March 20, 2010
“A Wall in Palestine” - A Book That Cannot Be Safely Ignored
Ramat Shlomo is in the headlines today, but the next flashpoint may be the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank that is scheduled for completion in 2010.
That’s the subject of “A Wall in Palestine” by French journalist Rene Backmann (Picador: $16.00, 264 pps.). A best-seller when first published in France in 2006, and newly issued in the United States in an English translation by A. Kaiser, the book will be profoundly off-putting to many Jewish readers, but it makes a point that cannot be safely ignored — the wall is intended to be a barrier against suicide bombers, but it is also an obstacle to peace.
The wall is yet another painful example of how Israel can’t seem to win the war for hearts and minds. Confronted with the appalling carnage that resulted from “martyr operations” in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel resorted to the seemingly simple and obvious measure of making it harder for bombers and snipers to hit their targets. But critics like Backmann condemn the security barrier as an act of aggression and oppression against the Palestinian Arabs, and he speaks for many Israelis and Arabs who feel the same way.
“I still can’t believe that what the entire world saw fall down yesterday in Berlin,” writes Backmann, “could be a solution tomorrow in Jerusalem.”
“A Wall in Palestine” is a work of history, investigative reporting and human portraiture, and it affords us a rare opportunity to see the human face of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “My windows used to open on the rising sun,” says a man named Elie Yacoub, whose house is now only steps from the wall. “They now open on this monster.”
From the perspective of its architects and builders, as Backmann allows us to see, the wall is meant to encourage the peace process. “We are only holding on to it for the duration of the barrier’s mission, which is to get rid of terrorism,” says Netzah Mashiah, the civil engineer who was appointed by Ariel Sharon to supervise its construction in 2002. “We are working from the principle that this barrier is temporary. And that the length of time it stays up depends on how the Palestinians work toward peace. So, it can stay here five minutes or five decades.”
But the real impact of the wall is far more consequential than the view from Elie Yacoub’s window. The wall was intended to create a “zone of separation” between Israel and the West Bank, and that’s why it is called the “apartheid wall” by Arab activists. “Simple things have become complicated, ordinary activities impossible, and there are many new constraints and humiliations,” writes Backmann about life in the shadow of the wall. And he insists that the “meanderings” of the security barrier were “conceived and constructed to protect the settlements, to give them room to develop and grow, and to create territorial integrity with Israel.”
For Backmann, the victims of the wall are the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs who do not carry out acts of terrorism. “Contrary to what one may assume about a people living under occupation, the Palestinians are infinitely patient,” he writes. “Waiting at checkpoints, at vehicle pull-overs and verifications, at barrier doors; waiting at the Civil Administration office for travel permits; waiting for release of prisoners; waiting for the creation of the Palestinian State. Their lives consist of endless waiting.”
Of course, the Israelis are waiting, too. They are waiting for the assurances and conditions that they deem necessary before taking the existential risk that seems to be required in order to make peace with their adversaries. That day appears to be far off, and Backmann’s book makes a good case that the wall is not bringing it any closer.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.