Editor’s note: In this Dig, the former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times and author of the bestseller “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” examines the way Israel’s security wall has ripped a mortal gash in the lives of Palestinians living in its shadow, and argues that there can be no hope for peace in the Middle East as long as America continues to aid Israel in its dehumanizing practices.
The rage and extremism of the Islamic militants in Lebanon and the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza appear incomprehensible to the outside world. The wanton murder, the raw anti-Semitism, the callous disregard for human life, including the lives of children and other innocents, permit those on the outside to thrust these militant fighters in another moral universe, to certify them as incomprehensible.
But this branding of these militants as something less than human, as something that reasonable people cannot hope to understand, is possible only because we have ignored and disregarded the decades of repression, the crushing weight of occupation, the abject humiliation and violence, unleashed on Lebanese and Palestinians by Israel because of our silence and indifference. It is the Israeli penchant for violence and occupation that slowly created and formed these frightening groups.The failure by the outside world to react to the years of brutal repression, the refusal by the United States to intercede on behalf of the occupied Lebanese and Palestinians, gradually formed and galvanized the radicals who now occupy the stage with Israel, answering death for death, atrocity for atrocity.
Those inside these zones of occupation pleaded over the years for help. We refused to listen. And once they burst through these barriers, enraged, bloodied, bent on revenge, we recoiled in horror, unable to see our complicity. We asked them to be quiet, to be reasonable, to calm down, and when they did not, their blood heated by years of abuse and neglect, we condemned them to their fate.
The barrier built by Israel in the West Bank is one of the most tangible and important symbols of this long humiliation, this strangulation of the Palestinians by Israel. To understand the role of this barrier is to begin to understand the rage it has now unleashed. Understanding is not excusing, but until we grasp that these militants do not come from another moral universe, until we face our own complicity in their creation and the awful violence now underway in Lebanon and the occupied territories, we cannot begin to understand the gross injustices that fuel these militant movements. It was, after all, the $10 billion in loan guarantees by the United States that made this barrier possible.
Ending the loan guarantees, as long as they were used to build settlements and seize even more Palestinian land, would have done more to blunt the rage and violence of militants than all the iron fragmentation bombs Israel has dropped on the hapless civilians in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.
But we react too late. We react to the manifestation of rage rather than the cause of rage. We are as morally compromised as those we condemn, as incomprehensible to them as they are to us. And until we become comprehensible to each other there will not be peace in the Middle East.
There is a 25-foot-high concrete wall in Mrs. Nuhayla Auynaf’s front yard. The gray mass, punctuated by cylindrical guard towers with narrow window slits for Israeli soldiers, appears from her steps like the side of a docked ocean liner. It is massive, cold and alien. The dwarfed shrubs, bushes and stunted fruit trees seem to huddle before it in supplication. I struggle to make sense of it, the way I struggled to make sense of the smoldering rubble that was the World Trade Center a few hours after the planes hit.
We do not speak. Mrs. Auynaf lives with the wall. She is as drawn to it as she is repelled by it. It absorbs her. She goes out on her second-floor balcony every morning and looks at it. She implores it for answers, as if it is a Sphinx that will answer the riddle of her new existence.
“My old life ended with the wall,” she tells me.
The wall, built by Israel a year before, blocked her from the neighboring Israeli town of Kfar Saba where she used to shop. It cut her off from Israel. It made it hard to reach the rest of the West Bank. The lone Israeli checkpoint with its guard towers, floodlights, concrete barriers, dust, stench, crowds, special pass cards, intrusive searches, rude remarks by border police were more than she could bare. She tried to pass through once.
“I could not stand the humiliation,” she says. “I turned back. I went home. Now I never leave.”
The wall reduces her world to its ugly perimeter. Her five boys beg to go to the seaside. The wall makes this impossible. No one goes to the sea anymore. There are days when the checkpoint is sealed, days after suicide bombings or days when the Israeli soldiers shut it down abruptly without explanation. On those days she sometimes gathers up her children and walks the empty streets, wandering like prisoners in a circle. Other families do the same. It gives her a sense of movement. Families pass each other two, three, four times in an afternoon. All are thinking the same thoughts.
