In late 1947, the United Nations called for the partition of what was then known as Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, and in 1948 the state of Israel was born, all after some fifty years of Jewish agitation for a national homeland (including a series of anti-British and anti-Arab Jewish terrorist attacks in the 1930s and 1940s). In 1967, Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War over its Arab neighbors led to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the two territories that were intended to form the bulk of the Arab Palestinian state, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights (see post of 5.3), a situation that is not only unstable in itself, but contributes more than any other single dispute to global instability, to this day.
Over the years, Israel has maintained various levels of command over the occupied Palestinian Territories. All entries to the West Bank are controlled by Israel, meaning that one must pass through Israeli immigration and customs in order to enter or leave the Palestinian Territories. As Israeli authorities have complete say over who gets in and out, one Brit teaching in the West Bank told us that he was cautious about voicing political opinions for fear that the Israelis would refuse him entry. An American professor that we met told us that the Israelis refuse exit to a Palestinian human rights activist friend of his, even to attend academic conferences. Additionally, there are numerous Israeli checkpoints throughout the West Bank, and one must go through identification and security checks even to move between many Palestinian towns. While, at least day-to-day, Israeli forces are not visibly active in most Palestinian areas, and the West Bank cities that we visited seemed peaceful, economically active and at least superficially free, Israeli forces are never far away, often surveying areas from armed hilltop posts.
Huwwara checkpoint, through which all who wish to exit Nablus southward for other parts of the West Bank must pass. No doubt, the security checkpoints are also intended to serve as reminders to the Palestinians that the Israelis are in control–there are always long lines here and the experience and conditions left us feeling a bit more cattle than human. One wonders what Arab and Israeli parents tell their children about each other and the state of their lands.
“Occupation” is to some extent not quite the right word, as Israel has outright annexed certain portions of Palestinian land, particularly in and around the city of Jerusalem. Some of this land may be returned to an Arab Palestinian state once one is established (and are essential bargaining chips in the negotiations), but other areas, on which Israelis have built “settlements” (somewhat akin to colonies), are likely to remain a part of Israel. Even if it is implausible that Zionism’s ultimate goal is to expand Israel indefinitely (including up to Iran, as one otherwise reasonable Iranian told us), it is hard to dispute that Israel has, for whatever reason, been largely in a land-acquisitive mode since its creation.
Israeli groups have, sometimes through duplicitous means, acquired property in the Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem, seeking to expand the Jewish footprint in the Old City, which most would argue belongs in the future Arab Palestinian state. This building, in the heart of the Muslim Quarter, imperiously announces its Israeli ownership.
An Israeli settlement near the West Bank city of Bethlehem. We were repeatedly told that many of the most aggressive and radical Israeli settlers are American.
Most controversially of all, since 2002, Israel has been constructing a wall cordoning off much of the West Bank, the real focus of this post. Passage remains possible (for some) through checkpoints, but the wall has of course had the effect of destroying the Palestinian neighborhoods through which it passes. The wall has had the desired impact of reducing active Palestinian-Israeli hostility, but one wonders at what cost. Driving along the wall, we saw entire neighborhoods that had been essentially shut down and abandoned because of the wall. The wall cuts off family members who live across town or even down the street, people from their jobs and farmers from their fields, with essentially all of the negatives effects falling to the Palestinian Arabs, through whose land the wall cuts. The wall is but one of many barriers created on Palestinian land, including “bypass” highways connecting Israeli settlements, which are not allowed to be used by Palestinians (Israeli license plates have small Israeli flags, making for quick identification), and some observers see the wall (and its meandering “routing”) as one more step in a systematic effort by Israel to expand its boundaries into Palestinian land.
Snaking across the hills outside of the city of Jerusalem
To someone with Christian sympathies, it is especially heartbreaking to see the walls around the (Arab Christian) West Bank city of Bethlehem. To me, it is one of the wonders of the conflict that so many western Christians are fervent promoters of the state of Israel, when arguably it is the Christian Palestinians, such as those in Bethlehem, for whom they should feel more kindred sympathy.
The walls near Bethlehem have also become the premier “gallery” for art on the wall, created by Palestinians and sympathetic Europeans, reminiscent of graffiti on the former Berlin Wall.
One piece of graffiti near the “entrance” to Bethlehem said “Welcome to the Ghetto.” Of course, the word “ghetto” comes from medieval Venice, where Jews were required to live in a small neighborhood near the foundry (“ghetto” in Italian). Other graffiti also point in one way or another to the irony that Jewish Israelis are now the ones enforcing ghettos.
“Made in USA.” Palestinians often cite the economic support that the U.S. provides to Israel in connection with the high cost of constructing the wall. It is hard to underestimate the resentment that Muslims around the world have not only against Israel, for its existence and its occupation of Palestinian territory, but against the U.S., for its support of Israel. Even in places where love of the U.S. and all things American seems deeply ingrained, many Muslims complain bitterly of American policy on Israel and Palestine.
A Palestinian Guernica