Ellen Cantarow, The Great Wall of Israel

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Try to imagine this:  An American president visits Israel and in a speech given close to the vast “separation wall” Israel continues to build in part through Palestinian territory, says:  “Mr. Netanyahu, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for Israel and the region, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Netanyahu, open this gate! Mr. Netanyahu, tear down this wall!” 

I’m sure you recognize that set of famous lines.  With the name “Gorbachev” in place of “Netanyahu,” President Ronald Reagan intoned them on June 12, 1987, in front of the Berlin Wall.  Less than two-and-a-half years later, of course, that stain on Europe, that prison wall of Soviet power which, in all the years of the Cold War, was seldom long out of the U.S. news, was gone — and 20 years later we’re still celebrating.  The Israeli wall, endlessly under construction, is far longer, approximately twice as high, no less militarized, and no less a dystopian wonder of prison architecture.  It is also a thief.  As it meanders, it steals land.  It is, as the Berlin Wall once was, a stain on the human landscape.  But no American president, including Barack Obama, is likely to make a Reaganesque journey to the Middle East, denounce the wall, and call for its dismantlement.  It plays little part in the news in this country when the Israeli-Palestinian situation is raised.  It’s hard to imagine us celebrating its fall. 

In the meantime, while that grotesque wall grows, while the talk is of shuttling diplomats and diplomatic cul-de-sacs, of paths to nowhere and missing Plan B’s for the Obama administration, as well as potential Israeli strikes against Iran, those in the shadow of the wall suffer.  Ellen Cantarow, who covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the Village Voice back in the 1980s, recently spent time on Palestinian farmland in the shadow of the Great Wall of Israel and offers a portrait, from under the olive branches, not from the heights of diplomatic exchanges, of what it’s like, and what it takes, to live near today’s version of a mega-Berlin Wall.  Tom

Living by the Gate From Hell
A Portrait of Nonviolent Resistance in One Palestinian Village
By Ellen Cantarow

Much is heard of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the story of the determined, long-term nonviolent resistance of many Palestinian villagers to the loss of their lands, striking as it may be, is seldom told.  Here’s my report from just one village on the West Bank.

At no time since its 1967 West Bank occupation have Israel’s seizures of Palestinian land and water resources seemed as shocking as the ones attending its construction of “the wall,” begun in 2002. Vast, complex, and shifting in form, the wall appears most dramatically as 25-foot-high concrete slabs punctuated by militarized watch towers, supplemented by electronically monitored electrified fences stretching over vast distances.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared the wall illegal, but Israel ignored the ruling. Now, it undulates through the West Bank for over 280 kilometers, clasping Israel’s major colonies and some minor ones in its embrace. The completed wall will incorporate more than 85% of the West Bank’s settler population, a de facto annexation by Israel of significant chunks of the territory it first occupied in 1967.  This is the dream of Greater Israel rapidly turned into architecture.  For the Palestinians, however, the wall means theft, separating many Palestinian cities and villages from their land and water.

Jayyous, with a population of 3,500, is one of those villages.  It lies nestled in a mountainous northern West Bank landscape with the Palestinian city of Qalqilya just to its west. The scenery here remains one of the Mediterranean’s loveliest, a cross, let’s say, between Tuscany and parts of Yugoslavia. Greek and Roman ruins mark the village’s great age.  This was one of the West Bank’s most fertile areas. Farming involving a lively variety of nut, citrus, and olive trees, as well as vegetables, flourished around Jayyous, drawing life from abundant underground wells. The aquifers beneath Jayyous and Qalqilya, in fact, constitute a West Bank treasure.  Lands belonging to both the city and the village abut Israel’s pre-1967 border — the “Green Line.”

Before the wall’s advent, Qalqilya’s merchants and Israelis did regular business on either side of the border, while Jayyous’s farmers worked their land all the way up to the Green Line. Now, the monstrous, concrete version of the wall surrounds Qalqilya entirely, bringing to mind high-security prisons or ghettoes from other eras. Jayyous is segregated from most of its former land by the wall in what one could call its “barrier” form — a system of steel fences, razor wire, and patrol roads manned by Israeli soldiers.

