In the heart of conflict-ridden Palestine and Israel, the writer finds one group who, after great struggle, found a way to ford rivers of blood and tear down the walls of their own minds.
In the shadows cast by the all-too-predictable cycles of Israeli-Palestinian violence, like the recent deadly assault on Gaza and the corrosive, ongoing bombardment of Sderot and other sites in southern Israel, ordinary Palestinians and Israelis struggle to live their daily lives.
Even in relatively peaceful times, rare as they are, Israelis live in fear of obliteration, a state of mind based partly on history, not-so-distant memories, the puffed-up but not empty declarations of their enemies, and paranoia. But by any measure, even if it were possible to subtract the costs of armed combat, the Palestinians continue to bear the overwhelmingly greater burden of the conflict, a conclusion easily verified by traveling between the two populations and seeing up close what politicians and diplomats like to call “facts on the ground.”
For four years now, I’ve been shuttling between Israeli West Jerusalem, the disputed and predominantly Arab area of East Jerusalem, and the West Bank (Gaza, sinking further and further into desperation, has been effectively out of bounds for some time), gathering material for a book I’m writing about two families, one Israeli and one Palestinian. Over this time, I’ve attended countless enervated but, miraculously, not yet whipped, peace-group meetings, watched enraged Jewish settlers protest their removal from Gaza, met scores of activist Israelis whose good efforts were all too often undone by the corruption and pettiness of their legislature, and walked through the silent streets of the tense city when everything is shut down tight on the Sabbath and the old stones of the Via Dolorosa seem to offer the only still patch of peace.
For a foreigner, moving outward from West to East Jerusalem and on to the West Bank is a bit like plunging through the cleanly demarcated layers of an archaeological dig—in this case, the farther along you go, the more visible the signs of the degraded character of everyday life and the clearer the social and political geography of the land. The dogs of war haunt the average Israeli and loom large at the funerals of its terrorist victims and soldiers, but wherever Palestinians live, those dogs are a menacing day-in, day-out presence, holding the local economies, the free movement of people, and the progress of civil society in an unrelenting grip.
In or out of war, West Jerusalem’s melancholy beauty endures. Despite its antiquity, it is a recognizably modern city, country cousin though it may be to Tel Aviv. A far cry from the quiet backwater once occupied by the British, it is lavishly landscaped and densely built up; its architecture is undistinguished but consistent, since most of its buildings, high-rise and low, are constructed from the same bright Jerusalem stone. Older neighborhoods are full of small, private houses with elegant arched entrances and beautiful tiled floors laid by their former Arab owners; it sustains a bustling populace and busy cafés, cinemas, and theaters, well-maintained cultural and religious sites, abundantly stocked markets, throngs of tourists—who disappear when things heat up, but reappear during more peaceful interludes—and everywhere, the bulldozers and cranes that signify the confident thrust of major municipal and private construction. This commerce and the cosmopolitan atmosphere are deceiving, though—Jerusalem may be Israel’s capital, but it is also its poorest and, according to a recent survey, least livable city, fast becoming stratified into decidedly un-Zionist rich/poor enclaves.
Should you be too easily lulled into mistaking it for a normal city, look carefully at the entrance of nearly every West Jerusalem restaurant or large commercial enterprise on, for example, Emek Rafaim Street, where a security guard with a gun is carefully inspecting everyone’s belongings. Not a cursory inspection, either, because here suicide bombings still play a starring role in people’s memories; young soldiers with M-16’s are a familiar sight along the street, and the next war never seems very far away. Still, when you’re at the excellent Jerusalem Film Festival, meeting friends for dinner, or strolling along at night under the cooling cypress trees, you might mistake this for some other small, pleasant Mediterranean city.
Even blindfolded, though there is no official border, you would know you were passing from West to East Jerusalem by an abrupt shift to barely maintained, bone-rattling roads. You would know it, too, by the crush of too many people (two hundred and fifty thousand) crowded into a small and ever-diminishing patch of land and inadequate housing, by the lack of parks, the piles of garbage awaiting pickup (East Jerusalemites pay the same municipal tax, the Arnona, as their West Jerusalem neighbors and are entitled to but don’t receive the same services), the clusters of underemployed men standing around, the intermittent presence of Israeli Defense Force soldiers manning permanent or “flying” (temporary) checkpoints, and, since 2003, by the presence of the unignorable concrete Wall, or Security Fence, as the Israelis call it, which, upon completion, is supposed to be about 779 kilometers long—more than 400 kilometers longer than the Green Line (the borders of Israel established as part of the 1949 Armistice at the close of the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948).
