ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Writing on the Wall

The Israeli security barrier deepens the divide in the Holy Land

As hard as the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem was some 2,000 years ago, if Mary and Joseph were to do it today, the journey might be impossible.

In June 2002, the Israeli government decided to erect a barrier to separate Israel, where Nazareth is located, from the West Bank, where Bethlehem lies.

The barrier, now partially constructed, is a combination of electronic and barbed wire fencing, military roads and concrete walls, stretches of which reach 26 feet in height.

The barrier does not run along the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank. It is being built, for the most part, on West Bank land taken without compensation. Israel has occupied the West Bank since the conclusion of the Six Day War in 1967.

The barrier, which the Israeli government says is necessary to prevent terror attacks within Israel, snakes through the West Bank, separating farm from farmer, student from school, grandchildren from grandparents, one side of town from the other. By making movement difficult, it is keeping people from living their lives and earning their livelihoods with dignity.

Lamia is a nurse at Muslim Muqassad Hospital on the Mount of Olives. She is a resident of Bethany, the hometown of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.

The Israelis had annexed Bethany, an Arab village, to Jerusalem, which means Lamia has an Israeli-issued Jerusalem permit allowing her to travel freely. But her status is about to change.

The barrier will put Bethany outside Jerusalem and make Lamia and her family West Bankers. Israeli law forbids West Bank residents to work in or travel to Jerusalem without a special permit. Lamia is about to be handed a pink slip.

But the hospital counts on Lamia. Duty and financial need have now forced her to do what many Palestinians do, use a route that skirts the not yet completed wall and the Israeli border guards. Backyards, convent gardens and even cemeteries are commonly used alternate routes.

The Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows live and work next door to Bethany in Abu Dis. The sisters run a home for the elderly, which has received CNEWA assistance for years and provides seniors with a clean environment, good meals and companionship.

The neighborhood was a haven of peace and quiet. Then the wall came.

The wall was routed right outside the home’s front gate. The space between the gate and the wall is just big enough for a car or ambulance to pass.

The sisters and their elderly charges now live in a construction zone.

Buildings shake as the bulldozers roll by. The home’s walls have cracked from the pounding. Dust covers the gardens and filters into the buildings. At the beginning of the construction work, the sisters and their residents were without water and electricity.

It took a demonstration by foreign volunteers to draw attention to the home’s predicament and get the responsible authorities to make repairs.

The long-term effect of the wall has the sisters worried. Although the home will remain on the Jerusalem side, many of their workers come from the West Bank. So do a number of the families of the residents.

The sisters may have to fire loyal staff because the workers will not be able to get to work. As for the elderly, their children’s visits are the best medicine – and “medicine” should be taken on a regular basis.

And when a death occurs, how will the family come for the body?

Even pilgrims feel the pinch of the barrier. The traditional Palm Sunday procession from Bethany to the Mount of Olives will have to change its course.

The present crossing point in the Bethany section of the wall is a crowded, noisy, dusty and generally unpleasant place, wide enough for an Israeli border guard and one pedestrian.

Pilgrims and tourists constitute a small percentage of the people using the crossing. Most are students, housewives, merchants, office workers and delivery boys with coffee cups on trays.

Cars cannot pass. Instead of taking one bus or taxi from Bethany to Jerusalem, the commuter or shopper or student or sister must get out on one side of the wall, line up, pass the scrutiny of the border guards and then take another car from the other side.

Making life easy or difficult for the Palestinians trying to cross the wall falls to the discretion of the guards.

A French friend in Bethany called with the warning: “If you come to visit today, you will have to dirty your clothes.”

At the crossing point it was clear what she meant. The guards had obstructed the crossing with huge cement blocks.

No one could say why.

The guards stood on top of the blocks and watched as young males scampered their way up. The women struggled, hoisting themselves and their children, waving their identification cards in their hands, then swinging their legs over and descending to the other side. Everyone got their clothes dirty.

The next day the blocks were gone, as were the guards. People moved freely back and forth as if there were no wall at all.

El Ram, another Arab town near Jerusalem, will become part of the West Bank once the wall is built. El Ram’s wall story is full of questions, mostly rhetorical ones. How will the children get to their schools in Jerusalem? How will workers get to their jobs?

For town officials, two more issues will have to be solved: El Ram has no landfill and no cemetery. El Ram’s agreements on these two services with other Jerusalem- area towns will soon be obsolete.

Ironically, the town’s new status will affect Jewish wholesalers who have done business for years with El Ram shopkeepers. Jewish and Palestinian shoppers find El Ram a great place to shop on Saturdays when Jewish-owned shops are closed for Shabbat.

Life is not easier outside Jerusalem.

The Emmanuel Sisters in Bethlehem are a contemplative order. Their simple lives became complicated when the road leading to their convent became part of the barrier project.

To compensate, the Israeli government took land from their neighbor’s front yard and built the sisters a new road. The neighbor now has a road and a 26-foot-high wall outside his home where a view across the valley once greeted him and his family each day.

Military law does not allow him to plant or landscape the remaining land. It is too close to the wall. He also had to reconfigure his driveway.

The family is prohibited from using the roof of their house, where his wife would hang the laundry and where summer breezes would cool the family on hot nights.

Wherever the wall is in place, there is also graffiti. Popular are political slogans criticizing the Israeli and U.S. governments, as well as colorful pleas for peace and calls to halt the wall’s construction.

Construction of the barrier has left the land scarred by bulldozers busy uprooting the natural environment to make room for concrete and metal. The stone retaining walls of some convents and monasteries on the Mount of Olives have been so damaged by the construction that one good rain may spell collapse.

Whatever biblical image pilgrims have of the Mount of Olives is erased by the most incongruous combination of dusty olive trees and concrete wall segments awaiting assembly.

Everywhere in the West Bank, sections of the wall stand in the distance, but with each day they move closer along their projected path.

And then the day comes when the homeowner, the farmer or the mother superior of a convent is notified that their land is being taken for the barrier.

In Bethlehem, one landowner found a notice nailed to one of his olive trees. Three or four strikes with a hammer and the land was no longer his.

After the bulldozers have finished uprooting the olive trees, farmers sneak back onto the property and haul away any survivors for replanting.

Aware that mature olive trees fetch good money inside Israel, construction crews often illegally take the trees away for resale.

The specter of the wall also features prominently in meetings of humanitarian groups, health care facilities and other nongovernmental organizations. Their staff spends hours planning for the barrier’s impact on their work.

The mobility problem – employees living on the “wrong side” of the wall – is the greatest.

The Jerusalem-area family home of Maher Turjman, CNEWA’s Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, will be surrounded by two walls by the end of the year, making his daily trip to the office in the Old City a near impossibility.

Rather than lose valuable hours navigating a circuitous route to work, Mr. Turjman and his young family have taken an apartment at St. Joseph Hospital.

“The wall will do little to serve peace,” he said. “Anything that breaks up families, makes work more difficult and threatens the free flow of people will only harden divisions that have already cost both Israelis and Palestinians so much suffering.”

This article marks Marilyn Raschka’s 15th year as a contributor to the magazine.

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