Tomas Muscionico/Contact Press Images

The Israeli side of the separation wall, shielding the Trans-Israel Highway from the West Bank town of Qalqilya, July 2002

All right. Let’s be serious, let’s think about this.

Please, please: consider the state of affairs, consider the desperation, consider the depth of the despair. A country has reached a point at which 84 percent of its people are in favor of building a wall along its borders.

Have you ever known anything of which 84 percent of people were in favor? And yet there it is, over four fifths of a nation—can you imagine that figure?—saying something completely bizarre. The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in. This one, they say, is being built to keep people out.

You might call this an extraordinary state of affairs. Hardly a normal state of affairs. And that’s the word you hear all the time in the Middle East. “Normal.” The Palestinians ask, “When will we have a normal life?” And so do the Israelis. Indeed, the Israeli state was founded in 1948 with the principal ambition of being normal, of being a normal place like any other. The Palestinians call the foundation of the Israeli state the nakbeh: the disaster. And now sixty years later Israel believes itself, in the frequently expressed view of the majority, in need of a wall.

Except, of course, they don’t call it a wall. They call it a fence.

It’s one of those things, there seem to be so many, don’t there?—I’m thinking of abortion, or armed revolt—where the words you use—pro-life/pro-choice, terrorist/freedom fighter—tell the world which way you think. Words become flags, they announce which side you’re on. In this case, literally. The Israelis call it the gader ha’harfrada, which in Hebrew means “separation fence.” The Palestinians don’t call it that. Not at all. They call it jidar al-fasl al-‘unsuri, which in Arabic means “racial segregation wall.”

OK, let’s go coolly into this, shall we? If I use one word or the other, forgive me, it does not imply I am partisan. I have acquaintances on both sides of the fence and on both sides of the wall. “I hate the wall,” say my Israeli friends. “I regret it.” “I’m ashamed of the wall.” “I drive for miles so that I don’t have to see it. But it works. 80 percent of terrorist attacks against Israel have stopped. Have been stopped. Am I not meant to be pleased about that?”

Very well. I shall seek to describe the history of the wall.

On June 1, 2001, nine months into the second intifada, a Palestinian suicide bomber named Saeed Hotari crossed into Israel from the West Bank, and exploded himself at the entrance to the Dolphinarium discotheque on the beach in Tel Aviv, killing twenty-one civilians, most of them high school students. A further 132 people were injured. In response to the massacre, a grassroots movement grew up all over Israel calling itself Fence for Life. They argued, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had argued ten years earlier, that the only way of protecting the country from infiltration by terrorists was by sealing itself off from the Palestinian territories, by removing the points of friction between the two communities. But separation would not be a purely military tactic. No, before he was murdered by a fellow Israeli, Rabin had been arguing something much more radical. “We have to decide on separation as a philosophy.”

There it is. Not just a wall. A wall would be a fact. But this wall is a philosophy, what one observer has called “a political code for shutting up shop.”

Construction began in 2002. The original plan was that the fence should stretch a full 486 miles, the entire length of Israel’s eastern border. The current estimate for its completion is some-time around the end of 2010. Varying in width between 30 and 150 meters, this $2 billion combination of trenches, electronic fences, ditches, watchtowers, concrete slabs, checkpoints, patrol roads, and razor coil is priced at around $2 million per kilometer. Some seventy-five acres of greenhouses and twenty-three miles of irrigation pipes have already been destroyed on the Palestinian side. More than 3,700 acres of Palestinian land have been confiscated, some of it so that the wall may run yards away from Palestinian hamlets and villages. Already, 102,000 trees have been cut down to clear its path.

It is, says an Israeli friend, an acknowledgment of failure. “History has not followed the course we might have wished.” Another way of putting it, later the same evening, after a few drinks in one of the big beachside hotels that are beginning to make the Bauhaus quarter of Tel Aviv look like Florida: “You do have to ask yourself: I’m not sure Ben-Gurion would be thrilled.”


