The first of many unsettling experiences during the LTS West Bank/Israel trip was my introduction to the Wall. While I had read much about the “separation wall” between Israel and the Occupied Territories and even seen photos from friends, I wasn’t prepared for the reality.
On the bus ride from Ben Gurion airport to our hotel in Bethlehem, the wall seemed everywhere–zigzagging across the landscape, chopping up fields, and blocking roads.
We had to pass through the wall in order to enter Bethlehem, where we stayed for much of our trip.
For the first few days, guards boarded the bus each time to see our U.S. passports. After multiple trips, the bus driver simply reminded the guards that we were Americans and we were nodded through.
One day in an attempt to have a more “Palestinian” experience of entering Jerusalem, we walked through the “terminal”–a maze of lines and security measures for pedestrian traffic. Of course, we were still Americans with American passports and therefore encountered little trouble. But we did get the experience of walking under razor wire, snaking through lines, filing through a full-body turnstyle, passing through metal detectors, and parading by armed guards. The Palestinians in line behind us explained how easy the day’s experience had been; some days, passing through the terminal takes hours, all day, or divine intervention.
As I mentioned in my Bible and Interpretation article, the footprint of the wall marks an expansion of the city limits of Jerusalem since my last visit 11 years ago. Before, Tantur Ecumenical Institute was on the boundary between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, with a checkpoint right outside.
Today, the old checkpoint building is still standing, but it is well within Jerusalem.
The separation wall was also painfully evident on the Mt. of Olives, an area well-known to Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.
It blocks the road once used for travel between Jerusalem and Jericho and renders the Palestinian parliament building (in the left of my picture, behind the minaret) inaccessible to those in Jerusalem.
The wall is not always solid concrete. It sometimes turns into a “warrior fence,” as shown here outside Beit Sahour. While we watched, some kids showed how they could throw stones over the fence.
The Wall is touted as a security measure, an effort to keep suicide bombers out of Israel. But many Palestinians, Israelis, and international observers insist that its actual goals–and its results–are quite different.
According to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, only 17% of the wall runs along the Green Line, the internationally-recognized boundary between Israel and the West Bank. The 870 km-long wall does not follow the logic of security but instead increases Israeli territory at the expense of Palestinian land-holders. At least 29 Palestinian villages have been isolated within the wall, and 138 have been significantly affected by it. Personal stories of Palestinians isolated from their land and/or families by the wall can be found on the ARIJ site and at EAPPI, the Ecumencial Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel.
In Jerusalem, the wall also has reshaped the city’s demographics. According to ARIJ, the path of the wall added 90,000 Israelis to the city rosters and stripped Jerusalem citizenship from 120,000 Palestinian Arabs.
The Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD) has deemed the current situation in Israel and the West Bank as one of apartheid. Some we met compared the situation to that of ghettos. These comparisons can be inflammatory, but they do serve as an important reminder that when groups are forcably separated, their stereotypes and hatred of each other tend to grow rather than diminish. The barriers that walls create are rarely constructive ones.
The comparisons also caution citizens of every country to resist leaders who ask us to trade civil rights for greater assurances of safety. That, of course, is as much a lesson for the U.S. as it is for Israel.