Jerusalem may be Israel’s capital, but it is also its poorest and, according to a recent survey, least livable city, fast becoming stratified into decidedly un-Zionist rich/poor enclaves.
Symbolically and actually, the twenty-five-foot-high wall, built by descendants of a population once itself segregated and decimated behind walls, is a nearly unabsorbable phenomenon. The level of economic and social distress it has caused has been like a tsunami hitting the already battered East Jerusalem population, 67 percent of whom live below the poverty line; still, there are signs of life here, of a people locked in an unrelenting tug-of-war and on-going civic battles with the Israeli government—over housing and travel permits, house demolitions, educational allotments—which, even with the help of many Palestinian and Israeli human rights lawyers, they often don’t win. Although what was admitted to be a “quiet deportation” policy was supposedly rescinded, in 2006 the number of Arab Jerusalemites to lose their residency status increased sixfold from the previous year. Palestinians who do have blue Jerusalem ID cards have access to the city’s excellent medical facilities, and in this respect, they are the envy of their West Bank compatriots, but in other ways they are worse off. East Jerusalem has become a closed city, not the way Gaza, which is under siege, is, but closed nevertheless. Neither relatives nor friends with ID papers from the West Bank or surrounding villages can reach it. The Wall has also dramatically curtailed business: being cut off from the West Bank has effectively severed East Jerusalem from its chief economic hub. Nonetheless, the East Jerusalem streets still exude an aura of nervous vitality.
Driving out from Jerusalem proper and heading north, confusion. Is this the West Bank or not? High on hill after dusty hill, vast white settlements, blazing in the hot sun. Settlement numbers are disputed, but it is estimated that since 1967, some four hundred and seventy thousand Israeli Jews have settled on the West Bank or East or Greater Jerusalem. The numbers reflect a steady growth, despite the government’s assurances at endless, fruitless diplomatic encounters that their expansion is being curtailed; seeing the settlements looking so, well, settled, and dotting the horizon so ubiquitously, in what is supposed to become a viable, contiguous Palestinian state, unmoors one’s sense of the possible. The approach roads to the settlements, smooth as raceways, are forbidden to Palestinians. And along with the roads has come a complex, sheltering infrastructure—police, IDF soldiers for protection, public transportation, water and sewer systems, and post offices, all of which absorb many millions in state funds. And then there are the unlawful outposts, whose diehard settlers burn Palestinian vineyards, threaten children on their way to school, and with some regularity harass and attack local farmers. These outposts, too, require the presence of IDF soldiers and jeeps—sometimes to serve as escorts for the Palestinian schoolchildren. Implausibly, most of the settlements will have to go if there is ever to be a two-state solution.
Between the larger West Bank cities, the roads curve past small Arab settlements of two or three houses, a goat or two, and some olive trees. Surrounded by miles of rocky hills and an immense sky, they look tentative and exposed. Outside Nablus, a name associated in the West mostly with terrorist cells, but to Palestinians the place where the best olive oil comes from, mile after mile of soft, terraced olive groves. A place of pastoral grace. You can usually tell when the house you are looking at belongs to an Arab by its black water tower—necessary because so much of the underground water has been diverted to the Israeli settlements. The many checkpoints within the West Bank—609, according to the World Bank’s latest estimate—are major hindrances to the movement of goods and people, and despite the optimistic post-Oslo hopes for economic improvement, 46 percent of the population lives in poverty. West Bank residents must also cope with the administrative and economic woes of life under military occupation, and the far more insidious stress and sorrow that come from living in a place where targeted assassinations, detentions, and jailings have been an ongoing, frightening part of life.
