Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Wall

Cruising along Pisgat Ze'ev's Meir Promenade in Steven's station wagon, the shelves he just donated to me wedged between our seats, our necks automatically veer leftward. I've been in my apartment for fifteen days, he's lived in his house for fifteen years, but for both of us, the view can still interrupt a conversation. Gentle, glowing hilltops, square patches of cultivated fields in the Jordan Valley, a winding green vein of vegetation on the banks of the Jordan river, and the mountains rising in the distance. And the wall.
"Yeah, it's really great. That wall there," he tells me with obvious sarcasm, thumbing towards mile after mile of precast concrete panels stood on end. "It's stopped all terrorism. It's going to stop all the Katyusha rockets too."
It certainly spoils the biblical view. One tries to imagine Abraham or Isaac walking across the landscape with their herds of sheep, and it's inconceivable today. How did they get past the anti-vehicle ditch and the motion-sensors?

There was no wall in 2002, the last time I was in Israel. During those dark days of the Intifada, on Shabbat when everyone else was asleep, I would hike through archaeological sites, stroll through the center of town, and come down to what was then the new housing construction sites at the bottom of town, not realizing at the time that I would be living in one of them today. I remember looking across the small valley separating us from the nearby Arab village of Hizma, thinking, "My God, they can just walk over here in five minutes." But actually building a wall was far too politically sensitive at the time because, regardless of the diplomatic double-speak about "security purposes only," everyone knew that whatever ends up on the "wrong" side of the wall will be next on the chopping block. This sparked hostility from both the left, who want to give away everything, to the right, who would surrender nothing. And never mind that actually building such a massive engineering undertaking seemed as realistic as building an elevator to the moon. But one or two suicide bombings a day for what seemed like an endless string of weeks had a way of ending the public debate and motivating the government in a way no think tank position paper ever could. The first sections of the barrier were actually erected by farmers up north who had had it with the constant attacks and marauders passing through their fields. The government later picked up the idea and started the serious building project.

Long before the actual building of the fence began, the psychology of fortification was already established. During the first Intifadah, in the late 1980's, an exhausted Zionist movement, soon to transform into the new Post-Zionist movement of the 90's, began avoiding the enforcement of certain critical laws. First, the Palestinian flag, which had been banned alongside the Nazi flag, began appearing in public. Then, people who threw stones at passing vehicles with murderous intent were no longer prosecuted. In response, those living in the settlements welded rock-proof steel screens to protect their windows.
"That's when we lost everything," one settler friend tells me, "when we put the screens on instead of catching the stone throwers."
Soon, law enforcement turned a blind eye to another law, the one forbidding talks or negotiations with a terrorist entity, and the entire situation Israel faces today was born.

Watching dump trucks and bulldozers cart dirt around to prepare the next section for concrete panels, I ask Steven, "When was it built?".
"Most of it has been built over the last year. It's like we just woke up and there it was."

The next day, Galila volunteers to give me a ride out to Rami Levi, a discount grocery store in the Sha'ar Binyamin Industrial Area. On the other side of the wall. Her eyes widen as we pass through the Hizma security checkpoint. "None of this was here when I left for Montreal two months ago."

What used to be chain link fences, and an army jeep or two, and a couple of soldiers checking identity cards has now been poured in concrete. At this break in the twenty-foot tall concrete wall now stands a four-lane plaza with drive-through booths. Soldiers sit behind air-conditioned glass enclosures, waving some cars through, stopping others for searches. But the wall and checkpoint don't generate as much despair as the four Israeli flags fluttering in the plaza over the waiting cars.
"It's like this is the new border."

We're on the Ramallah bypass road, one of a series of roads built by the government to allow drivers to avoid passing through densely populated Arab areas. These bypass roads are often referred to by enlightened publications such as the New York Times or the International Herald Tribune as "Jews-only" roads to smear Israel as an apartheid state, in spite of the fact that three out of every four cars on the road is Arab. Fifty feet to the left of the road is the security barrier, a barbed wire fence wriggling across the desert, hugging the road. Fifty feet to the right is the first row of houses in the Arab village of Hizma.
"Rafi called me a few months ago when he was driving out here to tell me about this fence. They built this whole fence," she says, pointing out to the line of barbed wire reaching over the hilltops, "without a word in the news. Nobody told us anything."

