Last summer was the first time I had ever seen a settlement from behind its walls.
We 26 delegates drove down the highway that bisects the E1 corridor in a stream of all yellow, Israeli license-plates. Behind us were the outskirts of East Jerusalem, whole Palestinian neighborhoods like Atur and Abu Dis, which had been sandwiched between the expansive wall through Beit Hanina and the imposing shadow of the “Separation Barrier” that designates the beginning of the West Bank. All around us spanned the desert. In front of us were the shiny, red-roofed, homes of Ma’ale Adumim, the largest settlement in all of historic Palestine.
We passed through a checkpoint but were not stopped on account of our yellow license plate. Two boys walked their donkey up a large hill in the heat beside the highway. The trees were small and dry and the shade was minimal. The new police station sat atop one of the hills in the distance, watching over the whole valley, a recently privately-funded project by five U.S. citizens in order to facilitate the construction and expansion of Ma’ale Adumim and its future sister neighborhoods. The Wall stood tall in the backdrop of the valley.
Upon arrival to its entrance, the landscape changed abruptly. Palm trees sprouted from the median in the road, hot pink flowers grew in abundant bushes beside them, smooth pavement spanned on either side of the convoy, and ancient olive trees that had been uprooted from their original roots were placed in small, landscaped roundabouts as a fashion detail, all slid by us one by one as our bus drove past an urban shopping area and a manicured community park across the street. A Bedouin woman carried her bags to the mouth of the avenue. The day was hot and the air was dry aside from a cool breeze that ruffled her sleeves and the blue plastic bags that she carried in her hands. Someone commented that many times the Bedouins in the area are used as menial labor for these settlement communities that are expanding onto their land. I thought of the new proposed settlements in the E1 corridor, those same development plans supported by our U.S. President Barack Obama– and pushed into a normalized occurrence by the international media– and I was angry.
After passing multiple apartment complexes, the bus climbed to the top of a large slope and parked in front of a vista point. From the top, I saw the same sprawling desert of rock and small dry trees surrounding the highway that we had just come through a couple of minutes prior. Around us on the hill we were surrounded by luscious plants that, unlike their neighbors, had plenty of water to drink and bloom into their potential thickness. The stark contrast made the settlement bloc around us appear fictional and out of place.
During my time as a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I spent many club events and breaks between classes tabling in the Quarry with my fellow Committee for Justice in Palestine members with the goal of educating students on my campus as to the detrimental effects of settlement complexes such as these on the political landscape of the area and the daily lives of their Palestinian neighbors. Yet, upon looking down the hill into a large ornamental pool of blue water and the surrounding beds of lush green grass, I was suddenly lost for words.
The presence of the military occupation, the systemic violence of this occupation, is inescapable in its blatancy. While it can be systematically ignored by most world media sources, political leaders around the world, and many citizens of the Israeli state, the demonstration of such intensely polar power dynamics created a context where the Occupation was unquestionably present as it reigned over the landscape and the people within it. I know I am not alone in this observation. I can only imagine what it is like to look daily onto the outside walls of Ma’ale Adumim and know that it is literally sucking the life force of my neighborhood, my family, my friends, from under our feet.
Beauty is often a shallow descriptor and it can easily turn to ugliness if it is cultivated by greed. The colorful flowers were bright in the late sun but they were not beautiful. The recreational park, the olympic-sized swimming pools, and the ornamental pond looked hideous in the middle of the brown desert even as they glistened in the light rays. The olive trees looked lonely and oddly contained in their prim roundabouts and, as the tall blocks of Palestinian homes with their black water barrels and beige rooftops came closer into view, I saw that there is nothing beautiful about Occupation, even on the surface; even if it looks clean, it is ultimately covered in grime.
I told myself that it didn’t have to be this way. And I lived up to my name. I let go of the intensity of my anger and I pushed it into my heart. I Hoped.
All photos by Nadya Raja Tannous
(This article was first published on Interfaith Peace-Builders)