The West Bank’s de facto capital is Ramallah, a sophisticated city once known for its theaters, restaurants, and cultural attractions, but now, despite its relative prosperity compared with the rest of the West Bank, somewhat woebegone. An influx of economic relief from European and other donors, and an improvement in the lives of a certain slice of the population in the wake of the international ascendance of the Palestinian Authority, has marginally improved the city’s prospects. But the political leadership is widely viewed as weak and corrupt, and large numbers of people from Ramallah have emigrated—to Amman, to London, to the U.S. Many Palestinians who used to visit the city frequently now find it depressing and no longer do. Ramallah is home to four refugee camps, and though it may also show signs of cosmopolitan, western-style life, like bars and health clubs, it is still separated from every other West Bank city and enclave by the checkpoints and restricted roads. Driving there from other West Bank cities or towns should take under sixty minutes but usually takes many, many frustrating hours. It is, however culturally and intellectually vital, a city under occupation—“a five-star occupation,” as one Palestinian-American businessman put it, but still unmistakably under the boot. Here, too, there are the familiar clusters of the un- or underemployed, the graffiti-covered walls, bombed-out or bullet-pocked buildings, abandoned construction sites, and poorly stocked shops.
Even blindfolded, though there is no official border, you would know you were passing from West to East Jerusalem by an abrupt shift to barely maintained, bone-rattling roads.
Exiled Palestinians who were finally allowed to return to Ramallah after Oslo, and who had dreamed of its quiet streets and intimate web of life and possibly romanticized its virtues, were shocked to see the changes thirty years of occupation had wrought. But perhaps what has been taken away more than anything, as the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes in his beautiful memoir, is a sense of belonging there in a particular careless way, a way that includes admitting even to boredom with the place and the feeling that you can leave and return and know pretty much what you’d find. “We cannot grumble about it as people grumble about their tiresome capitals,” he writes. “Perhaps the worst thing about occupied cities is that their children cannot make fun of them.”
Until I got lucky during my first summer of shuttling between these places and found a Jerusalem-based Palestinian driver willing to drive to the West Bank, these trips were minor logistical nightmares. Since 2000, the year of the Second Intifada, Israelis have been forbidden from traveling to the Palestinian-ruled parts of the West Bank and discouraged from going to other parts of the West Bank, and Israeli taxi drivers are even reluctant to drive to East Jerusalem. So in order to get to Ramallah, say, or Nablus, I had to find a Muslim West-Jerusalem-based driver who would be willing to drive me first to East Jerusalem. There I’d catch another cab to the Qalandia checkpoint, gateway to the northern West Bank (then a temporary, ramshackle affair, today a more impregnable-looking border station), source of so much misery and dread for Palestinians young and old, who have somehow succeeded in the torturous permit acquisition process so that they can enter West Jerusalem, but must stand in long lines in the hot sun anyway, hoping to get through. With my American passport, my own travails were trivial and fleeting compared to those of the Palestinians, some of whom have suffered serious medical complications, missed chunks of their school year, important meetings, and conferences, and been denied access to their families. Some have even died at the checkpoints.
Still, non-press-pass-carrying, independent American visitors unaffiliated with the UN or an NGO or peacekeeping group are a bit of a rarity, and though no one cared when I walked over to the somewhat chaotic Palestinian side, I was greeted with suspicion and often challenged coming back. Past the checkpoint, on the West Bank side, a rogue’s gallery of taxi drivers in an ominous clump await passengers. I tried to pick my driver carefully because I would be altogether dependent on whomever I chose—have I mentioned that I speak neither Arabic nor Hebrew? I was also entirely unfamiliar with the places I was visiting. West Bank buildings do not display numbered addresses, and directions are served up with remarkable vagueness—“Oh, we’re near the electric company, a bit beyond the big mulberry tree”—and always require a last-minute verifying call. But not from my phone: Mine, recently acquired at an Israeli mall, failed to allow linkage to Palestinian exchanges, so that extra, crucial call had to be made on the driver’s phone, which, mirabile dictu, never failed to be on hand.
Traveling back and forth not only between Israel and Palestine but within the West Bank itself (which is divided into three zones—one mainly under the supervision of the Palestinians, another under the supervision of both Israelis and Palestinians, and the third, which in fact comprises more, some say far more, than 60 percent of the West Bank, under the jurisdiction of Israelis alone) could have been majorly confusing. There were no clear demarcations for the zones, or, if there were, I never saw them. But after Fuad became my driver, I never worried about where I was, because he had a clear mental map of allowed and forbidden places. Fuad Abu Awwad (the last name, at his request, is a pseudonym), a multi-lingual, gentle bear of a man in his late thirties, who lives in an Arab village on the southeastern outskirts of Jerusalem, was happy to drive me anywhere I wanted to go. He also knew more about caution than I ever would. By my third extended trip to the Mideast, he and I had established a warm acquaintanceship. I eventually met his wife, children, and other members of his family, and he became my guide and to some extent, counselor. After the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Hamas, and several foreign citizens who never made the international pages had been grabbed and released, Fuad, usually ready to drive to the farthest reaches of Israel or the West Bank, cautioned me against attempting to visit any West Bank destination and was unmoved by my attempts to plead professional urgency.