Four thousand of the village’s olive and citrus trees were uprooted to make way for the wall. All the village’s wells and over 75% percent of the land are now sequestered behind the wall, isolated on its west — that is, “Israeli” — side. A small Israeli settler colony called Zufim sits amid Jayyous’s former wealth. Israeli plans are on the books to build up to 1,500 new housing units on the bounty confiscated from the village. The new units will destroy the only road over which Jayyous’s farmers can now travel to and from their land: there used to be six of these roads.  Israel has already blocked five of them.  

Sixty-five year-old Sharif Omar Khalid, known more familiarly as Abu Azzam, has spent half his life struggling to preserve Jayyous’s land. In 1980, with other farmers representing villages throughout the West Bank, he founded the Land Defense Committee, one of 18 organizations that now make up the Stop the Wall campaign. Gifted with stubborn optimism, he counts as victory an Israeli Supreme Court decision in April 2006, which pushed the path of the wall back from the south side of the village. The decision returned 11% of Jayyous’s former land — 750 dunams of the 8,600 blocked by the barrier. (A dunam is a little over a quarter of an acre.)

The wall remains, as does one of its most essential parts:  the “agricultural gate.” There are two of these on Jayyous’s land — one to the north; another to the south. Almost all of the village’s farmers are forced to use the north gate. Opened by Israeli soldiers for two 45-minute intervals at dawn and dusk, the gate blocks a patrol road manned by the Israelis.

But to get beyond the gate, across the patrol road, and from there to their farmland, Jayyous’s farmers need “visitors’ permits.” Since 2003, Israel has decreed that the villagers are only “visitors” on land they have worked for generations. Obtaining the permits is an excruciating obstacle course that only begins with proof of land ownership. Abu Azzam is one of the village’s major landowners; his title goes back several generations to the time when Jordan occupied the West Bank. Being a known activist, he was periodically denied his permit until the Israeli Supreme Court finally granted him a permanent permit noting that its bearer is a “security problem.” This produces extra problems for him in his daily odyssey to his fields and back.

The Gate from Hell

The first time I saw an “agricultural gate” was in 2004 outside the northern Palestinian village of Mas’ha. It was terrible to behold. Immense steel jaws painted a bright ochre-yellow creaked open, thanks to the Israeli Occupation Forces’ finest, for about 30 minutes at dawn and again at dusk.  Between those two moments, it remained locked, leaving the local farmers with no possibility of returning home for lunch or emergencies, nor even for crop-irrigation at the appropriate time (after sundown).

Each opening of the Mas’ha gate permitted a lone farmer, Hani Amer — his home locked in on three sides by the wall and on the fourth by an Israeli settlement — to make sporadic trips to his fields. At both sides of the gate lay coils of razor wire snarled in front of a barrier ditch which stretched into the distance as far as we could see. Beyond this ditch, more razor wire. Then a “military road” meant for Israeli soldiers patrolling the boundaries of an Arab world considered burdensome to the Greater Israel.

Across the military road lay yet more razor wire and another ditch before Hani Amer could finally reach his fields.

To grasp what the gate really means, though, you’d have to stay, as I did, at least a night with a farmer in Jayyous at harvest time.  You’d awaken with his wife and him at 5:30 A.M., drink a cup of strong Arabic coffee, eat bread spread with jam made from fruit he grows on the land remaining to him, and then go jolting down the white, rutted, stony road on his tractor.  Finally, of course, you would wait with him in a gathering line of farmers at the gate.

