Autumn 2007: Cover Story
Beyond the Wall
Despite disheartening divisions in the Holy Land, the hope for peace endures
By Mary J. Loftus
A colony of swifts has taken to nesting in the cracks of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. The tiny brown birds—which remain airborne for most of their lives, sleeping and mating while they glide—dart over the heads of the faithful to their homes amid the worn stones and small scraps of folded prayers.
Staffers from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority have struggled to protect the birds’ habitat over the years while maintaining the wall’s integrity, in a careful balance of preservation of history and conservation of species.
If only all territorial disputes in Israel were so readily solved.
Space for peaceful coexistence seems a rare commodity here, shadowed by the ongoing battle over boundaries between Israelis and Palestinians and construction of the new separation wall cutting across this arid, ancient land.
The capital city of Jerusalem, with its triumvirate of holy sites—the Temple Mount and Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the gold-capped Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque—is at the core of the debate. This is where, it is said, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus took place; where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven; where Abraham would have made his greatest sacrifice.
Religious history is not dry and dead here, but is infused into the sandy hills and the olive trees, the ruined and rebuilt holy sites, the deeply held beliefs of visitors. Jerusalem’s sacred legacy has brought the city not only countless pilgrims but also centuries of conflict. Among the empires that have ruled this land are the Hebrews, Persians, Romans, Arabs, Western Crusaders, and the Ottoman Turks.
“Jerusalem was a crusader kingdom,” said Professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies Shalom Goldman, who lived in Israel for six years and has visited regularly for decades. “The city was ruled by the Crusaders from 1099 to 1187. The Ottoman Turks captured Jerusalem in 1517 and later rebuilt the walls of the city. For centuries, the walls delineated Jerusalem and the gates closed every night. If you were caught outside the city, you were in danger of bandits. Today, old Jerusalem exists within the walls, and new Jerusalem, outside.”
Standing in a patch of shade by the Jaffa gate to escape the glaring August sun, Goldman looks across the sloping hills of the city toward Mount Zion.
“What dominate here,” Goldman says, “are religion and real estate.”
Under the frequently proposed two-state solution, some see Jerusalem becoming an international city under neutral rule; others would divide the city into East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem, the capitals of the states of Palestine and Israel, respectively.
“Everyone owns a stone in Jerusalem. No one will give it up,” says planning consultant Estephan Salameh, who is on the Palestinian National Authority’s negotiation team. “To divide Jerusalem would be to destroy it. You can’t divide your heart.”
In late July and early August, a group of University administrators, alumni, staff, and faculty traveled to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories through Journeys, an interreligious program run by the Office of Religious Life.
Journeys take Emory groups to places around the globe with difficult histories of violence or conflict. Past trips have included South Africa, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Bolivia, Cuba, the Texas/Mexico border, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, and the Cheyenne and Crow reservations in Montana.
The intent of this journey, to a place both blessed and cursed by its history, was to better understand the root causes of conflict in the region, to build lasting relationships, and to explore points of contact between the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The group flew into Amman, Jordan, on July 30, crossed the border into Israel on August 1, and spent the next six days exploring Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Negev Desert.
“For many years, this was the place I wanted to come with a group,” said Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life Susan Henry-Crowe 76T, who directs the Journeys program. “With all the conversation going on now about this region, and all the controversy surrounding Jimmy Carter’s book [Palestine Peace Not Apartheid ], the time was right. This group will shape the discourse on campus.”
Taking part were Henry-Crowe, Provost Earl Lewis, Candler Dean Jan Love, Senior Vice President John L. Ford, Emory Trustee Wendell Reilly 80C, Dean of Oxford Stephen Bowen, Oxford Chaplain Judy Shema 07T, alumna and translator Reem Marto 03C, Associate Professor of English Deepika Bahri, Associate Professor of Political Science William Cody, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies department administrator Nick Fabian, Office of International Affairs communication specialist Alma Freeman, Visual Arts senior lecturer Diane Solomon Kempler, Professor of Anthropology Bruce Knauft, Counseling Center Director Mark McLeod, and Associate in Neurology and Biostatistics Joanne Wuu.
