Ghost towns and checkpoints
In the West Bank, Bidisha observes the psychological consequences of Israeli occupation
In the West Bank there are checkpoints the size of malls, with grilles and gangways, camouflage netting, watchtowers, security cameras, soldiers and military vehicles, all peeling and cracking in the heat. And there’s the famous wall: 750 kilometres long, eight metres high, with electric fencing in front and barbed wire on top, costing $3.5 billion so far.
I saw the wall for the first time last year when I toured the West Bank, visiting Jerusalem, Nablus, Nazareth, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron, meeting Palestinian citizens, artists, activists and the entire NGO and aid worker roadshow that makes crisis areas so unexpectedly cosmopolitan. In Nablus I saw the spice shop and soap factory... and the bullet-hole-studded walls of residential areas. At Balata refugee camp (a walled concrete city with blocks built a shoulder’s width apart, one room per family) I was told by unsmiling kids, “I never again want to hear the words ‘Forbidden’ or ‘This checkpoint is closed’” and “We are children. We deserve a childhood.” At Birzeit University I taught pupils who spent hours going through checkpoints every day to attend lectures. In Silwan an aid worker showed me testimonies of children arrested by groups of armed soldiers in the middle of the night, bullied and beaten for laughably minor reasons like throwing stones.
The most shocking sight was Hebron, once a thriving market centre, now a shadowy ghost town. Palestinians are forbidden from walking or driving on the streets; roads, doorways and entrances are obstructed with cement blocks, soldered metal plates, earth mounds, razor wire and bolts. There are 101 closures in one square kilometre in the old city, monitored by 26 cameras. There are 1500 soldiers supporting 400 settlers, many of whom are armed too. There are 45,000 Palestinians in Hebron, but we saw almost none. The settlements are right in the centre and settlers throw used toilet paper and household trash onto Palestinians’ heads. Netting has been strung across the streets to catch the rubbish, but it blocks out the light. Settlers have thrown teargas into Palestinian family compounds, punctured their water tanks and sabotaged rehabilitation projects, while soldiers turn a blind eye.
The real danger of the military occupation is not physical but mental: the insidious psychological consequences of harassment, violence and control. Our guide in Hebron remarked, “We don’t have a problem with Jews, Christians, Muslims. We have a problem with guns, settlers, military.” There is a sordid psychological effect on the perpetrators and survivors alike, resulting in the pathological tension, claustrophobia, petty sadism, sick euphemism (surveillance as security, resistance as terrorism, annexed land as “closed off” or “confiscated”), rage and frustration that poison every expectation.
What remains from the trip is not the sight of weapons, the taste of teargas or the sound of checkpoint turnstiles but the feelings of frustration, pride, despair, defiance. As a Palestinian colleague said in Bethlehem, “My hope is that children will not internalise the wall.”
Bidisha's book Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine is published by Seagull