West bank landscaping

In the heart of the West Bank, checkpoints separate Palestinian youth and instructors from their classrooms ; by September the sealed wall will further disrupt access to education.

The view is impressive from the balcony of the Muhsen family’s apartment in Abu Dis. Hisham, a fine arts teacher at Al Quds University, gazes over the rolling hills of Jerusalem, the campus, the valley, and the 8-metre concrete wall that meanders into the distance, cutting through land, neighbourhoods, carving East Jerusalem into pieces. With a grin and a hint of sarcasm, he comments : “Great landscaping right?”

The building was constructed by his father, a traditional farmer and herd-owner. Because it occupies a hilltop, it has been raided many times by Israeli soldiers. Two of Hisham’s brothers are in jail, one since many years. His teenage sister – a high school student – was thrown in jail for several months last year. Like in many other homes in Palestine, the flat is decorated with hand-made objects made by family members behind bars: a map of Palestine and a miniature model of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, one of the three most sacred sites for the Sunnite Muslims.

© 2005 Mary Ellen Davis

Baa, a gifted fine arts student, has come along for the visit. On his set of keys, the miniature photo-portrait of a boy who looks just like him : « My younger brother, shot down by Israeli soldiers last year in the centre of Abu Dis. »

The wall was smaller two years ago. It was even “climbable”, when soldiers were not patrolling. The reasons for climbing over it, in either direction? To get to classes, hospitals, work, shops, family, places of worship, and then back home. The steady stream of « delinquents » did not object to being photographed, filmed, while defying the law of the occupier, since this is a question of basic dignity: over the blocks went schoolkids, teachers, university students, elegantly dressed women, workers, the elderly, the blind, the crippled, mothers, new born babies and toddlers.

By March 2004, this first wall had been dismantled and replaced by sections of the monolithic wall. « A security barrier », says Israel. « The Apartheid Wall, or Annexation Wall », say the Palestinians… The wall in Abu Dis is indeed far from the 1949 Armistice Line, or Green Line, that marks the internationally recognized border between Israel and the potential state of Palestine.

Most often the wall is built deep inside Occupied Palestinian Territory, the term used by United Nations to designate Gaza and the West Bank, whose inhabitants Israel calls « the Arabs of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District », denying any notion of Palestinian identity. Palestine is not « occupied » land, it is « conquered » or at best « disputed », according to Israeli authorities and right-wing zionists.

Reaching University

Saeid studies physical education at Al Quds University. He travels back and forth every day from a village south of Bethlehem, itself south of Jerusalem and connected to it socially, economically and geographically, but now separated from it by checkpoints, and finally the wall. In the heart of the West Bank, on the hill across from Tuku’, Saeid’s village, is the Jewish settlement of Tekoa, built on Palestinian grazing lands. Unfortunately for Tuku, Tekoa was named in the Old Testament and the Talmud, so the settlers feel they have a biblical right to the land. Tekoa’s website invites you to jazz & blues concerts.

On the way in and out of Tuku’, because of Tekoa, there are « flying checkpoints ». Israeli soldiers may stop the collective taxi you are travelling in: you are told to get out and walk, the driver’s keys and papers are confiscated, he is left stranded for an undetermined number of hours. Such an act of « closure » happened on Purim (Jewish Carnival) : security is always heightened on Jewish holidays. But it could be for any other reason, or no reason at all. While manoeuvering to avoid other flying checkpoints, another driver had commented, earlier that day: « The Jews want to have fun, so the Arabs must suffer! » : passengers giggled, laughing at their own misery.

© 2005 Mary Ellen Davis

As well as flying checkpoints, there are permanent ones. Close to his university, Saeid must go through « Container ». Soldiers may let students through, or not. The students may try to walk kilometres in the hills to bypass the checkpoint. Occasionally, the Army enters Abu Dis, storms the campus and closes it for hours. Waves of arrests happen, which explains local arithmetic: there are 8,000 Palestinians in jail, Israel releases 900 of them, there are still 8,000 Palestinians in jail.

One of Saeid’s university friends, who studies English, lives in nearby Hizma, caught in between four settlements built on Palestinian land east of Jerusalem: Adam, Neve Ya’akov, Pisgat Ze’ev, Anatot. And a military base. Another of his friends, a student in nursing, comes from the opposite side of the city, Qatanna, north-west of Jerusalem. He has no idea how he will reach the university once the wall is completed. Given the wall’s « finger » extensions designed to protect the settlements that have spread deep inside the West Bank since 1980, he will have to do a huge loop through the north-east. Or negotiate a permit to cut through Jerusalem East, which is next to impossible for a young Palestinian man. Or fly over the wall eight times a day.

© 2005 Mary Ellen Davis

The threat of culture and knowledge

When leaving Israel, travellers who tell airport security agents they visited Ramallah or Bethlehem can expect to undergo a meticulous scrutiny of their luggage, and a lengthy interrogation by young men and women while standing beside the suitcases. This time, a senior intelligence man poured over the publications and papers I was carrying, asking questions, offering comments, reading everything written in arabic, sharing information with the younger staff, explaining them the significance of his findings.

He was particularly interested in the content of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre brochure, a nonprofit organization in Ramallah that promotes Palestinian art and culture. In April 2002, the Israeli Army took over Palestinian cities, while the world’s attention was focussed on the liberation, or invasion, of Iraq. The Miami Herald did however publish an article on April 24 2002: « Israeli soldiers blamed for vandalism. Palestinian center for arts ransacked ». This must have been retaliation against the « 100 SHAHEED – 100 LIVES » exhibit held the year before, in memory of the fallen of the Aqsa Intifada (Shaheed means martyr, i.e. those killed by Israeli Defense Forces) ? Is commemorating a crime, if you are Palestinian ?

Young Palestinians are still falling and being crippled in the Territories, where : the total number of child fatalities is 886 from Sept. 28 2000 to Sept. 1 2005; 576 school students have been killed, 3500 have been injured; 200 university students have been killed, 1250 injured. Children are prevented from reaching schools and have to catch up with loss of school days. Due to closures and curfews more than 226,000 children in 580 schools find going to school impossible, irregular or very risky. On October 5 2004, 13 year-old Iman Sameer Al-Hams was shot and killed by 20 live bullets on her way to school in Rafah in the Southern Gaza Strip ; she was wearing her school uniform and carrying a school bag.

Learn more

  • Larry Towell (born in Canada), Magnum Photos
  • Maps of closure by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Occupied Palestinian Territories (UN OCHA OPT)
The Jerusalem Powder Keg
United Nations agencies
Israeli and Palestinian organizations

Mary Ellen Davis is an independent documentary director, a part-time university teacher in film production, and a program advisor for the First Peoples’ Festival Présence autochtone.