From the start the exact route has been controversial. The most obvious path for it to have followed would have been along the international border, established in 1949 between Israel and Jordan, and known to all parties as the Green Line. But in fact, 85 percent of its intended route is inside the West Bank. The fence snakes and coils, departing eastward from the Green Line in places by just two hundred meters, but in other places by as much as twenty-two kilometers where it goes inland to collect up and protect Israeli settlements established far inside the occupied territory. Sometimes it takes in fertile Palestinian agricultural land and water wells, leaving Palestinian farmers without access to their own fields. Some 140,200 Israeli settlers will be living between the fence and the Green Line. 93,000 Palestinians will be caught on the wrong side of the wall.

For that reason the fence is seen by its opponents not as what it claims to be—a security measure—but more as a land grab, the delineation of a de facto claim, an attempt, like the steady expansion of the Israeli-controlled parts of Jerusalem, to do what is known as “change the facts on the ground.” At the outset of the campaign, supporters of Fence for Life insisted that the wall should be a barrier, not a border. It was not to be used as a bargaining tactic in any future negotiation for a final status agreement. But even Israelis have found this intention hard to credit. Before he left office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted that had he survived in the job he would have sought to set Israeli permanent borders by 2010—and that the border “would run along or close to the barrier.”

Even the most ardent supporters of the fence admit that it is, like the blockade of Gaza, a source of huge inconvenience to Palestinians. But they argue, in the words of one defender, that “the deaths of Israelis caused by terror are permanent and irreversible, whereas the hardships faced by the Palestinians are temporary and reversible.” The International Court of Justice in The Hague had a different view. On July 9, 2004, it ruled 14–1 that

the construction of a wall being built by Israel, the occupying power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory…[is] contrary to international law. Israel is under an obligation…to cease forthwith the works of construction,…to dismantle forthwith the structures therein situated,…to make reparation for all the damage caused by the construction of the wall….

Professor Sari Nusseibeh of Al-Quds University puts it most pithily:

It’s like sticking someone in a cage and then when he starts screaming, as any normal person would, using his violent temper as justification for putting him in the cage in the first place. The wall is the perfect crime because it creates the violence it was ostensibly built to prevent.

To give you an idea what it’s like, one morning I’m setting out from Ramallah. Ramallah houses the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank—as opposed to Hamas, which was elected to govern Gaza in 2006. Ramallah is a government town, and like all government towns—like Washington, D.C., like Canberra—a bit bland, a bit boring. Today I’m setting out with a couple of friends: one is from London, the other, to whom the car belongs, along with the crucial license plate, is Palestinian. The evening before, in a suburb of Jerusalem, I’ve been taking tea with an Israeli intellectual who outlines what he regards as the defining paradox of Israel: to the world it seems powerful and aggressive, yet to itself it seems weak and frail.

Israel, he says, has no real confidence in its own survival. “Israelis have a very fragile sense of the future,” he says.

It’s incredible but the country itself still feels provisional. Of what other state can this be said? I notice when I am in Britain that you plan for 2038, you say there will be this railway or that airport. But no Israeli plans so far ahead without feeling a pang in his heart which asks whether we shall be here at all. We look so strong from the outside, we have such a large army, so many nuclear weapons, we’re so certain in our expansion, and yet from the inside it doesn’t feel like that. We feel our being is not guaranteed. You might say we have imported from the Diaspora the Jewish disease—a sense of rootlessness, an ability to adapt and make do, but not to settle. After sixty years, Israel is not yet a home.

