May 24, 2013
Chris Hedges, whose column is published Mondays on Truthdig, spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The...
Israel’s Barrier to Peace
I traveled along the completed parts of the barrier for 10 days. It is being built in sections. When I go into and out of the West Bank, often passing through multiple Israeli checkpoints, it takes three or four hours. The northern sections were completed in July 2003, although the Israeli Defense Ministry was still razing houses and fields along the barrier in the north for a buffer zone when I visited. Bulldozers, trucks and backhoes belch diesel smoke and lumber across the landscape. Where there is no barrier there is often a wide dirt track being graded and smoothed for construction. On either side of the emerging barrier are the dynamited remains of markets or homes and the blackened stumps of destroyed olive groves. It is one of the most ambitious construction projects ever undertaken by the state, certainly one of the most costly.
The small town of Mas’ha lies in the path of the barrier. It has been in decline since the start of the uprising three years ago when Israel blocked the road leading from the town to Tel Aviv. The closure ended the businesses of the dozens of fruit and vegetable sellers who lined the road with shops and markets. The closure trapped most Palestinians inside the West Bank and because of this the barrier for Israelis is an abstraction. It does not slice through any Israeli land. It does not change Israeli life. It only solidifies the status quo.
The Baddya Market on either side of the small asphalt road is empty, the tin-roofed sheds and warehouses that once had piles of fruits and vegetables for sale abandoned. The town’s population has fallen from 7,000 to 2,000 since the closure of the road.
I stand on top of one of the two dirt mounds that block the road to Tel Aviv. There is an army base on a hilltop in front of me. There is an electric fence that runs around a settlement a hundred yards up the road on my left. Two green Israeli army jeeps lie parked at an angle blocking the road a few feet beyond the second mound. The two dirt mounds and strip of empty road between them are filled with old cardboard boxes, broken bottles, empty wooden vegetable crates, cans, plastic Coke bottles, tires, shredded remnants of plastic bags, a broken chair and the twisted remains of a child’s stroller.
A young boy is loading three cardboard boxes into a shopping cart. An elderly woman, standing on the mound a few feet from me, is helping him. When the cart is full the boy begins to push it to the other mound about 50 feet away. The woman follows. When they get to the other side he lifts out the boxes for her. She drops a silver shekel in his hand for payment. He goes back to the other mound to wait. He does this all day. It is the only way goods move up and down this road.
I walk into a small shed where a man is seated at a table. The shelves around him are bare. He has two boxes of tomatoes in front of him. There are cold drinks in a large refrigerated case with glass doors. A single light bulb hangs from a wire, casting a soft hue over the gray stubble on his face. Fat, languid flies buzz nosily. It is the only sound I hear. I ask him if he will speak to me. There is a long silence.
“Why?” he finally says. “It won’t do any good.”
I walk up the road, over the two mounds, and turn left to go up through the opening in a post fence with loops of barbed wire. A rainbow flag flies from a post planted in the ground along the fence. The dirt in the yard is pitted and gouged with tread marks from heavy earth-moving equipment. I hear the squelch, grunts and guttural moans of engines at work. I cannot see the machinery. The sky is clear, that searing crystal-like clearness that makes the light of the Middle East unforgiving and overpowering.
There are tarps in the yard in front of the house. Under the tarps are a collection of dirty mattresses and foam pads. Piled around the mattresses are backpacks, some with tickets from European airlines. A blue backpack has a tag with the letters SAS. There are plastic water coolers under the tarp. There are plastic cups scattered on the ground. Several young men and women, many in baggy cotton pants and sandals, lounge on the mattresses speaking quietly. Some are asleep.
I go to the door of the house. Munira Ibrahim Amer, who lives there, takes me upstairs to the flat roof where laundry is hanging and there is a large water tank. The heat on the roof is withering. I edge my way under a narrow eave to capture some shade. A young woman with short blond hair and glasses holds a video camera. She is wearing a green T-shirt and green cargo pants. She has a small pouch strapped around her waist. She says her name is Maria. She says she does not want to give me her last name.
“Thousands of us have been denied entry visas by the Israelis at the airport,” she says with what I suspect is a German accent. “Many of us who get picked up are deported. If I give you my name I will be on their blacklist. They will not let me in. They will put a ‘No Entry’ stamp in my passport.”
She has been in and out of Palestine, she says, for over a year. She was one of the first internationals to get into the Jenin refugee camp after the Israeli attack against armed militants that left scores dead and sections of the camp destroyed.
“I could not breathe because of the smell of the dead bodies,” she says. “I saw children collect body parts of their parents. None of us could eat. It was terrible. And the world stood by and did nothing.”
She was an Islamic studies major. She speaks Arabic. She became involved in protests in Italy against the occupation. She joined a group called International Women’s Peace Service, which sends activists to protest the construction of what it terms “the apartheid wall.” She lives in a house with other activists in the Palestinian village of Haras. She has been in and out of the West Bank and Gaza for over a year, surviving on the meager funds given to her by the organization.