“I’m excited about the chance to go beneath the surface, to drill down to a more organic sense of the issues,” said Knauft, who is executive director of Emory’s Institute for Comparative and International Studies.
Trained as a cultural anthropologist, Knauft spent years conducting research among the Gebusi, a remote rainforest people of Papua, New Guinea, and has written on social inequity, politics, and violence. “I really wanted to go on this trip to see for myself what was occurring in the region,” he says. “I was hoping to resolve some questions I had in my own mind.”
Over the following week, the Emory group would visit lavish private homes and crowded refugee camps, nomadic villages and modern hospitals, forgotten shrines and sacred religious sites. They met with Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis from many walks of life—writers, politicians, professors, doctors, former soldiers, peace workers, activists, farmers, refugee families, and religious leaders.
“This environment does not boil down to Palestinian versus Israeli,” said Peter Miano, group leader and Methodist minister, who conducts trips to the Middle East through his agency, Terra Vista, from offices in Boston and Bethlehem. “That’s a very reductionist viewpoint. There are many different sides and factions.”
Even the maps of the region aren’t neutral, stressed Miano, who believes the conflict is less about religion than the residue of nationalistic competition and externally established boundaries. “All cartography here is value-charged,” he says. “Very straight lines on a map indicate artificial boundaries. Frontiers between empires used to be fluid and occurred naturally in population-free zones. Boundaries have now become very important, because they cut through populated zones.”
It quickly became evident that Israel and the Palestinian territories were experiencing an especially intense summer, with violent internal political conflicts in the West Bank and Gaza, renewed talks between the Palestinian and Israeli governments, and continued construction of the $1.3 billion separation barrier.
Hamas—the Islamic Resistance Movement, considered a terrorist organization by many governments, including the United States—used force to take over control of the Gaza Strip in June after being denied seats won in last year’s Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Fatah, the more moderate Palestinian National Liberation Movement, called the takeover a coup d’etat and retained control of the Palestinian Authority, the seat of government in the West Bank.
Israel sealed Gaza’s borders, blocking travel to and from Israel and the West Bank by Gaza’s 1.5 million residents. Attacks on Israeli border towns have increased.
“I live within firing range of the rockets,” said Ye’ela Raana, an Israeli who spoke to the Emory group about the plight of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert. Her own home is in a Jewish kibbutz near Gaza. “At the college where I teach, the students have panic attacks. Some can’t stop shaking. You hear the boom of the rockets, but you have to keep on teaching. The chance of being hurt is very low, so you live by that.”
The U.S. and other countries have been quick to open talks with the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas. On August 2, as the Emory group was touring Jerusalem, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Palestinian cabinet in Ramallah and spoke with President Abbas about the Middle East peace conference set for this fall.
In welcoming Rice, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipora Livni said, “There’s never a dull moment in the region, but this is really a crucial point in time. . . . Israel is not going to miss this opportunity.”
A few days later, a meeting took place in Jericho between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert—the first such high-level meeting in Palestinian territory in many years. The most optimistic among Israelis and Palestinians express hope that the split between Fatah and Hamas will provide a new impetus for peace talks and revive negotiations, which had stalled after the failed Oslo Accords and the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000.
Gershon Baskin, a self-described Zionist and founder of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, a public policy think tank, told the Emory group that he was buoyed by the recent moves toward negotiation.
“You are here during a rare moment of optimism,” Baskin said, speaking in the retreat-like setting of the Tantur Center in the hills of Jerusalem. “After all these years of failed peacemaking, a window is now open by strange circumstances. These last few weeks, there has been a flurry of international and local activities. But will this be translated into something Palestinians can feel in their daily lives, to ensure that what happened in Gaza doesn’t happen in the West Bank?”
