The Separation Barrier in the West Bank has been the subject of protest by international human rights organizations for some years. In 2004 the International Court of Justice gave an advisory opinion in which it deemed the construction of the barrier on occupied land (ie inside the West Bank and not on the Green Line) as illegal. One Friday afternoon recently, my team and I went with Samar Assad, our friend and guide, to see what it has done to the lives of people in Nazlat Isla, a town north of Tulkarem.
When we arrived, we parked in a street with a dead end. On either side were houses in poor repair; in front, a vast, grey, concrete wall. Low down, there were a few words written in Arabic. Samar read them aloud and translated: ‘Ihna shaab el-ard. ‘We own the land’. On the ground beneath, bright geraniums grew.
A few yards from this, by their front door, children watched us. The family knew Samar and invited us in. We, four women, sat on the floor with a grand/mother, her two daughters and granddaughter while her daughter-in-law brought in the tray of tea glasses. I asked Samar to tell the grandmother how we had admired the flowers outside. The grandmother smiled. ‘They plant the Wall and I plant flowers,’ she said.
Started (in this northern region) in 2002 with a planned route of over 700 kilometers, the wall now snakes and loops through the entire West Bank and is nearly complete. In the words of the UN, it consists of ‘a complex series of concrete walls, electronic fences, observation towers, trenches, patrols and razor wire, used to control Palestinian vehicular and pedestrian movement.’*
In the last few weeks, our team has begun to be familiar with these towers, patrols, fences and wire. But not until that afternoon in Nazlat Isa had I seen, at close quarters, the panels of concrete. The effect is flat, grey and very high (eight metres, to be exact). There is no way to climb them. There is no gap to see through them.
Five years ago, as the last panel was fixed in place, the ‘separation barrier’ cut through this town’s main market street for ever. According to the Israeli government, its ‘sole purpose’ is security and a ‘response to suicide bombers who enter into Israel’. * Its effect has been to restrict the rights and freedoms of an entire population - and by no means all Israelis agree with it. Some are part of active protest. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem uses measured language:
‘Israel has the right and duty to protect its citizens from attacks. However, the building of the Separation Barrier as a means to prevent attacks inside Israel is the most extreme solution that causes the greatest harm to the local population. Israel preferred this solution over alternate options that would cause less harm to the Palestinians.’
Looking back, I still feel humbled at the grandmother’s resistance to despair. In the face of the wall they are written on, the words ‘we own the land’ seem pathetic, yet the flowers turned them into a defiant claim.
However, that glimpse of the barrier has been one of the grimmest things I have seen here yet.
*International court of justice: www.icj-cij.org and follow links; or check www.stopthewall.org and click on ‘international law’
*UNOCHA (2008): West Bank: access and closure – update
*Israeli Seam Zone authority www.seamzone.mod.gov.il