Living, researching, and writing behind a wall

This is the final post of my year as a Fulbright scholar in the West Bank. I returned to the States last week, and I’m taking off the next month to cuddle my new niece (well, new to me!) and play with my ‘old’ niece and nephew and sit on my parents’ front porch swing watching the corn grow, and other important tasks. Today’s post is a brief reflection on the impact of life in the West Bank on my research over the past ten months.

This year was not my first experience in Israel or the West Bank. I lived in Jerusalem through the first year of the most recent intifada, and I traveled there with students and alumni just two years ago. I knew that living in the occupied territories would have an impact on my research and writing this year: seeing heavily armed soldiers on the streets, passing through the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the occasional whiff of tear gas on the wind, the stories of neighbors and friends. My expectations, however, revolved around academic questions of statistics, rhetoric, other people’s stories and experiences, interpreting ancient texts through, in part, the lens of modern war. I had not really considered how living in an occupied land, behind a very large wall, amidst constant reminders of ancient and modern wars, would affect me on a personal level, and how that effect would influence my research.

The Herodion

The Herodion

The Herodion is one of Herod the Great’s fortified palaces, built to protect him from his real and imagined enemies (Herod was a bit obsessed with his own safety). The site was captured and partly destroyed by the Romans in the First Jewish Revolt; the rebels of the Second Jewish Revolt used it as a fortress and hide-out, and visitors today can see the remnants of their war—a foundry, boulders stockpiled for use as weapons during siege, and tunnels for sneak attacks against the Romans. Every time I walked through Bethlehem or hung my sheets to dry on the balcony, I could see this reminder of ancient wars.

The Herodion is south of Beit Sahour. Just to the north is this modern version of Herod’s desert fortress:

Har Homa

Har Homa

This site was developed for housing in the late 90s. It’s either an illegal settlement (according to the Palestinians, the European Union, and the United States), or a legal neighborhood of Jerusalem (according to Israel). It’s built in part on land taken from the residents of Beit Sahour, and whether it’s legal or illegal, the security fences for the site cross Palestinian land—cutting Beit Sahouri farmers off from their fields—and it’s growing. I was shocked this year to see (from the road from Jerusalem to Beit Sahour, or from my gym, or even from my own street) how much of the surrounding farmland has turned into apartment buildings and private homes and shopping centers.

Beit Sahour is a rather quiet, peaceful town these days, completely within the area of the West Bank under Palestinian control (‘Area A’). Even so, it’s impossible to avoid the constant visible presence of ancient battles and modern occupation. The views of the Herodion and Har Homa remain views, though. Security barriers at Har Homa prevent Palestinians from entering the site (unless they’re working construction), and Palestinians also are forbidden to visit the Herodion, although it’s located inside the West Bank (the site is now an Israeli national park).

Area A Warning Sign

Area A Warning Sign

 

Every time I went to Jerusalem this year, upon my return my neighbors would remind me that they cannot go to Jerusalem—at least not without going through a long, uncertain application process. My landlady’s daughter lives in Ramallah, about twenty miles away, just north of Jerusalem; they only visit over long holidays, because the journey through roads and checkpoints accessible by Palestinians takes at least an hour and a half (if not longer, depending on how many ‘flying checkpoints’ are set up by Israeli soldiers, and how many other people are waiting to cross).* I could travel freely and quickly to Jerusalem, depending on traffic, but I carried a load of guilt with me every time I passed through the checkpoint.

The Wall around Bethlehem

The Wall around Bethlehem

 

The wall around the West Bank is not just a physical barrier. It’s a psychological weapon, too. I had easy passage through the wall with my American passport, but even so I felt closed in and limited; how much more for those who are not allowed out? According to Israel, on the ‘other’ side of the wall, it was built for security—to prevent suicide bombers and other violence. But that security only goes one way; the wall does not prevent Israel’s army or Israeli settlers from carrying out acts of violence within the West Bank. Violence is a constant threat hovering over cities and villages and farms. Olive trees are ripped up, homes and businesses damaged, cars stoned, children harassed and attacked on their way to school, protestors shot and killed. The attacks following the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers near one of the settlements around Hebron showcase the lack of safety for Palestinians.

In response to the kidnapping, the Israeli military blockaded Hebron and initially prevented any Palestinian from crossing the borders into Jerusalem. I visited Nablus, in the northern West Bank (the opposite end of the occupied territories from Hebron), a week after the kidnappings (and, we now know, the murders of the three teenagers by Palestinian militants**). At Balata refugee camp, we heard about nightly raids from the Israeli soldiers and visited two homes that had been raided—furniture overturned and ripped open (to see if anything was hidden inside), carpets thrown on the stairs, shelves and wardrobes and refrigerators emptied onto the floor. In one of the homes, the soldiers had blown a hole through a wall to see if anything was hidden inside, and shot the tv for good measure on their way out the door. The mother of this family showed me around the apartment. I’m sure I missed some things, because she was speaking rather quickly (in Arabic), but she told me that her daughter-in-law was still in the hospital from injuries sustained in the attack. The men in both households had been arrested, one because he was an official in the Palestinian government, but the other, according to his family, was ‘nobody.’

The same status of ‘nobody’ is true of a family in Beit Sahour, my neighbors’ relatives, who had the same experience. The soldiers came with five enormous military dogs at 2 a.m., pounding on the door; they overturned furniture to rip open the backs, threw clothes and toys and food on the floor, and arrested the teenage son of the family (he was released a few hours later). This family was not in the military or police force, not in the government, and certainly not in Hamas—they are Christians. But in an occupied land, as Palestinians have been reminded over the past weeks, no one is safe. While my group was in Balata, the guide asked one little girl (perhaps six or seven years old) if the soldiers had visited her house; she replied, ‘Not yet.’

Much has been written by Palestinians, Israelis, and foreign observers about the daily indignities, violence, and dehumanization of the occupation. It has been striking to me this year, as I’ve worked through the ancient situations of women and children during war, how much continuity there is between the biblical and modern worlds of Israel and Palestine, in terms of rhetoric (the emphasis on the violence against women and children in the press, for instance) and lived experience (the effects that the violence of war necessarily has on those who are not involved in fighting, planning, or decision-making).

Children and kin are by the law of nature each man’s dearest possessions; they are swept away from us by conscription to be slaves in other lands: our wives and sisters, even when they escape a soldier’s lust, are debauched by self-styled friends and guests… (Tacitus, Agricola 31, Loeb Classical Library)

Children and trembling mothers rounded up in a long, endless line… (Vergil, Aeneid 2.951-952, Penguin Classics, on the destruction of Troy)

Living behind the wall, among and with people who are living the experience of occupation and war, has kept me from ‘ivory-towering’ texts like these. They’re rhetoric, for sure, but they’re also reflections of the horrors of war. I can’t emotionally disengage from Luke’s woe to the pregnant women and nursing mothers, because I know a pregnant woman who was scared she might miscarry when the soldiers came to raid her home; carrying out my research and writing here this year has made the daily experience of war more real.

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