The first steps toward peace, he said, must focus on improving the economy and job opportunities for Palestinians, reducing the number of checkpoints, and freezing the growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
Later steps, Baskin says, would include determining the border between Israel and Palestine, land swaps, and dual capitals established in Jerusalem.
Baskin, who often spends all day on his phone or computer trying to get a field of dying strawberries watered or trucks full of paper delivered to Gaza schoolchildren, is eager for a definitive resolution: “There is no room for interim agreements anymore.”
As Mustafa Barghouti, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, told the group: “Palestinians want the right to self-determination and freedom, to live in a homeland with peace, security, and good jobs. This is not extraordinary.”
The nature of walls is to secure and divide, protect and prohibit, keep in and keep out.
Not surprisingly, construction of the Israeli/Palestinian separation barrier, which began in 2002, has been controversial.
Even its various names have political connotations—the barrier is frequently called the “security fence” by Israelis and the “apartheid wall” by Palestinians, or simply “the wall” by many on both sides of its wending path.
The planned 400-plus-mile barrier takes the form of a towering grey concrete structure in some parts and high-tech fencing with electronic sensors in others. It is bordered by vehicle-barrier trenches and rolled barbed wire, and monitored by guard posts and surveillance cameras.
While passing through checkpoints near main portions of the wall, the Emory group was able to view graffiti and murals painted on the Palestinian side, including an aggressive lion attacking the Middle East with “hypocrisy” written beneath it, the silhouette of a small girl flying over the wall by holding on to a cluster of balloons, and the phrases “Paid for by the USA” and “To exist is to resist.”
“The wall has become a visual billboard for emotions that are running rampant,” said Diane Solomon Kempler, a sculptor and senior lecturer in visual arts at Emory. “The graffiti that we saw included strong statements of hostility as well as ones begging for peace.”
Israelis say they have good reason to build a secure barrier: From 2000 to 2006, 171 people were killed in thirty-eight suicide bombings in Jerusalem. The Israeli government points to the fact that since the wall has been finished in high-risk areas, suicide bombings have been greatly reduced.
The wall enjoys “almost a consensus among Israelis that it’s a good thing,” says Emory Professor of Hebrew and Arabic Benjamin Hary, who grew up in Haifa and returns to Israel most summers to teach. “The amount of suicide attacks before it was enormous. In the Israeli mind, this has helped to prevent them.”
Any fence, however permanent it looks, can later be removed, says Ari Varon, foreign policy adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister, who spoke with the Emory group after staying up for several nights to prepare for the talks between Olmert and Abbas.
“I believe that, even to Palestinians, [the barrier] is preferable to incursions by Israeli military forces leading to arrests,” Varon says. “Security is crucial for us as we move forward toward finding ways to communicate. We must not look at history and say it’s impossible, but try instead to build upon what is possible.”
Palestinians, however, tend to view the barrier as a land grab. “The wall is built on Palestinian land. It is built around Israeli settlements. Gaza and the West Bank are already just 22 percent of mandated Palestine—how much of our own land will continue to be denied to Palestinians?” asked Jad Issac, director general of the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem.
Issac showed the Emory group a series of maps tracking the evolution of the “Green Line,” or the proposed boundary between Israel and Palestine, over time. Each shaded depiction of the Palestinian territories becomes smaller than the last, from the 1949 Armistice line, to the revision after the 1967 Six-Day Arab-Israeli War, to the present-day borders.
The International Court of Justice, seated in The Hague, has said that the barrier as it is being built breaches international law, and a United Nations report stated that it would block as many as 400,000 Palestinians from their fields, jobs, schools, and hospitals.
Farouk Abdul-Rahim, director of Makassed Islamic Charitable Hospital, which has the only emergency room in East Jerusalem, says many Palestinians already lack access to timely medical care. He recounts stories of women giving birth at checkpoints, severely ill children turned back in the middle of the night, postsurgical patients who can’t return for checkups.
