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The other sides of the wall
My sister Lisa wrote me this letter from Tel Aviv, and it was such great writing and journalism, I asked her if I could please put it on my blog (she granted me permission, provided I remove any specific references to people and the paper where she works (does anyone know about conflict of interest between journalism and blogging? she does not write political commentary for her paper). Anyway...enjoy!

I know I promised you a long letter about the day I spent touring the separation fence with a group from [the paper I work with] and the UN. I've had a difficult time articulating my feelings and thoughts about that difficult day. It is so very, very easy to give in to emotions, and I just don't want to do that.

I don't want to over-identify with the "other" in order to make myself feel good for being such a compassionate being; I don't want to feel rage at the political protagonists for choosing walls and guns over bridges and handshakes; I don't want to hate and bewail and indulge in all that dramatic shit.

It doesn't help anyone - least of all me.

Here is what I saw, for what it's worth.

We started the day at OCHA, the UN Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs ( The office is located in an old Arab house in East Jerusalem, opposite St. George's church, where Mordechai Vanunu has been staying since he was released from prison. We were greeted very warmly by staff members; they literally formed a reception line as we filed in, shaking our hands and greeting us as if we were important diplomats with the power to effect change. I felt like a fraud, like a thrill seeker...

We were ushered into a conference room, given press kits containing a large sheaf of documents (all in Hebrew) that detailed where the fence was being built, where the checkpoints were located, and how the building of the fence was affecting the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank. Danny*, who is head of the office, gave a 45 minute PowerPoint presentation that showed rising levels of traumatic stress disorder among children, hugely increased levels of poverty, etc. It was very professional and quite objective. He kept emphasizing that the UN doesn't object to the fact of the wall (ie, Israel's right to protect itself from terrorists), but rather to the route of the wall - which cuts quite deeply into the West Bank and divides hundred of thousands of Palestinians from their farmlands, families, neighbours, workplaces, hospitals, schools, etc.

But this is not really a sustainable argument. It is certainly true that the route of the fence has made the lives of the Palestinians very miserable - nearly impossible, sometimes, as I was to see later in the day - but the fact of the matter is that, prior to the building of the fence, their economy was mainly powered by trade between the territories and Israel.

Israelis went to the West Bank to go shopping and eat hummous; Palestinians came into Israel to do manual labour for a day wage. So even if the fence were built precisely on the green line, the Palestinians would still be cut off from their main source of income - Israel.

After the presentation, we [the paper I work with] people piled into our bus and followed the UN staff in their jeeps to the Qalandiya checkpoint.

What can I say about the checkpoint that has not already been said? Blazing sunshine, no shade, nervous, heavily armed soldiers who wanted to be anywhere but there, doing anything but that filthy job; lines of people waiting to be granted or denied the right to pass to the other side, little Palestinian kids selling chewing gum and cigarette lighters... Ugliness and human misery on a grand scale.

The whole area was just ugly - physically and metaphorically. A UN guy from Finland, an Angry Young Man wearing Ray Ban sunglasses, stood with us and detailed the daily sufferings of the people who had to pass through Qalandiya. A place that used to be a busy –lane road was bulldozed into piles of rubble and dust, with barriers and piles of 12-metre high concrete wall sections lying on the ground, soon to replace the barbed wire.

We walked right up to the revolving turnstile of the checpoint, where the soldiers - including a female soldier, to give body checks to Palestinian women - stood. One of the soldiers came over to where I was standing and, peering out from under his loose-fitting helmet, asked where we'd come from and why we'd come without armed security guards. He was very young and quite sweet - seemed to be wondering what the hell he was doing there.

Then we drove to Abu Dis. It went like this: you're driving, you're driving, you're driving, you're looking at the scenic view and the people, and then all of a sudden you turn right and boom! there's a 12-metre high gray concrete wall right in front of you. If you don't hit the brakes immediately, you'll crash into the wall.

We were all shocked. All I could think was, It looks just like the Berlin wall. And it was already covered in graffitti, in Hebrew, English and Arabic: "not another wall"; or a hand-drawn picture of the view that could no longer be seen, with prison bars drawn over the "view" and the slogan, "a view to peace". Rising above the wall on the other side was a church spire.

And that's where I really saw that the wall literally divides people from their neighbours across the street.

We met a Palestinian woman who is principal of a local school; since summer vacation began, the construction of the wall has separated her students from the school and she has no idea what she'll do come September. She was angry, articulate, and completely convinced that the Wall had been built not for Israel's security - but for a "land grab", the confiscation of lands beyond the green line.

Listening to her speak, I felt despair; I sensed that her anger was so deep, it would be impossible to overcome. It would be impossible to build real understanding and reconciliation.

As a journalist at [the paper I work with] who covers the occupied territories said to us that day, the Palestinian and Israeli sides are engaging in a dialogue of the deaf. The Israelis say that the fence is for the safety of Israelis, and the Palestinians say that it expropriates territory beyond the green line. In fact, the two arguments have no logical connection.

The tragedy of the wall, the real tragedy is this: it has marginalized or radicalized the Palestinian moderates. It has pushed the idea of peace and reconcilation so far off the radar screen that it seems inconceivable now. It has further drowned out the voice of the Israeli Left (because the fact is that the wall *has* been very effective in decreasing terrorist attacks)and it has brutalized us all.

Ten minutes out of Abu Dis, we were in West Jerusalem. We passed the
Jerusalem Pearl Hotel, which had a huge banner hung outside. The banner
said, "ISRAM welcomes Temple Beth Shalom, Miami, and the Magical Mitzvah Tour."

The UN people said goodbye to us. Danny*, with whom I'd been talking throughout the day, pressed my hand warmly and said, "If you ever want a private tour of the checkpoints in my jeep, just call me."

How's that for a variation on come and see my etchings? Come into my jeep and I'll show you my checkpoints!

Then we all went to eat a very late lunch at Mifgash Ha-Esh (grilled meats, salads, pitas, lemonade).

I was a bit of a mess when I got back to TA. Went out with friends to see a dance performance in Neve Tzedek, then sat at a rooftop bar and drank a lot of whiskey. Jerusalem seemed very far away, but the effect of what I'd seen was heavy and I couldn't sort out my thoughts.

The next day I met Diana, who wanted to hear all about my day. She listened intently, then said, "Well, I am very sorry for them [the Palestinians], but I have two little girls and I need to feel that I can allow them to take a public bus without fearing they might get blown up."

I can't publish this on my blog. The UN people kept emphasizing that the day was "off the record", I don't want to embarrass anyone; and I don't want to get involved in a blog war. So this letter is for you and - in a way – for me, too.



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