Behind the wall.

It takes a while for me to get the hang of Checkpoint 300. Eventually a corridor in nude concrete and steel, half prison half abattoir, delivers me in a street cul-de-sac’d by the wall. Closed shops and scraps of paper wafting around in Brownian motion. Cabbies offer rides but, using what Google Translate says is the equivalent of No thanks, I’m walking I say Laa, shukran, inaa amshi and they all return to their cars.
Still wondering if I managed to send my message across or if I’d just confided that I’d rather be riding an elephant seal I walk into Bethlehem. The city hasn’t changed much since I last been here and the similarities with Mea Shearim, over the border in Jerusalem, are there for anyone to see. The same stone buildings, bootleg extensions, ungainly bowindows and odd balconies are proof that planning offices on either side of the border aren’t exactly mobbed by applicants.
A concrete dichotomy, pushing eight meters tall but feeling a lot higher, bisects the city. It sprouts out of side streets and carries on in monolithic nonchalance, impervious to the graffiti that cover its lower limbs or the scars left by petrol bombs on its watchtowers. I turn a corner and the wall is there, as careless as the 25-meters blue whale that had surfaced inches away from our boat off the coast of Sri Lanka, oblivious to our presence and perfectly happy regardless of whether we were there to see her or not.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Behind it is The Walled Off hotel. It’s early, the gallery hasn’t opened yet and neither has the museum; no customer has yet descended to eat breakfast and it’s obviously too early to check in. But yet I’m welcomed with open arms, offered a drink, a place to dry my soaked clothes and a coffee on the house.
The Walled Off opened in 2017, marking the centenary of the British mandate in Palestine. A shit show of such epic proportions, of such momentous implications, that you’d guess they had Priti Patel and Dominic Raab running it. Lone in a crowd of establishments that would rather gloss over the wall, catering instead to the religious trade, this place – created by Banksy and other artists – is a detour worth making.
I’m not one for understanding art or high-end hotels. In fact I’m a man of modest needs: give me a walk-in shower and one of those tiny shampoo flacons so I can play Godzilla having a bath and I’m happy. But this place is different.
Irony and cruel juxtaposition are the leitmotivs running through the Walled Off. The theme is old Britannia, an imprinting of green wallpaper, dark polished wood and plenty of lucid Chesterfield sofas scattered over three sprawling floors. Royalist paraphernalia clutters the walls like it surely does in the homes of most Workington Brexiteers. Charles’ and Di’s wedding commemorative cups, a view of Windsor painted on a ceramic plate and a lot more. But that’s when it all changes, when the boring English normality is wrecked by a reminder of what the Middle East often means.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Rows of CCTVs are nailed to the walls like hunting trophies. Next to them, above a piano playing a Jarvis Cocker motive every day at tea time, are three falling putti all breathing through airplane-style oxygen masks. A crucifix has been retrofitted as a grappling hook, knotted rope and all. Jesus looks to the heavens but sees only three flying drones, a red dot shining a hole in his forehead. Next to the entrance a triptych of oil paintings depict the aftermath of an Aegean refugee landing and, right beside it, a Nativity set shows how Jesus would be born in today’s Bethlehem.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
After having done an installation in Gaza Banksy was quoted as saying “I don’t want to take sides. But […] what you’re really looking at is a vast outdoor recruitment centre for terrorists. And we should probably address that for all our sakes”. I can read this message throughout the rooms, here. We probably ought to address the elephant in the room.
I too, don’t want to take sides. Actually, I do; but it’s not the one you think. And it’s not the other either. The world isn’t black or white and the Middle East is the greyest of places. Nowhere like here is the truth that we’re all sinners truer: for every nasty piece of work on one side there’s another on the other; for every drone strike there’s a Qassam missile. The side I’m on is neither Bibi’s, nor Abu’s. It’s the side of the people, of those who – since 1917 – have been routinely shafted by those in power and by those who wanted to overthrow them. I’m pro Shlomo from Tel Aviv who would very much like to board a bus without being blown up and I’m pro Waleed.
