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Excerpt from an important new book: A Wall in Palestine

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We are excited to share an excerpt from A Wall in Palestine, a new book by French journalist Rene Backmann (published by Picador). Backmann is a foreign affairs columnist for Le Nouvel Observateur.

The book tells the story of the Separation Wall in the West Bank, its history and devastating impact. The book puts a human face on this massive project, and shows what it has meant for people’s day to day lives. The excerpt below tells one of those stories. Terry Boullata is the principal of an elementary school in Abu Dis, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem that has been bisected by the Wall. The excerpt discusses how the Wall has impacted the school Boullata runs, and how it divides and disrupts the Palestinian families that end up in its path.

The Wall in Abu Dis (Photo: Rachel Naparstek)

A member of an old Jerusalem family, Terry had married Salah Ayyad, the son of a successful businessman from Abu Dis, toward the end of the First Intifada. Terry was Christian; Salah, Muslim. Both were members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and had spent time in Israeli prisons for having belonged to an outlawed political party. Neither one saw their religion as an issue. “We were married during the Gulf War, but we still had a party at the Cliff Hotel, which belonged to my husband’s family, until it was confiscated by the Israeli army in 2003 in order to set up quarters for the Border Police,” Terry recounts. “The municipal boundary of Greater Jerusalem, drawn by the Israelis after capturing the eastern part of the city in 1967, ran straight through the hotel. The bar was in Jerusalem, the restaurant in the West Bank. This was just one of the countless absurdities of the occupation, and it sometimes caused problems with the Israeli military bureaucracy. But it didn’t get in the way of the hotel’s daily functioning, nor did it hinder customers coming from the West Bank or from Jerusalem. They simply had to cross the army checkpoints, wait, and run the risk of being turned back. But the Palestinians of my generation have been used to doing that since birth.”

By the time the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords had been signed, Terry had left the DFLP to join an organization working to reform the status of women in Palestinian society. She and her husband moved to the second floor of a little white- stone apartment building within the municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem, about twenty yards from the Cliff Hotel. The building had been built in 1958 by Salah’s family.

“I was filled with hope,” Terry admits today, now regretting her naïveté. “I really believed we were finally going to have our State and live as neighbors with the Israelis. I was so full of enthusiasm that I decided in 1999 to open a kindergarten and elementary school in Abu Dis, to contribute to the education of the new generations of Palestinians. ‘New generation’ was actually the name that I had chosen for it. I borrowed thirty thousand dollars, then twenty thousand, then ten thousand, and I started with fifty children. Five years later, I had two hundred children and twenty-two teachers. It was a heady time. The school was a five-minute walk from my home. All I had to do was cross the street near the mosque, walk the length of the Palestinian parliament building that was under construction, pass by Al-Quds University, and I was at work.

anopeninginthewallAn opening in the Wall in Abu Dis (Photo: Neta Efroni)

“Like many of my pupils and teachers who lived within Jerusalem city limits, I continued to take the same route to the school, despite the wall that appeared in 2002. There were openings in this wall where Border Police soldiers let children and people they recognized pass, when they didn’t have orders to the contrary. Their tolerance worked well for us, but I will never forget how humiliating it was to crawl through those holes, and especially to see old women in traditional embroidered dress or grandfathers in keffiyehs struggle to pass through while these young people looked on. And in spite of it seeming temporary, this wall was, for the first time, a concrete separation between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and an additional physical obstacle to what was already heavy regulation.”

Indeed, since March 1993, six months before the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, the Israeli army had put into place a system of cordons and controls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip designed to regulate—in fact, reduce—Palestinian movement within the Occupied Territories and at crossings into Israel. Any travel was laden with a multitude of checkpoints and military roadblocks. Entry into Jerusalem was forbidden, except to those who had authorization from the Civil Administration—that is, the army. This authorization was difficult to obtain, and the smallest incident could nullify it. With the onset of the Second Intifada in September 2000, the military and police tightened security; ditches were dug, clay roadblocks were put up, and cement blocks were laid across the roads, paths, and alleyways that had previously allowed people to avoid checkpoints.

For those who lived in the neighborhoods or Palestinian villages on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, such as Ras al- Amud and Abu Dis, these measures were a nightmare. They had been casually breaking the rules of the occupation for years and now faced a clampdown. The Israeli authorities forbade Palestinians, whether they had an orange or a green identity card, to remain in Jerusalem between 7:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. under penalty of prison and a fine. And Palestinians living in East Jerusalem holding blue “permanent resident” cards were now forbidden to live outside of the city for more than seven years. Those who exceed this time limit and are caught by the police lose their right to residency and visiting privileges, authorization to work in Israel, the where no one knew exactly where Ras al-Amud ended and Abu Dis began—and borders were established communally—the circumstances of day- to-day life determined the geographic boundaries. It was like a big village stretching along the road to Jericho where everyone knew his neighbor and where families and clans had lived for generations. At the beginning of 2005, close to 55,000 Palestinians from East Jerusalem—out of 215,000—lived, in reality, outside of the city limits, and 75 percent of the residents of Az Zayyem, a town of about 3,000 people to the north of El- Azariyeh, held identity cards from East Jerusalem. In other words, putting up a wall here, between Abu Dis and Ras al- Amud, would tear families apart and sever the human, social, and economic ties established over the course of decades.

thewallbeingbuiltThe Wall being built in Abu Dis in 2004. The photo was taken by a member of the Israeli organization Machsomwatch.

