There's a Wall in the Way

Gideon Levy

A little girl in her school uniform, her hair carefully combed, was walking to her first day of school on Monday. Walking to school? Not precisely. There's a wall in the way.


Sunday, September 7, 2003

There's no old woman in Abu Dis who has not scaled this wall 

little girl in her school uniform, her hair carefully combed, was walking to her first day of school on Monday. Walking to school? Not precisely. There's a wall in the way. Trying to squeeze between the big cement blocks of this wall besieging her home, she nearly manages to get her little body through, but not her new school bag. Backing off, she tries a different spot where people climb over instead of squeezing through. She ducks her head under the barbed wire, puts one foot across, then the book bag, jumps, lands with a thud and runs - in fear of the Border Police who could show up momentarily. Eventually she arrives at school, still in one piece. 

Welcome to the first grade! 

No need to travel far to see this evil. Fifteen minutes from downtown Jerusalem, you can see what cruelty for its own sake looks like: collective abuse bearing no relation to its declared purpose. The little town of Abu Dis, once was nearly the temporary capital of Palestine, with an imposing parliament building to prove it, is just a dusty village nowadays, scarred and abandoned, with a wall that bisects everything. 

For over a year now, an ugly concrete wall has divided the good people from the bad there, the prisoners from the free, the blue (Israeli identity cards) from the orange (West Bank ID cards). Officially, Palestinians who live west of the wall are okay; Israel leaves them alone, they're deemed residents of Jerusalem. Those to the east of the wall are caged like animals. 

The division is not absolute. Despite the absence of a gate, an evil decision in and of itself, infiltration occurs under the noses of the Border Police patrols swarming all over the village. People climb over or squeeze through. Meanwhile, they're humiliated. Bullied. Battered. Made to sweat. Covered in dust. An entire town scales the wall to get to school, to the grocery store, to work - day after day, evening after evening: old folks, young folks, women and children. 

"Am Yisrael chai" ("The people of Israel lives") and swastikas repose side by side - graffiti on the occupation wall. 

"Go over by the mosque, it's easier to climb there," suggests a Border Policeman. Indeed, some old women are climbing over. It's easier here because you don't have to spread your legs too far. Just hike up your skirt a bit, immodestly exposing your leg (forbidden to the religious); grab the smooth concrete and heave upward with all your might. Embarrassing, not easy, but there's no choice. Someone is always there to lend a hand. Then just swing your legs over and jump down. But make sure the barbed wire doesn't catch your head scarf. There's no old woman in Abu Dis who has not scaled this wall. Even disabled people are handed across like a sack from one side to the other. 

Some students from the Jerusalem side appear, en route to Al-Quds University, carrying their books and notebooks in their arms. A spacious campus, with stone buildings scattered around, it's the only university in the world whose students have to scale a wall en route to a lecture. Higher education. Dressed to a T, gel on their hair, the young men easily navigate the smooth concrete wall. An agile hop, they're in the territories; a hop the other way, in Israel. Women - ashamed of their shame, which is actually our shame - ask not to be photographed. Seeing the older women, the heart recoils. 

A Border Police Jeep lies in wait in someone's yard. "What are you looking for here? It's so banal," says a senior officer, Amitai Levy, relaxing in his armored vehicle. "Go to Sowahra al-Sharqiyya [Jabal Mukkaber], you'll see some nice things there." 

A boy appears on a bicycle, with his mother, laden with shopping baskets. Now what? First the baskets, then the bicycle, then the people. Be careful, the worried mother cautions. 

There are various vignettes. One woman gets stuck between two slabs of concrete, her head in the territories and the rest of her in Israel; her daughters howl with laughter until she's sprung free. Three judo novices, white belts, climb the wall in their martial arts garb: warming up for the lesson. A courier on a Vespa receives a plastic window blind from the other side, hurriedly clamps it to his scooter and is gone. A white Formica wardrobe crosses over. Some pinkish laundry softener crosses in the other direction. 

Now we cross, too. Inexpertly, a foothold here, a handhold there, trembling a little, nothing to hang on to; just jump. A tray of pastries makes its way over the wall from a bakery on the west to a party on the east. "Ramallah, Ramallah," holler the cabbies from the other side, selling rides only as far as the Qalandiyah checkpoint, the end of their world, through two permanent checkpoints and maybe a few more temporary ones. 

A Border Police Jeep arrives on the scene. Five policemen get out, three in helmets and flak jackets. They're drinking cola, one of them spits, the shift begins. 

Go see Jabal Mukkaber, enthused officer Levy. The old car huffs up the hill on the other side of the wall. The bulldozers have been here for a week. "The Jerusalem envelope," the local term for the Jerusalem-area apartheid wall, threatens to connect with the Abu Dis wall at any time now. On the ground, the sight is frightening: Already familiar up north, the snake is slithering southward around Jerusalem. Broad, intimidating, unrelenting: an olive grove uprooted, a house about to undergo surgery. The distant rhythm of jackhammers; hillside and valley, savaged. The residents' lawyer said maybe he could get them a gate in the wall. The bottom line: There's maybe a 20 percent chance of that happening. 

Al-Quds University students congregate in a protest tent they set up by their athletic fields, soon to face the bulldozer's advance. From atop the hills of Jabal Mukkaber, the view is amazing: The dirt-colored snake that winds over the hillsides and through the valleys is closing in from both directions, threatening the campus soccer field. A new settlers' road is being paved on the left, linking Kedar with Ma'aleh Adumim. So much traffic these days from Kedar. 

"We'll smash their cameras, the barbarians," growl the machine-gun-toting Shahaf company guards protecting the Zalman Barashi & Sons bulldozers, as a rental car with a few activists and foreign journalists pulls up. Recently, the digging exposed some ancient pillars here: They lie haphazardly on the hillside. Rumor has it that the wall will now be relocated farther west, or east, of here. Only archaeological artifacts can change the route. Not homes. Not live people. Not pastures. Not a soccer field. 

Back at Abu Dis, a Border Policeman orders that there can be no cameras. "It's a closed military zone." A closed military zone? The police and the armed guards share a blatant aversion to photographs. Perhaps they're ashamed of what they're doing? Three construction workers, one tall and two short, with an electric saw and a grindstone, are returning from their day's work in Jerusalem. Stand to one side! ID cards! Bingo! (They were in Israel without permits.) Now they'll be bullied, and by the book. 

M., 47, resident of Azzariyeh, 12 children. "They're my detainees," says a policeman. "Don't talk to them." Not just a military zone; also military property. "You can talk to them, but only with my permission," explains commander David Azoulay. "Everyone there by that wall is my detainee." 

At a flick of the policeman's hand, one of the workmen standing in the hot sun approaches submissively. Another gesture, signifying "Bring that sack you were carrying." Brushes, tattered clothing, electrical extension cords, worn shoes, some torn goggles are dumped out on the road by the exhausted workman; his face says it all. The policeman's eyes are hidden behind sleek, dark sunglasses - a kid of 19 or 20 bullying a father of 12 who wants to go home: Come here, go there. Finally, at Azoulay's command, surrounded by three policemen, the frightened workmen are hustled away, beyond a grove of cypress trees, out of sight.


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