Who’s Waleed? He’s the Walled Off official tour guide. A quintessential Palestinian in leather jacket, woolly sweater and packet of fags, he’s a forty-something with strong lineaments and a stubble coarser than sandpaper. He runs tours of the wall and the refugee camp twice a day for everyone who wants to do them.
The weather is more Scotland than Holy Land, so Waleed’s little Corsa is press-ganged into action. There’s three of us and, before we all pile up into the car, Waleed invites us to check his number plate. Politely we stare at a green-and-white series of numbers and letters before he, in the flourishing Neapolitan-lawyer-style that was his trademark, explains why he asked. With this plate, he says, he can’t pass the wall. Reaching Jerusalem, driving to the sea, is out of question; but so is a long list of roads within the West Bank itself. Route 557. Route 5. Route 404 (Road not found, one might say). Route 413. Route 60. Route 43. And more.
It’s a first glimpse into the reality of the West Bank, into the challenges of living here, a first dig into the heap of restrictions, paperwork and controls created to limit the movement of the population. Chief amongst them, of course, is the wall.
Both Waleed and the Walled Off’s museum are light on the reasons for it being built and it’d be remiss of me to do the same and to gloss over one statistic: 70 bombings in three years, 293 victims. All these were perpetrated by suicide bombers originating from the West Bank, with Israeli civilians their victims. After the wall went up, the number decreased to 12 in the same length of time and is now at zero.
Gut-wrenching as the thought is, if you were to frame it this way a wall mightn’t be the worst idea. Israel on one side, Palestine on the other, concrete and a generous helping of razor wire in the middle, keeping sides apart until collective wisdom prevails (or the sun’s turning into a red giant swallows us all, whatever comes first). Yet, something’s not fully squared out. There’s a lot to hint that, rather than following the Red Brigades’ motto Unum castigabis, centum emendabis, Israel’s decided to punish 100 to educate one.
The Green Line border, where you’d expect the wall to be, is some 5 klicks away from Bethlehem. Yet here is the wall, snaking around us in a procession of 90 degrees angles and narrow turns, carving peninsulas of inaccessibility in the city’s urban texture. Separating olive groves from neighbourhoods, mosques from the faithful, graveyards from descendants, granting access to Rachel’s tomb to the settlers and keeping the Palestinians away with concrete and water cannons spewing ‘skunk water’. I do get Israel’s right for safety, I really do. I just don’t know how to reconcile it with this.
If ever there was an embodiment of the negative externalities of Israel’s policies Nabil, 22-year-old born and bred in the Aida Refugee camp, would be it. Tel Aviv is an hour’s drive away yet he’s never been able to walk its corniche. Or to see the sea. His forthcoming trip to Italy, guest of a family from Brescia, will be his first one overseas: banned from flying out of Ben Gurion he’ll have to drive to Amman, 10 hours and 3 checkpoints away, driving around and beside the dozens of settlements – judged illegal by the international community – that dot the West Bank.
All Nabil and his friends know of Israel is the wall, the rocks and Molotovs they throw at it and what comes out in response: tear gas, rubber bullets, sponge grenades, flash-bangs, stinger grenades. Has he, or any of his friends, ever had the chance to speak with an Israeli, to sit down together and eat and drink to find, in the words of uncle Tony Bourdain, some common ground? Nabil laughs in incredulity. “How? With that thing in the way?”
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Evening falls, the skies having miraculously cleared up a bit. I walk along the wall, heading towards the contorted knot of streets that is the city centre. Somebody has attentively, tenderly even, painted a young Leïa Khaled holding a rifle. Her claim to fame is to have hijacked flight TWA 840 for a terrorist organisation. A few meters downhill, on a wall not far from a set of concrete blocks plonked by Israeli soldiers to provide cover during raids, somebody has stencilled the profiles of sheikh Yassin, founder of Hamas, and Hassan Nasrallah, current secretary of Hezbollah.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
I climb upwards, following streets familiar from years ago. Manger square opens up lively and serene at dusk, kids playing and tourists entering the Nativity church. As I stand there I’m reminded of something that Waleed mentioned in passing, of how 27 years ago – before a Jewish terrorist murdered Yitzhak Rabin and the peace process – things were better than they are today. Can we realistically hope to have some improvement if things have just grown worse and there’s no way for neighbours to interact with one another?
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.