I’m thinking of his words next day—secure but insecure, strong but uncertain—as the three of us come to a roadblock on a road that runs inside the Palestinian part of the West Bank, not far from Jerusalem. It’s a dusty spot, featureless, in the middle of nowhere—or would be featureless if it weren’t for the series of high concrete slabs on our left-hand side. The wall. Although the road doesn’t run through the wall, we are forced to stop. We join a long line of cars which we are told has been here for fifteen minutes. The drivers have turned their engines off, and they sit on the roofs or the hoods, smoking cigarettes and talking. Yes, this is what happens every day. A daily event. For those who go back and forth between towns in the West Bank more than once daily, a more-than-once daily event. The soldiers are letting only one side go through at a time. So we sit for a further twenty minutes, cars coming at us from the opposite direction, and then very slowly, insolently, the Israelis, carrying machine guns, move to our side of the road, and for no reason, begin to let us through.


I say “for no reason” but probably there is a reason. And nobody imagines it has anything to do with security—since the road doesn’t go to Israel itself, and no one shows any interest in the cars themselves. After all, the road stretches empty in either direction, and the checkpoint is not short-staffed. Why, then, are Israeli soldiers wasting time by holding back one line of traffic which they could perfectly well let through, while they permit the flow of another? Why are they doing this? The answer seems clear. They are doing it because they can. To those waiting in line the implicit message is: “If we choose to delay you, we shall. We have the right to delay you. We have the right to render your life meaningless.”


Sean Hemmerle/Contact Press Images

The Palestinian side of the separation wall, Tulkarm, West Bank, July 2004

Inevitably, as we drive on, delayed, I’m still thinking back to the famous writer in the suburb of Jerusalem, the gorgeous evening light, the tea, the home-baked sweet biscuits, the profound leafy calm of his home. “We look strong but we feel weak.” Is that the reason, then, for the harassment, for the needless harassment, for the pointless insistence that daily life be as frustrating as possible? For what the Palestinians call their collective punishment? How, you wonder, are the Palestinians to know that the Israelis feel weak, when all they can see is the Israelis acting strong? When Tony Blair was appointed Middle East envoy in June 2007 there were 521 Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank. Today there are 699.

Another thing my Israeli friend said: “The occupation degrades them. But it also degrades us.”

“We need a wall because we want a normal life,” says one lot. “Our life will never be normal for as long as there’s a wall,” says the other. That’s how it is, or that’s how it seems to me. Israeli prime ministers come in as hawks, promising security crackdowns and military buildups. They leave office convinced that the occupation is unsustainable, that the cost of occupying another people forever cannot be borne. “A new generation of Israelis,” I am told everywhere, “has grown up. They’re more cosmopolitan. They travel the world. Yes, they’re committed to Israel, emotionally they’re committed to its survival, but on the other hand they want a good reason for living here rather than in California. If we can’t give them one, they’ll go elsewhere.” The socialist idealism in which Israel was founded is long gone. In its place, a hardheaded practicality. But if it’s hardheaded practicality you want, if it’s beaches and machine guns, you can find those anywhere in the world. What will make the young choose to live in Israel?

Sure, the religious-minded know the answer to that question, even the putting of the question offends them, but do the secular? It’s the same on the other side, fear of a rising fundamentalism forcing open-minded Palestinians toward an accommodation they were once less ready to make. In conversation, Palestinians in the West Bank don’t quite have the easy generosity the Israelis have; after all, the occupied never do, do they? It’s a different tone. But even so. The rise of Hamas has affected everyone. Its ascendancy in Gaza is as much in reaction to the corruption of the PLO as to any positive enthusiasm for its methods. So—like good British socialists who never spoke ill of the Soviet Union in front of strangers—many Palestinians don’t talk much about Hamas. It’s disloyal. But few people on the West Bank are exactly defending them either.

One evening not long ago we’d been at a party in Ramallah. A guest told me about a Hamas torture technique against citizens of Gaza suspected of being informants:

The victim is shown a wall on which a staircase is drawn, and at the top is a drawing of a bicycle. The victim is told to go and get the bicycle. He says he can’t get the bicycle because it’s a drawing. He is then told if he doesn’t bring the bicycle downstairs he will be beaten. “I can’t get it. It’s a drawing.”

