As she scanned my passport, the teenage Israeli soldier stared through the bulletproof glass that separated us. Looking down at my photo and then up again, she finally waved me through.
On the other side of “The Wall,” taxis waited. I picked one out of a clump and haggled over the fare. (“It’s fucking hard here man” my driver said, as he demanded an exorbitant price. I bargained it down, all the while assuring him that I could see it was “fucking hard” here). He drove me to my hotel, the Paradise.
“Separation”, “apartheid”, “security”—The Wall has many names depending on which side of it you are on. Whatever one calls it, most would agree on its physical impressiveness: twenty-five feet high, watch towers regularly placed with armed soldiers, and rows of lights to illuminate potential nocturnal “terrorists.” On the Israeli side, the surface appears clean and smooth–like the walls of San Quentin or Folsom prisons. On the Palestinian side, at the edge of the ancient city of Bethlehem, it is covered with political graffiti, testimonial posters, and revolutionary art. In Israel, The Wall speaks of power; in Palestine, of resistance.
After I settled in, my taxi driver took me the few blocks from the hotel into the Deheisheh refugee camp. I saw a group of eight teenage boys with rocks in their hands. A Palestinian Authority policeman was talking to them. The scent of gunpowder was in the air. I looked up and saw a burned-out guard tower. My driver explained that a Palestinian boy had been shot with rubber bullets a few days before by an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldier and was now in the hospital. In response, some Palestinians had fire-bombed the tower above. The boys were looking for a place along the wall from which they could safely throw rocks at the Israeli soldiers. This cat and mouse game had been going on for many hours, the lingering gun smoke its residue.
A few days before I had been strolling on a Tel Aviv beach. It was a perfect sunset. Golden clouds hung gently over the Mediterranean. Joggers, baby strolling parents, and lovers of every persuasion were savoring the warm winter breeze. Earlier that afternoon I’d walked through the city, enjoying the city’s cafes and Bauhaus architecture, and the beautiful faces of khaki-clad Israeli soldiers; young men and women carrying Uzis in the thick of bustling rush hour crowds.
From Tel Aviv I took a 45 minute taxi ride to Jerusalem where I wandered the ancient winding streets. I went to the Western Wall and watched bar mitzvah after bar mitzvah; young men in full temple regalia, led by marching bands, followed by proud mothers and fathers, all joyously singing the praises of the “One and Only Lord Our God” and celebrating their return to the “promised land.” Nearby, Muslim prayers blasted from minarets overlooking Al Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, while kneeling pilgrims in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre wept at the Station of the Cross where Jesus was crucified and Roman soldiers gambled for his clothing.
On the West Bank I traveled to places I’d read about in Hebrew school–and in today’s newspapers. I walked through desert canyons to 5th century monasteries built into cliffs where monks still live in tiny cells and pray in silence. In Ramallah I visited Arafat’s tomb. And in Hebron I passed by pimply-faced IDF soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Patriarchs—the biblical burial site of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Leah–and through the cobblestone alleyways of the Muslim quarter, where a thick wire roofing had to be installed to catch the garbage thrown down by Jewish settlers living above the markets where Arab shopkeepers sold freshly butchered meat and olive oil soap. I saw barriers erected to separate the walking areas of Israelis and Palestinians and a wall spray painted with the words “Gas the Arabs!”
Israel is a sad and beautiful place. From the lush fields of Galilee to the fig palm groves of the Jordan Valley–and the desert where both Jesus and Abraham spoke with God–the magnificence of creation calls out. At the same time, driving on roads through the occupied territories, I passed bright red signs that warned of the mortal danger facing Israelis who enter Palestinian areas. I was rarely out of sight of The Wall. Like a raised scar snaking through the Holy Land, it cast an ominous shadow.
My travel agent in Bethlehem had arranged a visit to one of the settlements that had sprouted in the West Bank since the 1967 war. I wanted to understand why these fellow Jews had come, at great risk, to live in this internationally contested area.
Ardie, the settlement representative, met me and Iyad, my Palestinian guide, outside the compound gates and drove us through the guarded entrance. I was a little nervous, having heard and read so much about these outposts, home to “extremist” settlers. We entered what appeared to be a lovely suburban community, complete with a recreation center, a shopping mall, and a synagogue. There were rows of Mediterranean homes with perfectly manicured lawns and views of Jerusalem in the distance.
We sat in Ardie’s living room. He was an affable, familiar figure; someone I might have grown up with back in Queens. He had come to Israel from Chicago to make aliya, the traditional “ascent” to the Jewish homeland, in 1982, and had lived in this settlement since 1985. He had grown up a secular Jew but had become orthodox over time and was happy to be living in this troubled, but sacred landscape.
As we sipped tea, I watched Iyad squirm while Ardie described Palestinians as foreigners in the West Bank; how they needed to submit to the “fair’ laws of a democratic Israel; how lucky they were to be living in the only democracy in the region. Ardie referred to the West Bank territories as “Samaria and Judea”, the Biblical names for the land; never as Palestine. He claimed he wanted to live peacefully, but separately, from his Arab neighbors.
But it seemed to me that every word he spoke just inflamed old open wounds. I thought about the pain of dispossession that Iyad must have felt; and about the barbed wire and armed soldier we had passed to get into the settlement. I imagined the hate and the fear and the suffering of those living in and outside of those fences. I wondered if this place was a fortress or a prison; and if healing was possible in a world of such separation.
Dr. Ricky Fishman has been a San Francisco based Chiropractor since 1986. In addition he has led educational tours to many parts of the world since 1989. He will be taking a group to Israel and Palestine in January, 2014. The trip will be an exploration of both sides of The Wall, with the group moving between Israel and the West Bank. If interested please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information
Copyright 2013 Ricky Fishman