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40 Responses to Behind the wall.

  1. Superb post. Thank you for a balanced treatment of an obviously very complex situation. I particularly appreciate your bringing geo politics to the level of one Waleed, or Nabil. Three things I believe to be true: 1) There have been multiple rounds over the past 20, 30 years to find some kind of accommodation between Israel and the Palestinian population, each frustrated by the political expediency of one side or the other. 2) There is unfortunately, a precedent for unresolved conflicts. The conflict between Shiites and Sunnis has gone on for centuries, with no apparent thaw possible. Or the Catholic vs Protestant conflict which has raged in England for over 700 years. In short, there is no reason to believe that time alone will deliver a result. And 3) walls, have separated populations many times in history. Be it, walls separating Jewish populations in Warsaw, the East/West separation at the Berlin wall, and now we have a wall being built between the U.S. and its most significant trading partner, Mexico.

    All this to say, that the situation you describe so eloquently, needs to find a resolution beyond the magical elimination of historical tensions between Israels government and the Palestinians representative organisations of Hamas and in the West Bank and Gaza strip.

    Thank you for an excellent first hand account. May it help educate readers on both sides of the geographic and religious divide.

    Ben

    Liked by 3 people

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Ben,
      I must admit; I was waiting for a first comment on this post with a bit of trepidation, and I’m sure this has been the post I double-checked with the greatest level of attention (not including my eagle-eyed proof reader, any mistakes mine not hers!). Anyway, I’m so glad to read your comment. And I agree wholeheartedly with your truisms: the peace process has been derailed many many times. Religious conflicts all but destroyed Europe in the 1600s, not just in England! And walls too.
      I don’t have any solution for this situation but for people getting to know each other but… ain’t gonna happen. We’ll have people on Mars, on Jupiter moons and in the Belt and over here we’ll still have Israelis and Palestinians at each other’s throats. Thanks again for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So much of the political discourse I read now is lowest common denominator. It as if everyone has lost their critical thinking skills and can do nothing but exchange memes and outrage inducing articles written by troll farms. Of course we should always talk to people and have first hand experiences whenever possible. Thanks for your refreshing perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. J.D. Riso says:

    I visited Bethlehem in 2010. Didn’t spend the night. We were told it wasn’t possible. Thanks for the tour. That hotel is something else.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a wonderful post. I will never forget our local bus ride(s) between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Crossing over between zones, being “locked” in a turnstyle and seeing the wall were certainly eye openers. What we do in the name of religious belief never ceases to amaze me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post. I’ve never been to Jerusalem and wonder what it would be like to travel there, practically but also emotionaly. Thanks for your honest and balanced account of your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Anna says:

    Thanks for sharing this experience with us. The whole situation is pretty miserable really. Don’t know when, or if, it will ever improve.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jeff Bell says:

    This is a great article and you are brave to post it. I think Ben said it best, so I’ll just say this: Banksy is awesome. What a crazy idea for a hotel. Have you ever heard of Dismaland?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Lexklein says:

    We crossed into Bethlehem in June of 2015, and my thoughts mirrored many of yours. At the same time, we had several interesting interactions that gave me (always one for rose-colored glasses, I admit) cause for hope. One was the Palestinian man we met in a shop who was asked point-blank by a fellow traveler if he hated Americans. His answer – that he did not confuse Americans with their government – made me feel better; my core belief is that people-to-people, the world is not the awful place we see depicted in the news.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. richandalice says:

    Insightful and sadly informative. I had not heard of skunk water.

    Liked by 2 people

    • awtytravels says:

      Me neither. Unfortunately a lot of inventive has gone into the development of weird weapons from either side, from incendiary balloons to skunk water to, apparently, a thing called like the horns that knocked down the walls of Jericho and that emits some sorts of screams that people can’t stand (bit of a waste of money if you ask me, all you needed was a recording of me singing any Bee Gees song).

      Liked by 1 person

  10. An impressive post Fabrizio. Thank you so much for making it real.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  11. equinoxio21 says:

    A great post Fabrizio. What you say just reminds me of my increasingly torn position. I don’t want to chose between Trump and Maduro. I don’t want to chose between… Le Pen and Mélenchon or even Macron… Between Johnson or Corbyn. And it seems lately those same choices are forced upon us, everywhere… I compliment you for going there. I’m not sure I could take it. Rather, I know I won’t do it. So grazie mille for the ride.
    (And if I remember well, you will understand when I say: on a le choix entre la peste et le choléra…)
    Buona notte.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. equinoxio21 says:

    PS. I also did what I normally don’t do: read all comments. (They normally seem to me a private conversation…) I did find a number of friends commenting. Others unknown. But all very… measured. I like the WP crowd. Good people… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Unfortunately, the way the world is moving today could mean statelessness or homelessness for anyone by tomorrow. The choices we are given usually do not have a meaningful and active “none of the above” box. So I’m glad to read your reports from a place and a future that I don’t think that I want to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Thanks for reading IJ. I’m glad I returned to Bethlehem, but I was even glad-er (if that’s a word) to return to Tel Aviv, to the sea (my next post). But to think at a situation where that’s impossible was, well, hard to imagine.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Lignum Draco says:

    A fascinating read; it all seems so surreal, except I know you’re talking the truth. People have really stuffed things up here and elsewhere in the World. People are becoming more and more polarised, conflict favoured over discussion, and walls going up in other places as well. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I love how you so very eloquently take the side of the people, Fabrizio. It is an excellent post, and I can imagine how you’ve fretted about tone and details before you’ve clicked the “Publish” button. It is a topic that often divide people, as the media is usually biased towards the point of view of one of the sides. It is the “us vs them” mentality that often prevents us from understanding that we all suffer from the same human condition. Like you point out, people hurt on both sides and attrocities take place on both sides. Life is neither black nor white, and the Middle East is perhaps one of the greyest places on earth.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Dave Ply says:

    Interesting hotel. Eclectic as a motif can really make you stop and think. As for the wall? [sigh].
    I’m reminded of the wall in Belfast. The day we visited it also was rainy and damp, as if the gods were crying.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Bama says:

    Like most Indonesians, I grew up believing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was about religion. Period. However, over the years, and after reading countless articles written from various angles and perspectives, I began to see this as a multi-dimensional antagonism that can’t be explained in a black-and-white manner. The truth is, as you also implied in this post, both sides have been threading a wide grey area which, to outsiders, is often reduced to oversimplified narrations that are easier to grasp but don’t help resolve the conflict in any way. Thanks for writing this, Fabrizio!

    Liked by 1 person

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