The activists surround the house when the bulldozer, belching smoke and groaning, lumbers through the yard on the way to grade the track on the hill below. Three activists chain themselves to a shed next to the house when they think the bulldozer might turn to attack. The shed next to the house, the family has been told, is about to be destroyed. When Maria speaks of the bulldozer it is as if it is a living object, some Leviathan rising out of the bowels of the earth to swallow up Palestine.
“When we do an action it is beautiful,” she says. “It is what life is about, living together, not fighting simply for our own happiness. The real pursuit of happiness is not about making me happy. It is about living together and sharing.”
There is something wistful in this, as if she knows much of human sadness, which I later find out she does. Activists, like aid workers and foreign correspondents and soldiers, are often orphans running away from home. I was one. They seek new families and new reasons to live, often messianic reasons that are intense enough to blot out the past and keep the darker clouds of memory at bay.
She wears a piece of silver jewelry around her neck. It comes from India.
“I put my fingers around it and hold it when I am scared,” she says, wrapping her fingers over it. “I have grown superstitious. I risked my life more than once last year. I understand why Palestinians believe in God. When you feel your own impotence in the face of Sharon and the United States you have to believe in something bigger. It is the only way to survive. I don’t believe in God. I believe in this.”
There is the sudden roar and screech of army jeeps. A dozen Israeli soldiers pile out of the vehicles in helmets and flak jackets. They spread out along the road, facing the activists, who now are rousted from their mattresses. Three men grab the chains and run for the shed. The soldiers cradle black M-16 assault rifles.
“Oh hell,” she says quickly, pushing the start button on her camera and pointing down at the scene below us, “and another jeep is coming. I have to call the media office and alert them.”
The ragged band of 45 activists spread out in the yard. The soldiers watch, silent, bemused, the way a child watches a line of ants he is about to crush. In a few moments the soldiers depart.
The activists wait in the sun for a few minutes and then go back under the tarps. Maria joins them from the roof. They begin to discuss tactics. Someone proposes singing “Give Peace a Chance” if the soldiers come again. Another suggests building a small model of a Palestinian village in the path of the bulldozer. They begin a heated discussion over what to write on their banners. When people agree, rather than clap, they raise their arms and flutter their fingers. A member of the group suggests they write condemnations of the wall uttered by world leaders including President Bush. The mention of the American president raises the temperature of the debate.
“I don’t agree that we put phrases by George Bush on our banners,” says a woman with an Israeli accent. “George Bush don’t fucking care about this, about anything. I really hate this man. I don’t want any fucking thing he said on any action I participate in.”
There is a sea of fluttering fingers. I admire their commitment but find them too sanctimonious, infected with the fanatic’s zeal that they know what is good for you, good for everyone. Their anger springs, in part, from the fact that no one will listen, as well as the damage, the damage many I suspect nurse internally and wish to heal.
I go into the house and sit with the family. The family lives surrounded by the madness. The bulldozer severed the water pipe to the house. They have spent the last few weeks carrying water into the house in plastic buckets. The children have turned one side of the house into an outdoor toilet. It sinks of human feces.
Munira Ibrahim Amer and her husband, Hani, have four boys and two girls. They scamper around the room, often shouting to be heard above the noise of the heavy machinery busily tearing up the earth outside. I feel I am in an Ionesco play.
“I spent 10 years working in Saudi Arabia to buy this land and start our nursery,” says Hani. “In a few hours the Israelis bulldozed my greenhouses and my plants into the ground.”
The family moved into the house in 1981. They made a decent living. They had many Israeli customers. They grew things.
“A year ago army jeeps appeared in the village and scattered leaflets around the mosque,” he says. “Soldiers came to our house. They told us our house was in the way of the fence and would be demolished. They said they would compensate us.”
But he does not believe them. He says the Israelis determine the worth of the land and property and he says other Palestinians tell him the Israelis usually never pay.
“They will build their wall and they will take revenge on me and my family for allowing these internationals to protect us. They will demolish my home.”
It is dusk. I leave. The activists, fearing a demolition, sleep under the tarps.
I speak with Maria the next morning by phone. She tells me her real name. It is Maren Karlitzky. She is German. She reveals her name because she is sitting with the other activists in a police station in the Jewish settlement of Ariel. The Israelis have taken her passport. She is under arrest.
She tells me that at 7 a.m. about a hundred soldiers surrounded the house. They pushed the activists onto buses. The activists watched the bulldozer demolish the shed. The group was kept awake all night. Everyone was questioned.
“When I was called in for questioning they told me I could stay [in Israel] if I collaborated with them,” she says. “I refused.”
At 4 in the morning the police presented the group with typed Hebrew statements and told the activists to sign them. The statements said that none of them would again enter the West Bank or attempt to renew their visas. They signed the papers.
“It was a mistake,” Maren said. “We were tired.”
I ask her what she will do next.
“Guess,” she says.
Dig last updated on Jul. 25, 2006