Now watch, in the dawn of another day in the forty-second year of occupation, in front of this steel raptor out of some mad film-maker’s imagination, as they all arrive: one on his tractor, another on a donkey laden with sacks and harvest tools, until finally a long line stands waiting. Note those ubiquitous coils of razor wire, and the ditches, and that military road, just one form of the endless wall that imprisons Palestine’s people. Watch as the soldiers turn languidly and unlock the gate, swinging its jaws wide to transform it, and the military road it bars, into a checkpoint for the brief morning opening.

As I waited and watched from Abu Azzam’s tractor this past October, I imagined the hillside on the other side of the road as it must have been decades ago, when I still reported regularly from the West Bank. The region’s steep hills were then punctuated by lines of dry-wall terracing that enclosed olive trees whose leaves billowed silver in the wind, and the darker greens of fruit trees and grapevines. The Greater Israel’s new, California-style urban sprawl, its cities that now ooze through the West Bank, were still part of an expansionist dream, not a burgeoning reality, and of course there was no wall, nor a “military road,” nor, of course, an agricultural gate.

Watch now, as each farmer with his donkey, his tractor, his work-tools, approaches the passage between the gaping steel jaws. Watch each as he moves into the military road, brings his donkey to a halt, dismounts, and offers his ID card to a stout, impassive Israeli soldier. Flanked by two other soldiers, he, in turn, calls a control tower rising in the distance and in Hebrew recites each bearer’s name and ID numbers. Take in the stoicism, the resignation, the endurance of these farmers as they accept the indignity of all this because there is no other choice. Think that they are trying to do one simple thing: harvest their olives.

But first each must move into the road, stand with head bowed or eyes averted as his fate is determined for this day, and then, if he’s approved, move forward. Beyond lie more ditches at the other side of the road, more razor wire and — at last — something that masquerades as freedom but isn’t. The farmer is now permitted to climb the hill in his vehicle. Beyond its crest he may reach his fields, for whose sake he has endured this daily torment.

And now, consider the Israeli settlers and soldiers, whose absolute rule, running the gamut from control over this gate through vigilantism against villagers like those in Jayyous, make a nightmare of this simple thing, the olive harvest. Settlers from Zufim actually uprooted olive trees in Jayyous in 2004. (Some were carted away for sale in Israel); sewage from the colony has destroyed others.

A week after my stay, according to the Israeli paper Haaretz, Jewish settlers elsewhere in the northern West Bank “clashed with Palestinians picking olives.” The settlers called the farmers trying to bring in their crops a “security” threat because they “could gather intelligence and launch attacks from the olive groves.”

Elsewhere in the area that same week, Israeli security forces stood by as settlers entered a Palestinian village “to hold a brief rally” against the harvest. (Israel’s army is now dominated from top to bottom by ultra-religious-expansionist settlers, which makes a mockery of the “settler-soldier” distinction.)  Meanwhile, near an Israeli “outpost” settlement called Adi Ad, settlers “uprooted dozens of olive trees.” As I write, similar alarums reach me by e-mail daily.

Several times since October the Israeli Army has imposed curfews on Jayyous — collective punishment for the weekly anti-wall demonstrations staged by village youth here. Most of the time the curfews have been levied after the farmers were already in their fields and haven’t interrupted the harvest. But they have punished the rest of Jayyous. Collective punishment — reprisals against all for the actions of a few — is illegal under the 1949 Fourth Geneva convention.  

Keeping Going

“A state gone mad,” observed Palestinian lawyer and writer Raja Shehadeh when, a day after visiting Jayyous, I described the scene at the gate. This particular barrier of steel, these particular patient farmers, those particular soldiers enforcing Israel’s banality of evil — they offer but a taste of the insane ingenuity that is the still-developing Greater Israel. A Dutch filmmaker who had interviewed some West Bank Jewish settlers, related this little exchange to Shehadeh:  “What is your dream?” she asked one of the settlers. “My dream,” he replied, “is that my grandchildren will say someday, ‘Here, they say that once upon a time there were Arabs.’”

