by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach
Last year I visited Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, located in the West Bank. Around Aida now stands a high wall, built in the name of security. The land confiscated for the wall took the precious open space that was previously available to the residents of the camp and now prevents residents from moving freely.
Staff at the Lajee Center, a local organization providing art and cultural programming for youth, told me that the children in their summer camp asked why they could not visit Haifa, a city 75 miles away in Israel. The staff explained that they did not want to talk politics with children, but shrugged and asked, “What do you say to them?”
How we got here
As part of its military occupation of Palestinian areas, Israel has long pursued a policy of separation between the West Bank and Gaza, largely preventing the movement of people or goods between them. In 1994, the Israeli government built a physical wall around the Gaza Strip.
In 2002 the Israeli government began building a “separation wall” in the West Bank. As of 2015 it is 62 percent complete. When it is finished, it will be 430 miles long, cutting deep into the West Bank. In July 2004 the United Nations’ International Court of Justice issued a ruling declaring that the separation wall was illegal under international law.
Is it about security?
The Israeli government says that the wall was built to keep out suicide bombers and point to the drop in suicide bombings in the years since the wall was started. While the number of violent actions by Palestinians against Israel have dropped substantially, this appears to be due to a variety of factors, only one of which is the wall.
But if Israel’s main purpose in building the wall was to bring security, it would have built the wall on the internationally-recognized border of the 1967 Green Line. Instead, the wall is being built in the West Bank, separating Palestinians from Palestinians.
Communities along the route of the wall have been devastated. Families are divided, children cannot get to their schools, patients cannot access medical care, and employees often cannot get to their workplaces. Before the wall was built, the majority of refugees living in Aida Refugee Camp worked in Jerusalem. Now the unemployment rate for camp residents stands at 40 percent.
System of occupation
Rather than providing security, the wall has de facto annexed Palestinian lands into Israel and serves to further Israeli control over Palestinian areas. Along with an extensive system of checkpoints, roadblocks and restricted roads, the wall is part of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, illegal under international law.
The wall, which is about 70 percent complete, essentially establishes new borders without a peace agreement. When it is complete, it will add an estimated 10 percent of the West Bank’s land to Israel along with 98 percent of the settlers living in illegal Israeli settlements.
Many of the most important underground wells in the West Bank now lie on the Israeli side of the wall. The wall also ensures Israeli access to key holy sites such as Rachel’s Tomb.
Each year the U.S. government gives Israel more than $3 billion in military assistance. Unlike other recipients of U.S. military aid, Israel is not required to track how this assistance is used. But it is almost certainly used to carry out various elements of Israel’s extensive military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, including the separation wall.
What about Gaza?
Although Israel officially withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it has been termed an “open-air prison.” Israel’s blockade is an attempt to isolate Hamas, the Palestinian ruling party in Gaza, which espouses the use of violence against Israel. But, according to U.N. officials, the blockade is illegal and constitutes collective punishment upon all 1.8 million people in Gaza, a strip of land comprising just 139 square miles.
Despite its Mediterranean coastline, Gaza has no operational seaports. Israel closed Gaza’s airport in 2000. And Israel and Egypt have built walls along the entire land border of the Gaza Strip, with strict controls on who and what can cross.
In the past six years, the people of Gaza have endured three full-scale Israeli military invasions. The most recent, in the summer of 2014, took more than 2,100 Palestinian lives, nearly 70 percent of them civilians. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers died, as did five Israeli civilians. Because of the strict controls on importing construction materials, at the time of writing, more than 100,000 people in Gaza remain without homes as a result of the conflict.
Long term, any viable solution that will provide safety and security for Israelis and Palestinians will have to re-establish meaningful connections, including a functional, unified Palestinian government, among the people of the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinians have found many nonviolent ways to resist the military occupation and the walls imposed upon them. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) supports a number of local organizations in this work.
Along the separation wall in the West Bank, artists have drawn creative graffiti expressing their desires. In communities along the path of the wall, Palestinian activists, sometimes joined by Israelis and international activists, regularly carry out nonviolent demonstrations. Demonstrators often endure tear gas and beatings at the hands of the Israeli military. Their stories have been documented in films such as “Budrus” and “5 Broken Cameras.”
These activists call for political advocacy to draw attention to the injustice of the walls. They also urge the international community to engage in nonviolent economic measures, such as boycotts and divestment, to draw attention to Israel’s discriminatory practices.
Ten years ago Palestinian Christians issued the “Kairos Palestine” document, stating clearly their commitment to love for all, accompanied by nonviolent resistance against injustice. Their words are a fitting conclusion: “In the absence of all hope, we cry out our cry of hope…. We believe that God’s goodness will finally triumph over the evil of hate and of death that still persist in our land. We will see here ‘a new land’ and ‘a new human being,’ capable of rising up in the spirit to love each one of his or her brothers and sisters.”