Alice Rothchild is a physician, activist and writer based in Boston. She is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams (Pluto, 2007; 2010) and serves on the regional steering committee for American Jews for a Just Peace. The following blog post is the second of several documenting her current work in Palestine as part of the American Jews for a Just Peace – Health and Human Rights Project.
The posters in the offices of Stop the Wall grab our attention immediately: three hulking men hack the concrete barrier with pick axes; a cartoon elderly woman lifts a tiny boy off the main gun of a menacing Israeli tank; “To exist is to resist” floats above walls criss-crossing between crowded Palestinian houses, a helicopter hovers above; a disembodied head, mouth screaming, emerges from the wall with a fist in chains.
Jamal Juma (www.stopthewall.org) begins his powerpoint and we are immediately washed by a torrent of bad news. The northwestern city of Qalqilya was the first city to be completely encircled by the separation wall in 2000. It took one year to build, imprisoning 41,000 people and separating them from 32 surrounding villages, their agricultural lands, and ground water sources. Once a commercial hub for both Israelis along the border and local Palestinians, in less than six months, 4,000 inhabitants left in desperation and 600 stores closed. In the first winter, the city was severely flooded by mountain water that flowed in but had no place to drain. Jamal explains ironically, this is the future for the West Bank.
By 2005 it became clear that the Israelis planned three main encircled areas – northern, central and southern – using a combination of walls and the strategic insertion of Jewish settlements. Jamal reviews the long history of Palestinian struggle against a variety of colonial projects dating back to the 1900s and the emergence of Palestinian nationalism. Things took a major down turn with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. This divided the West Bank into area A (the ghettoized cities theoretically under Palestinian control), area B, (villages under joint control) area C, (the 61% of the West Bank, less developed, under Israeli control and the location for much of the Jewish settlement project.)
Jamal informs us that in the early 1990s with the Iraqi invasion and decrease in the power of one of Israel’s main enemies, the country turned its attention to its internal affairs. In 1992, the government gathered scientists and thinkers to create a 20 year strategy for the future of Israel, in case of war and in case of peace, in cooperation with more than 30 international research institutions. By 1997 the 18 volume Master Plan was completed, 9,000 pages devoted to Jerusalem alone. The current state of the Occupied Territories is the direct result of those plans.
Then in 2000 the Herzliya Conference launched a study to plan four major projects that have also impacted the appalling fate of the Palestinians:
1. For Palestinians with Israeli citizenship in the Galilee, a program of development aimed at Judaization of the area
2. For Palestinians in the Negev, a similar development/Judaization program
3. For Greater Jewish Jerusalem, settlement expansion into the West Bank and depopulation of Palestinians
4. For Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, increasing disengagement
The plan is based on controlling Palestinian demographics and increasing the Jewish presence. In the Galilee, major studies figured out how to move Jews from the coast to the mountains by investing in high tech industrial zones with housing, schools, and economic opportunity. In the Negev, 100,000 Bedouins were collected and brought to five reservations (the word in Hebrew, “concentrating them”). This threatened to destroy their life and culture and Bedouins responded by settling to protect their ancestral lands, creating a host of unrecognized villages, without any services, in abject poverty, constantly under threat of repeated demolitions.
In Jerusalem, a combination of Judaization and ethnic cleansing seeks to decrease the Palestinian population from 35% to 12%. With almost scientific precision, Jamal describes how that will happen.
1. The first step is to expand the boundaries, frame Greater Jerusalem to include the Jewish settlement blocks and surround it all with 181 kilometers of wall snaking deep into the West Bank. Thus, the Adumin Bloc adds 33,000 Jewish settlers, the Etzion Bloc 43,000, and the Givon Bloc another 12,000. Throw in the controversial E1 area to complete the ring and then ghettoize the local Palestinians. 22 villages with 225,300 people once part of Jerusalem are, voilà, now outside of the Holy City.