All right, what does that prove? I’m asking myself, as we drive on. Hamas isn’t very nice. You wouldn’t be nice if you lived under permanent siege. But the ingenuity chills me. It’s so thought out, so intellectual even, to ask someone to go get a drawing. Is this what we’re dealing with? So much thought put into a simple means of torture?

I need to know the answer because right now we’re heading for Nablus. But we can’t go along the tarmac road because the Israelis control access. Soldiers have already turned us away a couple of times, so each time we set off in new directions, winding back, climbing, always in search of the one illicit route, unguarded, that takes you into the back of the city.

And all the time, at the top of every hill, it seems, there’s yet another Israeli settlement.

Again, from yesterday, I recall the exasperation of the Israeli writer: “There are only a quarter of a million settlers,” he said. “They’re nothing. They’re the size of an average Israeli town. And 75 percent of them aren’t there out of any religious conviction. They’re there because they’re paid to be. The housing is cheap and the schooling is good. Pay them some more and they’ll leave. And yet,” he says bitterly, “for forty years the national debate has been centered around the fate of these few people. It’s time we moved on.”

It was said with a wave of the hand as if “Oh forget about the settlers, they’ll be dealt with.” But in fact, it isn’t till you travel on the West Bank, it isn’t till you look, it isn’t till you see where the settlers are—literally all around you—that you think, “I’m not sure this is quite as simple as people say.” Because, you see, sometimes you look up to that hilltop, and then the next one, and then the one beyond that, and there aren’t even houses, just trailers, the trailers arriving to plant a new community, and then no sooner planted than they move on to plant another. They’re called settlements, but in fact they’re plantations.

And that’s what I feel in Jerusalem as well. Jerusalem used to be the spiritual capital—after all, that’s what the argument was about. You could feel it, on every street corner, you could feel the history, but now with the hideous wall and the overbuilding and desecration of the landscape—I mean, what is going on? Aren’t they destroying the very quality for which the city was meant to be precious? Aren’t they killing the thing they love? Or is that my problem? Am I just a decadent Westerner who can’t help thinking spirituality must have something to do with beauty? Jerusalem used to be beautiful. Now it isn’t. As far as I’m concerned, Jerusalem is spoiled—How can it not be spoiled? It has a great concrete wall beside it—but then Jerusalem was never intended for me. It was intended for believers.

So—look again, look to the hills, and you can see why the Palestinians consider the settlements not a religious phenomenon but a network of control. Because that’s what they look like. Watching over us. And another thing, by the way, we’re lost. There’s a certain amount of Palestinian macho going on, on my right, my friend boasting “I know the way.” Actually, he doesn’t. So a tall man, pencil-thin, with a mustache and a cigarette, a kind of Oriental George Orwell, has got out of his Volkswagen. “You want to get into Nablus?” he says, roaring with laughter at our uselessness, as if he encounters this problem five times a day. “I’ll get you into Nablus. Follow me.” And off he goes, cheery, farting petrol fumes, the camaraderie of the road, the camaraderie of occupation, the impossibility of daily life turned into survivors’ humor. Across a few unmarked tracks, then we turn a corner, and shit! It’s Nablus. A forty-minute journey has taken three hours, but it’s still Nablus.

Nablus, the town of Joseph’s tomb and Jacob’s well; a city with 180,000 residents, surrounded by six Israeli checkpoints, fourteen Jewish settlements, and twenty-six settlement outposts which are illegal even under Israeli law. Nablus, the city that everyone says will be the crucial testing ground for the future of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank: once a home to the Fatah-based al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, but now with a mayor, Adly Yaish, a graduate of Liverpool University, who, though not a member of Hamas, nevertheless ran on their ticket and got 73 percent of the vote in 2005. Since then he has spent fifteen months of his term as mayor in Israeli jails, without ever being charged with anything. Nine times Israeli judges have ordered his release.