“But couldn’t we just drive there at some early hour?”
In terms of aggressive resistance, East Jerusalem used to be considered moderately calm, but as it became more isolated and sealed off behind the Wall, its outlying neighborhoods turned into political cauldrons.
“Not now, really,” he said, looking a bit abashed. “They’d probably consider you a great hostage.” For once, he was unsmiling.
Until 2000, Fuad worked as a waiter and at other jobs at Jerusalem’s luxurious King David Hotel. He was so obviously competent that the management offered to send him to a Swiss hotelier school, but then the Second Intifada broke out and he began to feel uncomfortable in his role as “the good Arab” ministering to the needs of rich Israelis, so he quit. A Jerusalem taxi driver earns very little, but Fuad’s education has been so limited that, like many Palestinians, few alternative professional avenues are open. In a less caged-in situation, he would probably be running his own small business or managing a thriving hotel. Despite his modest income, he had somehow saved enough to buy a small parcel of land near his village, where his two sons and daughter would have “some nice green place to play.” But the Wall came along, cut directly through his property, and made it off limits.
He was not offered compensation, and when I asked if he were pursuing the matter in the courts, he became a bit vague, as if the issue were compromising. Eventually, I would learn that the problem was part of a large and thorny one, above which hovers the word “collaborator”—because a framework for compensation for houses or property seized since 1948 has never been legally resolved, Palestinians still await the final Peace Settlement that, they would like to believe, will sort out all their land and property legal claims, and frown on piecemeal attempts to resolve such matters. But the land seizures for the Wall can have an especially diabolic feature—in order to justify the grabbing of land for its always elastic security needs, the government cited a law passed in the nineteen fifties allowing the state to confiscate property abandoned by Arabs who fled to neighboring countries during Israel’s War of Independence. Since the Security Fence separated Fuad’s seized property from where he lived, he was now considered an absentee landlord—though his nearby real-life presence earned him a special Kafkaesque designation: “present-absentee.”
In terms of aggressive resistance, East Jerusalem used to be considered moderately calm, but as it became more isolated and sealed off behind the Wall, its outlying neighborhoods turned into political cauldrons, and though suicide bombers have rarely come from East Jerusalem, the last three terrorist attackers in West Jerusalem did. Even in the few years since I’ve been going there, it’s been impossible not to notice the growing number of traditional head scarves and long robes worn by women on the street. Fuad’s neighborhood has become increasingly Islamicized, and I got the strong impression people’s lives there are subject to intense public scrutiny. A rather worldly man who has traveled to Europe and even New York City, he views this development uneasily, but sees little he can do about it. When he invited me to meet his family, he made sure the invitation was proffered before my husband arrived in the country, because a “strange man” showing up at his door would be frowned upon by his neighbors.
Once, coming back to Jerusalem after a trip to Jericho, he slowed the car down slightly to point out a street near the Old City that used to house a lot of well-known East Jerusalem businesses. He never actually stopped the car, but he was immediately pulled over by a local Israeli policeman (obviously working with a plainclothes policeman staring balefully at us from a parked car across the street) who accused him of violating a No Stopping Zone. But this charge was merely an opening sortie. The policeman proceeded to taunt and bait Fuad for nearly three-quarters of an hour (he seemed not at all interested in the car’s three passengers, me, my husband, and a dignified, elderly Palestinian woman), examined the car’s every nut, bolt, nook, and cranny, and goaded him; an obvious attempt to get him to react so he could upgrade a small, concocted infraction to something that might actually get Fuad thrown in jail. Fuad never got suckered into the game, and that seemed to make the policeman angrier. “Why are you doing this to me?” he asked the policeman at one point; the cop gave him a sharp look, but answered only with a smirk.
