vigorous woman who had a heart attack and died when she could not get through the checkpoints to a high level hospital in Ramallah or Nablus.
There are two newer developments she explains with a pile of maps and lots of pointing and squinting into the sun. The Israelis have built a tunnel from the walled city of Qalqilya to the walled city of Habla that goes under the wall. Life is further complicated for some Palestinians, like the village of Arab Abu Fardad, who live on land in between the loops that encircle the settlements, keeping the Jewish settlers with full access to Israel and modern bypass roads and totally isolating the Palestinians who are living on “the wrong side” of the loops of the wall. She then gives a detailed explanation of the bypass roads that have been built to link the settlements deep into the West Bank with Israel, (like the “Ariel finger,” I can only think, so which finger is that???). These fingers are then linked up so that they extend all the way to the Jordan Valley on the east side of the West Bank, dividing the territory in two. The Palestinians trapped in these fingers of land and roads are under threat of dispossession; they have no water, no schools, cannot bury their dead, are severely restricted in terms of what they can bring to market, etc, etc. In other words, they are being targeted for silent transfer: making life so unbearable that they are forced to leave in order to survive. Such a nice liberal democracy, this Israeli state.
We are now on the road towards the walled town of Habla which is three kilometers from Qalqilya. Under international pressure, the Israelis not only built the tunnel, but also a gate that is open three times a day for 30 minutes to 1 ? hours. We get there at 5:30 pm and children, laborers, and tractors, are gathering for the ritual of crossing over. I can see the high rises of Tel Aviv in the distance. Suhad tells us of a man who tried to cross, but the computer in the security terminal indicated that he was already on the other side, a soldier had failed to enter his data, and he was forced to prove that he was actually on the side that he was actually on. How is this different from mass psychosis? She says if you argue, you lose your permit for one year, so everyone is fairly subdued. The IDF arrives on the other side in a jeep and one man and two young women, fully armed for combat, get out. One of the women has long blond hair cascading down her back, flowing out of her menacing helmet. They are laughing and kicking the locks and clearly taking their time while the prisoners on each side wait patiently. They finally open the gates and tell us we cannot stand in the road where the photographic opportunities are optimal. When Suhad asks why not, the woman replies, “Because it’s the rules.” I look at the size of her gun and decide now is not the time for an argument.
In the taxi back to the service to Nablus, I ask Suhad where she finds hope. She speaks eloquently of the power of survival, of refusing to leave, of replanting the crops, rebuilding the homes, educating the children. She also talks about the critical importance of international attention and pressure and the power of the boycott movement, which is her other focus of activity. Clearly, she does not have the privilege of despair.