“We receive patients from everywhere, even Gaza, but we have to have permits for every patient coming in from the West Bank. Many people would like to come here because of the facilities we have. Some are denied permits, some ambulances are turned back at the wall, and we can’t do anything about that,” said Abdul-Rahim, who returned to Jerusalem from private practice in Illinois. “Even during war, ambulances move freely between borders, protected under the Geneva Conventions. Now, we are not at war, so we should have free access.”
Abdul-Rahim proudly showed the Emory group around the recently renovated hospital, which offers six specialty areas, including cardiac surgery, a neonatal unit, and an intensive care unit. Still, he says, overall health care for Palestinians is in crisis.
A few days before, hospital employees had gone on strike. “There wasn’t enough cash to pay them,” he said.
Against the barren landscape of the West Bank, the clusters of villas with red-tile roofs stand out like mirages shimmering in the distance.
While the half-completed separation barrier is perhaps the most visible sign of the Palestinian-Israeli divide, equally controversial are the Jewish settlements and the segregated highways that serve them.
Figures vary as to how many Jewish settlers now live in the occupied territories—estimates are 200,000 to 250,000. This figure does not include the 200,000 Israelis who live in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the Six-Day War. Many of these residents are not even aware that they live on land that is in dispute.
Settlers who live deep within the occupied territories or on outposts, however, tend to be more extreme in their beliefs, and see the settlements as part of a divine plan for taking back “greater Israel,” as denoted by biblical boundaries.
“Imagine being on the spot where Jacob had his famous dream. Where Abraham got the promise of his land,” said Hagi Ben-Artzi, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, who lives at the Beit-El settlement and shared his beliefs with the Emory group. “It is all part of the great process of return of the Jewish people to the Promised Land, which is a divine process. Yes, it’s a biblical point of view. The Bible is the basis of our existence.
“There is no precedent in human history of a people exiled two thousand years ago, persecuted, murdered, who, in spite of all this, survived and remained loyal to their heritage, their beliefs. The period of exile is over; now is the period of redemption.”
Families who live in the settlement areas feel strongly that the land is rightfully theirs and point to historic Jewish villages once located there. The close contact between Jewish settlers and surrounding Palestinians has led to acts of violence. The United Nations Human Rights Council has called on Israel to dismantle its settlements in the occupied territories and to confiscate the weapons of Jewish settlers, who say they are armed for their protection.
In 2005, Israel removed thousands of Jewish residents from settlements in Gaza, forcibly carrying away settlers who refused to leave. The settlements in the West Bank remain, however, and have in fact increased in number and population, according to B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
The Jewish settlement in the West Bank city of Hebron—site of the Cave of the Patriarchs, which is revered in all Abrahamic religions—is perhaps the most controversial.
Emory Journeys participants drove by the outskirts of Hebron on August 7, as inside the former Arab market hundreds of Israeli riot police removed two settler families from houses they had been occupying for months. Police reported that fifteen people were hurt, eleven of them riot police who were pelted by rocks and chunks of metal by settler supporters.
“The city of Hebron is a microcosm of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” says Jessica Montell, executive director of B’Tselem. “This is a Jewish settlement in the heart of a Palestinian city. There are extreme restrictions on Palestinian movement to protect the settlers.”
The main streets are closed, she says, and settler violence has led to the abandonment by Palestinians of what was once their city center. “What is justified to keep Israelis safe?” asks Montell. “Clearly, these are disproportionate measures inside the West Bank. Settlers should not be there in the first place. And yet, the settlements are expanding.”
Because it is illegal for most Israelis to go into the occupied territories, they seldom see the reality of the West Bank, says Montell—the economic deprivation; the lack of infrastructure like sewers, playgrounds, or garbage pickup; the poor housing conditions.
The Emory group, however, spent much of its time in the West Bank, an area recently described by the World Bank as a “shattered economic space.” It was not uncommon to see donkeys pulling carts of produce, half-finished homes, buildings collapsed into rubble, shops and restaurants with only a sprinkling of customers. Unemployment is rampant; jobs simply don’t exist.