2. The second step is inside Jerusalem, in the Old City. Start in 1967 by destroying the historic neighborhood along the Wailing Wall. Then allot millions of shekels to Judaize the Old City, moving in Jewish families house by house. There are now 90 Israeli outposts inside the Old City, with plans to displace all 50,000 residents of Silwan (now officially the City of David) and fully Judaize the Holy Basin, creating a (racially?) pure area all the way to the Mt of Olives where 4,000 settlers await their happy co-religionists. Top this off with a highly political and heavily criticized archeological excavation in the City of David, (designed to prove Jewish exclusivity to a city that has been occupied innumerable times over thousands of years), displacing 1,500 Palestinians to make space for the parking lot for tourist buses. Continue in a similar process in the neighborhoods of Shufat and Sheikh Jarrar, link them all together with a light rail that ends at the Damascus gate, thus gradually eliminating all Palestinian identity in the area.
Jamal highlights the multiple well funded new projects: museums, hotels, tunnels under the ancient walls, car parks, tourist overviews, 63 new synagogues including one to be built next to the wall of the Old City, taller than the Al Aqsa Mosque, in my view, the architectural equivalent of giving everyone the finger.
At this point we are all sunk in a strange combination of depression, horror, shame and outrage. I can only wonder if there is any historical memory left amongst the power brokers in Jerusalem, descendants from the ghettos of Europe and the survivors of the racist, ethnic cleansing of the Holocaust. Jamal continues undaunted.
He focuses on the growth of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, up to 650,000 since it all began in 1997. He talks about the geopolitical impact of the wall, the 14,000 kilometers of apartheid roads with 48 bridges and tunnels to keep Palestinians and Jewish settlers from actually seeing each other, the increasingly privatized checkpoints, (now called terminals, like your local friendly airport terminal) and the industrial zones. I will explain the zones, since that was news to me. Apparently after traversing multiple roads to avoid the bypass highways, and waiting since early morning to stuff through humiliating turnstiles at checkpoints, Palestinian workers now face a new employment opportunity: industrial zones. Israel, in conjunction with the World Bank, is working on 92 zones along the borders created by the wall, which Jamal refers to as “do-it-yourself apartheid.” There are currently industrial zones in 12 of the largest Jewish settlements where 30,000 Palestinians work under oppressive conditions with no labor protections for 50-70 shekels per day. Joint industrial zones are planned with the help of Germany and Japan, to name a few internationals that have taken a concern for the local economy and what is now called “immigrant capital.” The Israelis are busy attracting international investment from Jenin to Jericho; 58 companies have invested in the settlements. He reminds us that the barbed wire that runs along this barrier is made in South Africa.
To give this a sense of reality, we are soon bouncing along in yellow taxis heading for the town of Kalandia, a village totally encircled by wall, separated from the nearby refugee camp, crowded up against the industrial zone for the Jewish settlement of Atarot. Between us and the nearby town of Al Ram are two more walls. All of this was once part of Jerusalem, but now exists in a kind of no man’s land, unclaimed, ungoverned, no taxes are collected but neither is the sewage. Drug gangs terrorize people at night. Jamal moved to this area from Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem after his imprisonment (he was accused of organizing demonstrations) and released when he could no longer tolerate the military vehicle sitting outside his house and frightening his children.
From there we go to the once vibrant Bir Nabala, since 2006 a ghost town, completely emptied by the economic impact of the wall, houses locked and deserted, stores shuttered, homes demolished, raw sewage running near the wall where pigeons roost in once elegant homes and a few souls hang on with a couple of goats and a horse. At night this street becomes dangerous and infested by gangs of drug dealers. I sense not only the overall cantonization of the West Bank, but also these micro isolations, village by village, family by family, son by son, the silent expulsion, the ongoing invisible Nakba.
Back in the taxi, the undulating voice of Mohammed Assaff sings on the radio. He is one of the three contestants left on Arab Idol, a spinoff of American Idol, where he is competing with an Egyptian and a Syrian. He sings a beguiling song about a magic kuffiyah. I am told that everyone in the West Bank is rooting for him.
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