The whole landscape has the feeling of a world gone seriously awry. An offramp from the bypass road connects to a freeway underpass, leading who knows where. The offramp is empty, the underpass filled with boulders and dirt mounds. No explanation. Continuing on our way, we glide up to an electronic gate which slides open as we are waved through, and find a spot close to the entrance. Guards, iron gates, twenty-foot steel fences. This grocery store and furniture outlet could easily be mistaken for a prison.
"How long has it been since I was here last?" Galila asks rhetorically, "Three months? I don't remember any of these fences."

Shopping cart in tow I head for the entrance, met by the usual security guard with her usual metal detector asking the usual question, "Gun?"
"What?" An unusual reaction. She does a double take. "Are you sure you don't have a gun?"
And that's what it's coming down to, as areas on the Israel side of the wall become more civilized, the other side becomes wilder.

The car loaded with vegetables and melting ice cream, we pass back through the Hizma checkpoint without delay. It feels good, very good, to be on the "right" side of the wall. But is the wall really good? Ask any local and they'll tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the very idea of building the great wall of Israel is beyond insane, it's an act of surrender.

It is, however, important to remember that Pisgat Ze'ev is a right-wing stronghold within the conservative fortress of Jerusalem. Driving over the bridge on route 1 into Pisgat Ze'ev, anyone can peer over the barrier to see for themselves the huge sections of empty Land of Israel, and the settlements bustling with tens of thousands of Jews, which are being placed out of reach, in territory now psychologically classified as "hostile" by virtue of its being on the "wrong" side of the wall. And anyone who can sense the proximity of the hostile Arab villages beyond the wall, and thus under looser Israeli control, to the nation's capital in Jerusalem is more than a little apprehensive.

Meanwhile, the wall is looking pretty good from the distance of Tel Aviv. Along the coast, where Israel's decision makers live, cities like Holon, Rishon L'Tziyon, and Hadera have seen major benefits. The most obvious is the virtual disappearance of the suicide bombers. Hamas' and Fatach's claim of "deciding" that suicide bombings are not in their best interest notwithstanding, the wall, combined with the hunting down and killing of their leadership and the military re-occupation of areas previously abandoned during the negotiations of the 90's, has had a major effect on reducing terrorism to tolerable levels. In 2002, suicide bombers struck these areas at least twice a week, leaving scores of innocent victims murdered or maimed every time. Now the bombings have been reduced to about once every six months, if that, with much weaker effects. And that's not to mention the steep reduction in car theft, burglaries, and muggings committed by criminals who used to flee back over the invisible border to find protection under the Palestinian Authority.

The current government was elected on the platform of destroying all Jewish life on the other side of the barrier. According to this scheme, Israel would then turn a blind eye as the Palestinian Authority, now under the command of Hamas, carted off the land on the other side to create their new Islamic Kingdom. This would turn the barrier into a de-facto border with the new Palestinian state that everyone in the world except the Palestinians is demanding. The existence of a Palestinian state would then absolve Israel of responsibility for the health care, education, sanitation, and civil rights of the Arabs, who would have to turn to their own state, and Israel would no longer be an outcast in the international community. Sure, it would cost a quarter of the country's land mass, but how many government ministers or their children live out there anyway?

Israelis, at least those who make the decisions here, are constantly convincing themselves that this is a national conflict, with one nation, called the "Palestinians," who are fighting an independence war against the other nation, called "Israelis." This is psychologically comforting to many as it makes the solution clear: just give them what we think they want; land and power. But the recent war with Lebanon has caused a re-think, not of building the wall, which continues at a furious pace, but about the goals of Israel's enemies. It was a war fought by a non-state, Hezbollah, on behalf of a group of people who adamantly refuse to build a state, the Palestinians. The rocket bombardment from Lebanon didn't manage to pop the Tel Aviv "bubble," they only reached as far south as Hadera. But now, with a hostile border not ninety but nine miles away, it's hard to see how Tel Aviv can avoid being hit by one of the Katyusha rockets Hamas is promising to fire. As a result of the war, plans to destroy the Jewish communities outside the wall's embrace have been abandoned for the time being. As more twisted razor wire and concrete fortifications spring up by the minute, nobody knows where this ship is headed, or who is at the helm.

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