“It seems Israelis feel that time is on our side,” says Montell, who was raised in a Jewish family in Northern California and had a Zionist education. “That is patently not the case. People grow poorer, more desperate, more fundamentalized.”
Suspicion and anxiety are the jittery offspring of unpredictable violence.
Even the Israeli soldiers are nervous, although they act impervious as they man checkpoints and inspect vehicles, says twenty-five-year-old Oded Naaman.
Naaman spent three years in the Israeli military and is now with Breaking the Silence, a group of discharged soldiers who collect testimonials from other soldiers about their service.
“The testimonials force Israelis to see what we went through in their name,” says Naaman, who has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Hebrew University. “We do have threats around us. Terrorists are a fact. They are a small percentage, but it is your job to control whether they get into Israel or not. You can’t even think about the stakes being that high, the intensity of the situation, all the time. It does something to the soldiers as much as it does to the population we are controlling. The price of occupation is very high for both sides.”
Palestinian Christian Peter Nasir 02C recently left a job with the United Nations to open a restaurant, Azure, in the West Bank. “I decided to come back here. This is my home. But sometimes it seems there is nothing I can do to make the situation better,” he says. “Palestinians are good, normal people. We do not have violence in our roots, in our blood. We are just on the wrong side of a line, of a political thought that occurred halfway around the world.”
Refugee camps, it might seem, need a new classification once they become permanent homes.
The Al Arroub Camp was established with many other Palestinian refugee camps after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war with the idea that it would be a temporary shelter for those who had been displaced. Families who live there have just enough benefits—U.N. schools, a clinic, a modest stipend from the government—to keep nearly ten thousand adults and children in the ramshackle dwellings.
On this parched August afternoon, a garbage truck clatters down a narrow alley, the words “A Gift from Japan” lettered on its compactor. Murals of cartoon characters and political posters are plastered on the walls. Children play with plastic-bag kites and wear shoes a few sizes too small.
“Palestinian refugees have been inhabiting this camp for the past sixty years, across several generations,” says Knauft. “During these decades, they have been and continue to be wards of the United Nations, without citizenship or nationality.”
When Knauft returned to Atlanta, he asked a friend to translate Arabic words spray-painted on the wall behind two young boys in a photograph. It read: “You, with bloody eyes and hands, the night will end, neither the interrogation room nor the iron of chains would last forever.”
“This photo makes me think, what is the relation between the hurt of its inscription and the playful boys who came to greet us as visiting Americans?” Knauft asks. “The tension between these overlapping paths—between opposition on one hand and resilience on the other—was prominent.”
Today, refugees account for 30 percent of the West Bank population, according to the World Health Organization. At the camp, the group met Palestinian Rania Aranaout, who works and lives with her two children in Jerusalem. She is able to see her husband, Hisham Al-Rai, who lives in the Al Arroub camp, only on weekends. “We are only one story out of millions of stories,” she says. “We are now professionals at finding alternatives.”
Al-Rai, who is fluent in English and sometimes provides tours of the camp, met the Emory visitors at the camp’s entrance and led them through a labyrinth of passages and past a dress shop into a community center, where children’s artwork and handicrafts by the camp’s women line the walls and tables, available for purchase. The center is self-supporting.
“It is a new generation, with new ideas that a woman can take part in the community,” says Aranaout, a poised, educated professional and deeply religious young mother who wears a veil.
Al-Rai is quick to point out that this was her idea, not his. “She was even more beautiful at university when she did not wear it,” he says playfully.
“I was twenty-six when I decided to wear the veil,” she explains. “It was a personal decision. We had a crisis with our son, and I needed God to be with me to save my child’s life. God did this for me, but what did I do for God? So I decided to wear the head dress, to be close to God.”
She pauses in silent contemplation, then adds: “If I had been forced to do it, I wouldn’t respect it.”
On a nearby hilltop southwest of Bethlehem, Daoud Nassar has established the Tent of Nations on his family’s land—a project he hopes will “create deep roots of peace, the way an olive tree grows.”
