Today I traveled to Bethlehem with several friends to tour the Dheisheh refugee camp and interview the leaders of a cultural center there. We rode the service [sair-veese] or shared taxi from just above old Jerusalem to the military checkpoint north of Bethlehem. I was shocked at the difference a year makes. In addition to the lateral creep of the infamous wall, there is now a major, industrial strength “terminal” through which all Bethlehem – Jerusalem traffic must pass. On the Jerusalem side, a large, cheery sign in three languages greets all who pass: Peace be with you. Too bad the Wise Men and Shepherds weren’t on hand to see it.
Inside the terminal are three hi-tech screening lanes sporting revolving gates, blast-proof glass, bars, cameras, conveyor belts, x-rays and, of course, guns. Three whole lanes sounds and looks impressive except that several Arabs with whom we stood in line told us only one lane is ever used. Even during morning rush, when hordes of Bethlehem “commuters” venture to work in Jerusalem. Waiting for two, even three, hours is common. But now they wait in the shade, so hey.
On the Bethlehem side while taking pictures of the graffiti, a grandmother met us with a simple plea: don’t just take pictures, speak out. The wall, she explained, separates her from her son and his family, a major hardship in a world where kinship ties are close and where grandparents play a central role in raising children. Several of those children looked on as she released her pent up indignation. Soon enough they will be big enough to throw rocks.
Will the wall reduce acts of violence in Israel? Will it keep militants from scuttling peace negotiations? Is the wall a necessary evil? Israeli statistics suggest that violence is down sharply in areas where the wall is complete (though some of those stats come from a period of mutual ceasefire, making it harder to gauge the effect of the wall on its own). Presumably the wall will make violent acts against Jews much more difficult to pull off. At least in the short term.
But where this barrier separates grandmothers from grandchildren, cuts off farmers from cherished olive and citrus groves, uproots vineyards, confiscates land, adds dozens of unproductive hours to the work week, deviates significantly from the 1949 Armistice (“Green”) Line and enforces a policy of collective punishment, I would be surprised if in the long run the wall didn’t make the militants’ task of gathering recruits much simpler. Like, say, gathering ripe olives from a nearby tree.
The cynical joke of a young Arab in the refugee camp today revealed a chilling level of bitterness: if the wall doesn’t achieve Israel’s goals, he said, they can always finish the job by putting on a roof.