“The town would rent buses to go to the sea,” she says. “We would go for the day. We would stand in the water. We would look at the rocks and the waves. This was before.”The house is pleasant. It was finished at the start of the uprising, when business was good and peace seemed possible. The floors are marble. The kitchen has a counter and white appliances. The sofa and chairs have muted blue and beige stripped fabric. We sit in the living room. A large window fan, set on the floor in front of the open door, provides a weak breeze. The door frame is filled with the expressionless gray face of the wall. It draws our eyes to it, the way a muted television screen distracts me during conversations. Sometimes we turn to look at it, as if it is a presence in the room, someone who should be offered sweet tea or a glass or water or asked to leave. We want it to speak to us.
Her son Ibrahim, 6, sits on her lap. He has a scar on his leg. He was shot two years ago by Israeli soldiers. It happened at dusk. The soldiers were firing at a group of Palestinian workers who were trying to slip into or out of Israel without proper work permits. He was watching from the front yard when a bullet went astray. He stays close to his mother, especially when he hears the sounds of gunshots. He does not like to leave home. The world frightens him.
The family was one of the wealthiest in Qalqiliya before the wall ruined them. They spent $200,000 on their home, with its sloping terra cotta tiled roof, its pleasant garden. It looks like the homes in the middle-class suburbs outside of Tel Aviv. Once the wall went up, the family’s car parts business was wiped out. Mrs. Auynaf’s husband makes less than 10% of what he once earned. He has trouble shipping car parts into the walled enclosure. He often cannot reach suppliers. Customers, those in Israel and those in other areas of the West Bank, can no longer get to his store. He does not have a permit to drive the family car through the checkpoint. He must stand in line, often for several hours, to go in and out. He is away now. He is trying to salvage his business, but it cannot go on like this. She hopes he will be home tonight. But she does not know. The lines are long. Sometimes the soldiers get tired or bored or surly and turn people away until the next morning.
“We talk about how we are going to survive, what we are going to do,” she said.
She hangs laundry on the balcony. Her only view is the wall. The other morning she was hanging laundry to dry and she heard singing. The song was by Fadel Shaker, a popular Arab singer. The singer had a sweet voice.
“You who are far away, why do you forget those who love you?” the words go. “When I fall asleep I think only of your eyes. I think only of you.”
Her five boys were in the yard. They began to sing. There was a chorus of voices, the sweet voice and the voices of the children. She peered up into the glaring sunlight to see the singer. She saw an Israeli soldier in his green uniform standing on top of the earthen mound on the Israeli side of the wall, the mound the army drives jeeps up to peer down on those below. He looked like an Olympian god. She thinks he was a Druze, the tiny, nominally Muslim sect that lives near the border with Syria and serves in the Israeli army and border police.
“He waved when the song finished,” she says. “The children waved back. Then he disappeared behind the wall.”
She was on the balcony a few days later. She was pinning up cloths on the line. The wooden shutters were open into the house. She looked up and saw a soldier watching her from the top of the mound. There was no singing. His raspy voice crackled over the megaphone mounted on the jeep. He ordered her to go inside and close the shutters. She obeyed. Her wet laundry lay behind in the basket.
“I live in a zoo,” she says. “They come and watch me. I am a caged animal. They have the freedom to come and go, to look or not look, to be kind or cruel. I have no freedom.”
She fears madness. She points to an elderly woman 200 feet away squatting under a fig tree.
“The wall was the end,” she says. “When it was finished she went mad.”
We watch the woman. She is keening slightly. People are being destroyed by the serpent’s teeth of the wall, springing up from the soil of the West Bank like the evil warriors sown by Cadmus. This for me is the story, not the amount of concrete or coils of razor wire or razed olive groves and villages, but what all this is doing to human souls.
Next Page: The barrier is the most catastrophic blow to the Palestinians since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.