Nassar and his relatives have created a gathering place for international guests and a summer camp for children from areas of conflict around the world. The serene setting includes an open-air stage for plays and performances, a campfire circle for storytelling, lots of space to hike, animals to help tend.
The rocky land, spotted with grapevines and fig trees, has been in Nassar’s family for generations, and he has original deeds that date back to the Ottoman Empire. There are natural caves at the top of the hill where several of Nassar’s older male relatives lived for much of their lives. While Nassar stays in a more traditional house, with the modern adaptations of solar panels and wireless Internet, he has kept the caves open for campers and visitors.
Retaining his rights to his family’s hundred acres has been a costly, arduous process, involving court orders and intimidation by nearby settlers, Nassar says, but his many supporters from surrounding villages and the international community have provided protection for him and his family.
Ecumenical Accompaniers—volunteers from the World Council of Churches (WCC) who monitor sites for human rights violations—often stay at the camp. Brigitta Boeckmann, a current volunteer, is a spry sixty-four-year-old from Germany who previously volunteered in Hebron and Gaza, monitoring checkpoints and walking Palestinian children to school past Jewish settlements.
Candler Dean Jan Love, who was on the leadership committee of the WCC when the Ecumenical Accompaniers program was established, spent some emotional time talking with Boeckmann. “It’s just so amazing and inspiring to see these volunteers in action,” Love said. “They, like many people on all sides of this conflict, seek earnestly for practical ways of contributing daily to the possibilities of peace.”
While Nassar’s wife, Jihan, a computer teacher, served sage tea and dark honey cake to Emory visitors, Nassar said that he and his family still live day to day, not knowing what will happen.
“We aren’t allowed to add on any permanent structures or to have running water or electricity, so we use generators and tents for visitors—and we build bridges of understanding,” Nassar said. “As Palestinians, we refuse to play the victim role. If there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Compromise, according to the old saw, is when no one gets what they want. The flip side is that everyone might just get what they need.
“Each of us can live with our narrative, so long as we are pragmatic when it comes to the land,” Israeli foreign minister Livni told the New York Times. “I still believe in our right to the whole land, but felt it was more important to make a compromise. We cannot solve who was right or wrong in 1948 or decide who is more just. The Palestinians can feel justice is on their side, and I can feel it is on my side. What we have to decide about is not history but the future.”
David Shulman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, told the Emory group that “it is not possible for anyone to keep three and a half million people locked up in a cage forever.”
Despite sometimes becoming dispirited, Shulman, a longtime peace activist, believes that compromise is achievable. “This is a tribal war,” he told the Emory group. “There are ruthless nationalist movements happy to destroy each other. But the Israeli people as a whole want peace.”
Hanan Ashrawi, founder of MIFTAH, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, had a similar message.
“Our economy is in shambles, and we live in a state of siege. We already can’t move, can’t breathe,” says Ashrawi, a scholar and politician who is perhaps the most recognizable face of the Palestinian community from her years as a media spokesperson. “We need to work on nation building, to undo the damage that has been done. And we need to dismantle this horrible wall. Historically, all walls have been proven to be failures—they betray a mind frame of hostility. They steal your horizon.
“I’m probably more stubborn and committed than hopeful right now,” Ashrawi said, meeting with the Emory group in her Ramallah office, “but I’m going to stay at it.”
Professor Hary, who recently returned from a summer trip to Israel to teach fall classes at Emory, sees the mutual recognition of Palestinians and Israelis as a huge step forward.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, Israel was totally isolated,” he says. “Israelis could never leave Israel to go to Jordan, to Egypt—there were no peace treaties, there was no acknowledgment. Now, there are pockets of hope that exist everywhere. In general, I feel there is a moving toward reconciliation.
“Clearly, both sides want their own place. There must be some sort of understanding that people can live with. The ordinary people, they don’t want to live like this forever. And, at the end of the day, the ordinary people have the power.”