Nablus, a trading center which is no longer allowed to trade because—problem for a trading center—nobody’s allowed to go there. Here we are, passing through gray stone arches into the countless alleys of the old covered market. This could be Marrakech: row upon row of raw meat, and fresh fruit, and flies and umbrellas and clothes and perfumes and spices, and dogs wandering, and children, and bubbling pans of kanafeh, of which the locals are famously proud: layers of Nabulsi cheese boiled with sugar, dyed dayglo-orange and scattered with crushed pistachios. Too rich for my blood. Even the smell sticks my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Up to 80 percent of the citizens of this town are unemployed. So there are few customers, and the prices are half what they are in Jerusalem. In the corner, a biblical hammam, up a short alley, nothing but steam and stones.

Oh yes, I’m happy here, this is the kind of place that makes me happy. You can lose yourself. Now we’ve come upon what seems to be the most famous café, at the center of the market, looking like one of the greenhouses at Kew. Before renovation, of course. Flat-planed walls of cracked glass and rotting timber, giving out onto a sunny courtyard. The Sheikh Qasim Café used to be the fashionable place, the hub, where everyone went. Now with just five of its four hundred wooden chairs occupied, it looks like a film set, a stage play, maybe at the Glasgow Citizens, peeling paint, the wild romanticism of abandonment and decay. Unless something happens soon, unless the Israelis relax their grip, unless peace comes to the Middle East, the soil will reclaim this place. We order Turkish coffee. Then I turn.

On the wall, in this decaying spot, the only new thing: a bright gleaming poster of Saddam Hussein.

It’s one of those moments. I know as soon as I look I’m never going to forget. How do you react to that? If you were going to choose a hero, could you choose a worse? If you were going to choose a future, could you so completely misconceive it? If you were going to choose a leader to take you precisely nowhere, could you do better than Saddam Hussein? My mind flashes back to Cherie Blair, who once fell into one of those stupid media rows for saying that if you deny the young hope, no wonder they blow themselves up. You can understand it, she said, when you come to Palestine. Maybe, but could she “understand” this? You choose as your poster boy someone who has done the world, and the Arab world above all, nothing but harm. The master of mass graves and untold massacres.

I turn to my companion. “What is this?” I ask. “My enemy’s enemy is my friend? Is that what this is about? It’s as dumb as that?” He shrugs, embarrassed. “Well, Saddam stood up to the Americans didn’t he?” And is that the only reason? He shrugs again. “We hated Saddam Hussein. Like everyone else. We despised him. We couldn’t stand him. Until he stood up to the Americans.”

“But he didn’t believe anything you believe.”

They bring the coffee. Who’s the idiot here? Them or me? I think of myself as less naive than Cherie Blair. But am I? Really? At least now I know why the wall’s gone up. The Israelis want to separate themselves from people who display posters of Saddam Hussein. Who can blame them? Or—hold on, the old conundrum—do they display posters of Saddam Hussein because somebody just put up a wall?

Now we’re driving back. We come to the checkpoint. The Israeli soldier is predictably furious. “How did you get in? You’re not allowed in. You know you’re not allowed in.” Us smug, as if it were all in the British TV police show Dixon of Dock Green and sorry, officer. Big grins. “We found a way in.” But actually that’s the point, isn’t it? We found a way in. That’s the point the Israelis don’t want to understand. Even Professor Neill Lochery of London University, a friend of Israel, the author, for goodness’ sake, of Why Blame Israel?, has described the security fence as a white elephant. “Already,” he says, “the wall belongs to a bygone era.” Because before it was even finished, before the $2 billion had even been spent, Israeli’s enemies had switched tactics. They had moved on from suicide bombing to missiles, to firing Qassam rockets, which could, if deployed in the West Bank as they have been in Gaza, sail oblivious way up high above the wall, fueled by nothing but sugar and potassium nitrate. Future fights, says Lochery, will be in the sky. In other words, build a block, people go around it, or in this case over it. In the kernel of an idea lies that idea’s incipient obsolescence.

No single move traps the king.