Which is exactly what happened. One morning in January 2004, the neighborhood found itself under siege, living in a “closed military zone.” Bulldozers and cranes, hired from the private sector and escorted by Israeli soldiers, took over the area. No vehicles, not even school buses, were authorized to enter or leave. The site was guarded day and night by a private armed militia, which, according to the residents, was made up of Druze and Bedouin. In place of the short temporary barrier, a cement wall almost thirty feet high, made up of slabs of concrete about four feet wide and sixteen inches thick, had suddenly been raised between neighbors. There was no longer any possibility of slipping through a gap between two cement slabs to go to work, or of climbing on a stepladder to pass a tray of knafeh or a basket of Jericho strawberries over to friends. In the blink of an eye, the other side of the road had disappeared, along with the neighbors, the storekeepers, the horizon, the rising sun—erased overnight by the wall.

For a few months, one passageway under the watch of the Border Police remained half- open. It was essentially a gap between a section of the wall and a fenced enclosure around a Christian monastery. Like everyone else, Terry Boullata crawled on all fours through the fencing to make the shuttle between Ras al-Amud and Abu Dis, until that hole also was closed up. Now she has to drive to her school. She heads toward the center of Jerusalem through the tunnel under Mount Scopus, follows the road of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement, turns toward benefits of social security and the Israeli school system, their yellow license plates (like the Israelis’) for their cars, and the freedom to travel in Israel or to use the Tel Aviv airport. At the same time, the cost of living in Jerusalem, the exorbitant price of housing and its scarcity on the Palestinian side, has forced many beneficiaries of the “permanent resident” status to live in the villages or neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, while keeping a fictitious address in Jerusalem. In those parts of East Jerusalem where, until the erection of the wall, nothing (except occasionally the checkpoints) marked a border, the entrance to Abu Dis, and winds through traffic jams for a total of about nine miles, with at least one checkpoint—in other words, she must drive thirty to forty minutes in order to reach a point some nine hundred feet from where she started, on the other side of the wall.

T BoullataTerry Boullata (Photo:

“The problem today is deciding whether or not I should keep my school open. The majority of my students and teachers living in East Jerusalem can no longer come, for lack of transportation. I still owe the bank twenty-five thousand dollars. How am I going to pay them back if I lose a good part of my students? In a single year, seventy-seven out of two hundred have left. I had thirty- four students in sixth grade before the wall. Now I have six. And I have to pay my teachers, who are working even if they have only a handful of students. How will I manage?”

The worst part for Terry is that the wall has divided her own family. Her husband, Salah, who has an orange ID card from the West Bank, is not authorized to live in Jerusalem. In order to travel between Abu Dis, where he works, and Ras al- Amud, he is forced to play a game of hide and-seek with the police and the Israeli army. Like most Palestinians, he used to cross the invisible line between the West Bank and East Jerusalem by sneaking through gardens and alleyways, in order to stay out of sight from the Israeli patrols—risky before the construction of the wall, but now impossible, since there is only one heavily guarded point of passage. “Well before the construction of the first wall,” Terry says, “we had asked the Israeli authorities three times for a permanent resident permit for family reunification reasons. It was refused three times for ‘security reasons,’ because Salah, like me, was imprisoned during the First Intifada. My husband ended up obtaining a permit that allows him to stay in Jerusalem from five a.m. to seven p.m., but for professional reasons only. His company sells stones for construction, and they have some big Israeli clients.

“If he sleeps here, in our apartment, he’s breaking the law. All it takes is for the Border Police to enter in the middle of the night, which they have no problem doing, and he will be arrested, imprisoned for at least three months, and fined. As for me, I would have harbored a West Bank resident who does not have the right to be in Jerusalem past seven p.m.—even if he is my husband—so I risk prison and a fine, too. I will also be punished if I give Salah a ride in my car.” Regulations forbid anyone holding a blue ID card from East Jerusalem to transport a Palestinian from the West Bank in his or her vehicle, even if they are husband and wife. The police could confiscate her car and revoke her license, and she could face six months in prison and a thousand-dollar fine.

There was one solution for Terry and her children: they could surrender their ID cards for East Jerusalem and go live in Abu Dis.

“Out of the question,” Terry says. “That would be falling into the Israelis’ trap. They make our daily lives more and more difficult so that we will leave. My daughters, who are thirteen and eighteen years old, go to school in Beit Hanina, on the north side of Jerusalem. They would have to change schools, and I don’t want to add more trauma to their lives. And I also want to continue using the Tel Aviv airport for trips abroad. Even if every time I use it I run into endless problems with security because of my former political activities, it’s still quicker and less expensive than passing over the Allenby Bridge at the Jordanian border and using the Amman airport. So we chose to live on different sides of the wall: me here, on the East Jerusalem side, and Salah in the family home in Abu Dis. Our daughters, Zeina and Jasmine, spend three nights with me and three nights with their father. That’s the life the wall has condemned us to!”

Excerpted from A Wall in Palestine by René Backmann.
 Copyright © 2010 René Backmann.
English translation © copyright 2010 by A. Kaiser
Will be published in February 2010 by Picador.
 All rights reserved.

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