Both of them knew that this scene was part of an all-too-familiar pattern of harassment in East Jerusalem. It can be minor, like stopping a car for no apparent reason and toying with the driver, or major, like denying requests for house-building permits and then tearing down houses because they’ve been built without permits, or making it impossible to reunite families, or offering 1,761 tenders for new Israeli houses in 2008 while making concurrent official assurances to international mediators that the attempt to Judaicize East Jerusalem would cease. But major or minor, all these maneuverings, policies, and sleights of hand plainly spell out an unambiguous message to the Arab population: PERHAPS YOU’D RATHER LEAVE?
One group of Jerusalem residents who willingly have left the city in droves over the last decade is its more secular and liberal citizenry. A sizeable number of today’s Tel Aviv residents fled there when Jerusalem’s religious population began to proliferate. Over the last decade, they say Jerusalem has become “suffocating” and “provincial” and its religious factions intolerably strident. They don’t mind being farther away from the bone-to-sinew closeness of East and West Jerusalem either. Conversely, many people who live in Jerusalem feel that Tel Aviv, with its crowded beaches, primarily secular population, upscale shopping centers, and generally more contemporary, western-capitalistic feeling, is somewhat soulless and increasingly marked by bourgeois anomie. In parts of Jerusalem’s Old City, tourists noticing a flock of pink-cheeked, young, black-coated, and behatted Yeshiva boys passing a group of lively-eyed, veiled Palestinian women, near two venerable Greek Orthodox priests in flowing vestments, and a pair of long-robed monks, might retain an impression of by-default urban getting-alongness. But they would be mistaken.
The many groups who share the city do not get along well at all. Even the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic denominations who administer different sections of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are known for their heated and silly rows over trivial matters. For instance, in a recent tiff last November between the Armenians and the Greek Orthodox, their respective worshipers traded blows and knocked down drapes and sacred objects. These ecclesiastical conflicts, like so many others in the region, have gone on for centuries—in fact, so acrimonious have relations traditionally been between the different Christian denominations that for many centuries the job of key- and doorkeeper of the church has been entrusted to two venerable Muslim families. One of the families has been doing this since 1192, when Saladin, who led the opposition to the Third Crusade (and was also doubtless expressing Muslim ascendance over the Church) assigned the task to it in perpetuity, and the other has been doing it since the early sixteen hundreds, when the Turks gave one of its favored families the right to share the honor. Representatives of the families show up every morning to open the church door with a foot-long skeleton key and every evening to close it. One of these dignified gentlemen happens to be the uncle of a friend of mine, and when I met him, he ceremoniously handed me a beautifully engraved little card that reads, in part, “Wajeeh Y. Nuseibeh, Doorkeeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”
When I am tempted to consider the possibility that all of the region’s deep-seated oppositions, so embedded in history and landscape, might be inalterable, I am reminded of a group I came across based near Tel Aviv and Ramallah: The Parents Circle-Families Forum, which has miraculously managed to move beyond them. The group members are Israelis and Palestinians who have lost children, sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers to violence from the other side, and who yet preach reconciliation, even at the settlements, even in the refugee camps. From them, one never hears the tired clichés and insults that float in the air, perpetually thickening the fog of war: “No partner,” “They only understand bullets,” “No one here when we came here,” “Jews are dogs who killed prophets,” “We turned over Gaza and look what they did with it,” “No partner,” “No partner,” “No partner.” At the hard-core settlements and refugee camps that this group visits, their audiences are rarely attuned, to say the least, to the group’s eloquent brief for reconciliation, and they are often mocked as naïve. No one can fail to be impressed by their moral authority, however, and their hard-won transcendence of political and geographic barriers. What the Parents Circle has to say isn’t new. “We’re talking about issues that politicians use to justify further killing, and we’re saying, No! Don’t do that in our name;” “we’ve buried our children—let’s protect the living.”
The members of The Parents Circle have, after great struggle, found a way to ford rivers of blood and tear down the walls of their own minds. Thinking about their message, and considering the tragically inadequate response of the leaders of both the Israelis and the Palestinians to their citizens’ passionate desire for peace, I could only wish that they would all be compelled to listen to tapes of the group’s words, over and over, in an endless loop.
Lis Harris is a former staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and a Professor of Writing at Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts. She is currently working on a book about a hundred years in the life of an Israeli and a Palestinian family.
To contact Guernica or Lis Harris, please write here.