It’s a nice road. We’re going back to Ramallah on what’s called the VIP road, because zooming away with white faces and two British passports we’ve been mistaken for settlers. So we have priority. We have a lovely empty road to ourselves. We can see the parallel road, the road for Palestinians, just fifty yards away, running alongside. It’s at a standstill. On that road the poor bastards have had to stop again for what looks like most of the afternoon. But us? We sail through. My Palestinian friend lights a cigarette. “Wherever you go, if you want to travel, there will be seventeen-year-old soldiers, Russians, Ethiopians, telling you how to live in your country. I’m old, so I put up with the humiliation, I absorb it.” He drags on his cigarette, his face shading now. “But young people can’t absorb it. They won’t.”

Coming into Ramallah now. Raja Shehadeh, a lawyer who lives here, says that it is Ramallah’s greatest good fortune not to be mentioned in the Bible. For that reason Ramallah is left alone, of no interest to fanatics, because its religious significance is precisely nothing. Nothing divine happened in Ramallah. What a stroke of luck for any town that wants to survive! Not to be named in any Holy Book! And along the cement wall, as we enter the town, is the blossoming graffiti. Oh yes, there’s a parallel here and it’s being made with aerosols and poster paints, so that every visitor will be forced to think “Ah! Berlin!” The wall may be obsolete for Professor Lochery, but for the inhabitants of the West Bank, it’s all too real, blocking out the sun, blocking out the view, forbidding passage. There are people here on the West Bank who have not seen a body of water—lake nor sea—for fifteen years. The wittiest graffiti by far, in enormous capitals, the instruction scrawled across six cement blocks, just the letters CTL ALT DEL. As if at the press of three computer keys, the wall might disappear. Not a wall, just a drawing of a wall.

“It’s no fun fighting strangers,” says one Palestinian acquaintance. “If you’re going to fight, fight family. It’s much more fun.” And it’s true, Jews and Arabs are family, they remind you of each other, the children of Abraham, they remind each other of each other: same vitality, same wit, same land.

“You can tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures,” said Benjamin Disraeli, Britain’s only Jewish prime minister. “If we do not find the path to honest cooperation and honest negotiations with the Arabs, then we have learned nothing from over 2,000 years of suffering and we deserve the fate that will befall us” is what Albert Einstein said.

And now I’m sitting having tea in the al-Kasaba cinema in Ramallah. It’s the only working cinema on the West Bank. Mostly it shows Egyptian comedies. It’s run by George Ibrahim, who’s laughing, as he usually is. “At the moment we are all enjoying jokes about the Western economy going to pieces because we can laugh and say, ‘It won’t affect us because Palestine doesn’t have an economy….'” His friend the playwright Salman Tamer joins in. “What is so shocking about Israel is that these days it doesn’t even have a protest movement. In the old days, there were peaceniks on the streets and long-haired students. Now they have almost no peace movement at all. What can you say? A country which loses its hippies is in deep trouble.”

George drinks his tea and smiles. “The wall is not around us. It’s around them.”

And next day I’m in Jerusalem talking with David Grossman, the Israeli novelist whose son Yuri was killed on the last day of the Lebanon war. His house is still charged with grief.

Of course at the foundation of the state there was a tremendous sense of purpose, of building something together. But we squandered our chance to make the state permanent in 1967. Instead of using the conquered territories as leverage in negotiation, instead we became addicted to occupation. When a people have suffered as much as we have it’s not a bad feeling to be masters for once. And we became addicted to that feeling, like a narcotic.

Now we have terrible trouble imagining any other reality than the one we live in. You become habituated, you cannot believe there is another possible way of life. And so effectively you become a victim of the situation. And here, again, is the central paradox, the idea of Israel was that we should cease to be victims. Instead we hand our fate over to the security people, we allow the army to run the country, because we lack a political class with a vision beyond the military. Survival becomes our only aim. We are living in order to survive, not in order to live.

I want to begin to live. I want some gates in the wall.

This Issue

April 30, 2009