At Abu Dis, a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the wall brings the road to an abrubt end, blocking what used to be the main route between Jerusalem and Jericho. About 9 meters high and solid concrete, it extends into the distance to the South, a huge snake carving up the hillside. To the north it pushes up the hill for 50 meters or so, after which there is a metal gate and then the wall of the compound of a building – a normal wall. Between the gate and the next wall there is a gap about a meter from the ground. I started to photograph a woman who was passing a small baby through the gap to someone waiting on the other side.
After a little while a landrover pulled up and one of its passengers got out to speak to someone on the pavement. It looked like an army vehicle but “Police” was printed on the side. I later found out that it belonged to the Border Police – a particularly nasty branch of the Israeli security forces. They are army but police as well and therefore have the authority to arrest internationals. I shifted the camera to include in its frame this addition to the scene. The border policeman started gesturing towards me angrily. I was aware that he wanted me to approach the vehicle but for some reason I didn’t move, just stood staring at him holding the camera to my chest. He walked up the hill towards me and as he got closer shouted at me to produce my ID. I told him that i did not have my passport on me, and had to repeat this a number of times. He made me follow him towards the vehicle before taking my bag and emptying it on the pavement to search it. I told him the name of the hostel i’m staying in and that in England we don’t all have to carry identity cards. He said that it is forbidden to photograph the security forces. I apologised and said that I didn’t know that, I didn’t know i had to carry my passport all the time, I’m just a tourist. He told me to go back to my hotel and get my passport and then i could come back if i wanted. I agreed and the vehicle drove off along the road that shadows the path of the wall.
On the curbside i replaced my things in my bag and looked at the concrete monstrosity towering over me. Grey monotony was peppered with grafitti, including messages of solidarity from people from around the world. In a prominent spot were the words “Friends cannot be divided”. As I sat there a number of communal taxis pulled up and deposited groups of women and children on the road in front of the wall. They walked past me up the hill and towards the gap. I hurriedly changed the film in my camera and by the time i reached the gap there was a group of about 25 people huddled round, waiting to climb through. 5 o’clock: rush hour. Young people waited as old women struggled to gain a foothold.
“Salam al eykum,” I said to a group of teenage girls who were standing at the edge of the group. “Shalom,” one of them replied, the Hebrew equivalent. Both greetings mean “Peace” – how ironic is that? By this point i was unable to hold back my tears – it was my first experience of the wall this trip – so i turned around and started walking up the hill away from them. After a short distance i realised they were following me and i stopped and turned around again. I just about managed to say “Majnoon!” – Arabic for “crazy” – gesturing towards the wall. They smiled widely at my tears and started speaking quickly in Arabic. I could only understand one word – “Yalla” – which means “Lets go”. It was enough. I followed them back towards the gap.
The group was smaller now but people seemed more impatient and a few young men had climbed onto the wall of the compound. Before long the Border Police pulled up again and this time the driver spoke to me, asked me the name of my hotel and then told me to have a nice day! But the guy who had initially spoken to me, who was black and therefore probably an Ethiopian Jew, was in the passenger seat closest to me and kept demanding that i go back to my hotel and get my passport. There wasn’t much else i could do, so I walked back down the hill towards a communal taxi and stood beside it, waiting for more people to fill it up. The landrover drove past and stopped a short distance away. I looked back towards the group and took one last photo as a young girl waved at me. No doubt, if i had made it through the gap, i would have been taken to the home of one of the young lasses and given tea, perhaps food. A neighbour who spoke English would probably have been found, and we could have exchanged information about ourselves. It wasn’t to be. I was experiencing the powerlessness of having to bow down to a higher authority – granted by whom? God? – that Palestinians must feel all the time.
When I looked back at the taxi I realised that the driver was waiting for me so I climbed on board. “Yalla,” I said and he grinned at me as he started the engine.
Today i felt, for the first time, the desperation that i was expecting from the moment I stepped off the plane in Jordan and have grown accustomed to from my experience of ‘developing’ countries. I had just passed through the Bethlehem checkpoint, which was the first that i encountered on my first trip to Palestine. I remember, back then, being confused, because we were passing from Palestinian territory to Palestinian territory and were not crossing any borders. Of course, it quickly became apparent that checkpoints are everywhere throughout the West Bank and Gaza: that is the reality of a military occupation. Anyway, today the beautiful young soldier with an automatic weapon draped across her chest told me to “have a nice day” after she checked my passport. I started walking down the street towards the wall – near the Bethlehem checkpoint it looks much the same as it does in Abu Dis – massive, solid, impenetrable. I waved to a group of boys who shouted a greeting to me from the opposite side of the road, and one of them got up and ran after me, trying to sell me a small bag. I didn’t want the bag but he persisted, saying he was hungry. We had reached the wall by the time he gave up, but his efforts were replaced by those of a man in his thirties, trying to sell me necklaces. “We are suffering”, he said, gesturing towards the wall. Next came the taxi drivers, driving next to me down the street as i walked towards my destination which i knew to be a short distance away. “Please. Business is bad…”
I’m not sure if this desperate persistence is a new thing or not, as the last time i was here i only came to Bethlehem once, at night, and there was no-one around except the military. I’m guessing that it is. The wall divides families, cuts people off from their land, blocks trade routes, discourages tourists. As C, a local Christian coffee-shop owner, kept saying to me “Everything has changed”.
…And yet… C refused to accept any money for my much-welcome coffee. A communal taxi driver also refused my shekels and was disappointed that i declined his invitation to stay with him and his family. It seems that the generosity of the Palestinian people cannot be defeated by humiliation, degredation, poverty. Yesterday i marvelled at the way people circumnavigated a huge physical obstacle and just got on with their lives regardless. Today i’m starting to appreciate the strength of character that that involves.
After the wall at the Bethlehem checkpoint you have to turn left and take a detour of about 15 minutes by foot. It is not possible to continue straight down what used to be the main road, as there is another section of wall further down. Between these two sections of wall there is Rachel’s Tomb, an important religious site for Jewish people. It looks as though it is buried somewhere in large military complex, although I did not visit it this time, preferring to ease my way into the occupation gradually.
My trip to Bethlehem ended up at ‘Shepards Field’ – the place where, legend has it, the shepards saw an angel. Father Michel has been guardian of the site for the last 15 years. On hearing that I’m from Britian, he told me that Blair is no good. “Bush and Blair”, he said, grinding his feet into the dusty ground, indicating his opinion. And Sharon? “War criminal.”
I wondered how many pilgrims have heard this message.