The evening before we all arose to go to the gate, Abu Azzam took a German visitor and me to see the local olive press where he and other farmers unload each day’s harvest. The sight of Jayyous’s olives moving up a conveyor belt and into the press, finally to emerge as a stream of oil bottled in large plastic containers, was joyous. Children ran and slid about on the slick floor, laughing; their parents dipped bread for them in the delicious, freshly-pressed oil. What human madness would inflict constant torment on such peaceful labor?

Later, Abu Azzam told me stories about his life as an activist, his marriage, and his children. Jailed by Jordan for belonging to the Communist Party and later by Israel for his attempts to preserve the village land, he says he can’t imagine anything but keeping going. “I have no other choice” is the way he puts it, with a shrug and a smile.

He recalled the moment back in October 2003 as the wall was being built, when an Israeli official tried to buy off the Jayyous activists by offering them 650 permits which would have allowed that many farmers to access their land. But the Land Defense Committee made “a team decision” not to use them. Accepting the permits would have meant recognizing the validity of the wall and the whole system of dispossession that went with it. Israeli soldiers closed the gate; it was the height of the olive, guava, and clementine harvests. Abu Azzam and other farmers cut gaps in the barrier and crept through to work their fields “without a tractor, without horses, without carriages, without anything.  Only our bodies.”

More arrests followed. The farmers made a decision to stay on their land and not return to the village. “My wife was very angry,” Abu Azzam recalls. “She called me on October 21 asking me, ‘Are we divorced? Are we separated?’ I said ‘I’m resisting.’ ‘Resisting? Can you see one box of guavas, cucumbers, or tomatoes?   ‘Enough, to be on the land is resistance.’ I said.”

Since 2003 Abu Azzam and other Jayyous farmers have continued their obdurate odyssey to their lands. This determination to keep farming on the 3,250 dunams — of an original 8,050 — that the villagers still have, rather than live elsewhere in the West Bank or abroad is itself resistance. In Palestine, this “just staying” is called samid. It means “the steadfast,” “the persevering,” and eloquently expresses the oldest form of Palestinian nonviolent resistance.

“You have so many problems,” I said to Abu Azzam. “Would you ever leave?” He smiled at me indulgently. “All our life is a problem. I don’t want to be a new refugee. I am against the emigration that took place through the Israelis.”

Since 2008, Jayyous’s young people have staged weekly demonstrations against the wall. One of their leaders — Mohammed Othman — was arrested by Israeli authorities this past fall when he returned from a speaking tour in Norway. He is still in jail under indefinite administrative detention.

Jayyousi leaders have also written to high officials in Norway and Dubai imploring them to divest from companies owned by the Uzbekistan-born Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev. In doing so, Jayyous joins growing international revulsion at, and refusal to deal with, Leviev’s companies. Their reach is vast and diverse, extending to Angola’s diamond mines, New York real estate, and Israeli settlements in whose planning and building (including Zufim) they are heavily involved. Last March, Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported that the British Embassy in Tel Aviv “stopped negotiations to lease a floor in Africa-Israel’s Kirya Tower because of the [Leviev-owned] company’s involvement in settlement construction.” Oxfam has severed ties with him for the same reason.

On September 9, 2009, a month before my arrival, the Israeli Supreme Court handed down a new ruling moving the route of the wall again and returning an additional 2,448 dunams to Jayyous. “Because of your efforts?” I asked Azzam.

“It is because of Jayyous,” he replied. “It is a group struggle.”

Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Her work has been published in the Village Voice, Grand Street, and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at Counterpunch, ZNet, and Alternet. This essay is part of a series on Palestinian non-violent resistance, “Heroism in a Vanishing Landscape.”  

[Note:  Another of Cantarow’s Palestinian portraits can be read by clicking here.  A comprehensive U.N. account of Israel’s wall can be found by clicking here (PDF file).]

Copyright 2009 Ellen Cantarow


Ellen Cantarow has written about Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people since 1979 for publications that include TomDispatch, The Village Voice, Mother Jones, and Grand Street.