The Barrier Wall

by Alexander Patico

One of the sources of Arab discontentment has been the erection of the “Defensive Wall,” as Israelis call it, separating parts of the West Bank from other parts, and creating hardships for those, both Christian and Muslim, who reside and work in the areas thus fractured. For example, the 170,000 residents of Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, cannot move freely in and out of their own town.

The International Court of Justice (an institution little known in the United States) ruled in 2004 that, under international law, the wall is illegal. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and others have called for removal of much of the structure.

The man who actually designed the Wall, Jewish settler Dan Tirza, has been quoted as saying, “There is a problem with hatred…The main problem now with this separation is that they don’t know us any more.”

Azmi Bishara, until recently a member of the Israeli Knesset, wrote: “Most of our children attend schools that are separate but unequal. According to recent polls, two-thirds of Israeli Jews would refuse to live next to an Arab and nearly half would not allow a Palestinian into their home.”

“A shrinking number of Israelis and Palestinians are studying each other’s language,” reported Scott Wilson in The Washington Post of April 1.

A teacher in a Palestinian cultural center in Hebron told the reporter that there used to be hundreds enrolled in his Hebrew courses. “Now, you can count them on one hand.”

The founder of a department of Arabic at Tel Aviv University was quoted as saying, “The attitude on both sides toward the other language, and by extension those who speak it, is very disappointing. Both sides are just very afraid of each other.”

In the Jerusalem area, thousands of Christians, including those whose families have been Christian since Jesus himself spread the Gospel there, are cut off from the churches, convents and monasteries that serve them.

The difficulties for Muslim Arabs are even worse. In May, at a Unitarian Church in Maryland, a local peace activist described her recent visit among the Palestinian people in a dozen communities. She described one Palestinian mother whose house happened to be adjacent to a dividing line. They had their front door (which now suddenly faced on “Israeli” territory of the West Bank) welded shut by soldiers. It was reopened after several months, but she then had to obtain a special permit (renewable after three months) to use the door of her own home; her mother was required to have her own permit as well.

Some 193 miles of roads on the West Bank are closed to cars with Palestinian license plates.

An Israeli poet, Alharon Shabti, wrote about the newly-erected barrier, calling it “a wall of fear, of hate, of incomprehensibility.” The wall is being built, said Shabti, “within the people themselves.” As it is a “barrier” for some, a “protection” for others, an “insult” to still others, Shabti says; the use of words in today’s Israel “ruins the fabric of the language itself.”

His critique is the same that George Orwell was known for – one that points to the signals and symbols that reflect inner attitudes and telegraph changes in values.

Katherine Von Schubert, author of Checkpoints and Chances: Eyewitness Accounts from an Observer in Israel-Palestine, wrote in an Easter 2006 e-mail:

A few hundred Palestinian Christians made their way yesterday – Good Friday – along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem to walk as Jesus did, carrying his cross on route to his death. Many Palestinians from Ramallah and Bethlehem can no longer join the annual procession in their holy city because they are prevented from traveling by checkpoints and a pernicious permit system. The checkpoint around the corner from where I lived in East Jerusalem, for example, has permanently closed the road into Jerusalem for tens of thousands of Palestinians from the North who have had their ‘Jerusalem ID’ card taken away. The enormous concrete Wall has now shut off access to the Old City for many other Palestinians living in East Jerusalem dividing the heart of the city into many fragmented enclaves. Jerusalem has long been dying. So have Bethlehem and many other Palestinian towns….That the Wall’s route was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice has fallen on deaf ears. We have stood by and done nothing… Thousands of Palestinians are on the brink of survival. This is not a foundation for peace.

Alex Patico is the new coordinator of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America and guest editor of this issue of In Communion. He is a member of the U. Committee for the World Council of Churches Decade to Overcome Violence. His text is excerpted from Reining in the Red Horse, a forthcoming book.

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48