Gaeilge bellows ‘saoirse’ in bright green paint alongside a phrase writ large in German made famous by an American President attempting to show solidarity with a populous imprisoned by a wall that would have been dwarfed by the Israeli ‘security fence’. Sprawled messages and pictures seem borne of powerlessness and frustrated anger. The tone ranges from thought provoking sentiments of peace to reactionary and hastily written insults. Solidarity is a theme that springs up often yet one wonders how many of the dissenters remain within the community imprisoned by the wall. Religion too recurs among the themes of the graffitti and I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at the irony. One would think that the wall’s presence alone would obviate the divisiveness of monotheistic worship yet the scripture citing believers blindly propose that the best cure is a hair of the dog.
Most distressing of all, to me at least, is the apathy with which Palestinians have been forced to display with regard to the wall. Children must be fed and life must be lived, thus, as youthful foreigners stare upwards shaking their heads with anger and solemnity locals gaze only ahead. They need not their eyes to be reminded of its presence. The restrictions placed on movement and commerce are reminders enough of its control over those inclosed.
The relative ease with which foreign tourists can pass between areas of Israeli and Palestinian control serves only to highlight the incarceration of locals. Israeli citizens are prevented by their own government from visiting Palestinian areas for their protecion. Conversations with locals of both extractions confrims that ths restriction is, pathetically, a necessary one. However, this restriction is of ostensibly little inconvenience to Israeli’s who lead a life of relative affluence and freedom when contrasted with the plight of Palestinians (‘plight’ is used not to elecit a greater sense of sympathy for one group over the other, but rather to highlight the fact that although Israelis are not entitled to enter Palestinian controlled areas, their freedom to move within in Israel is without restriction.)
The wall which winds its way through the West Bank is patently an exercise in apartheid. The so called ‘security fence’ has created a series of cantons within which the people are literally prisoners to varying degrees. Robert Frost pondered on the extent to which ‘good walls make good neighbours’? Had he visited Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah or any other walled off community he would have at once found that his ponderings were grounded in contemporary reality. He would have found that the oft repeated maxim is paradoxically true and false. True to the extent that one neighbour is convinced of its value and importance, yet false to the extent that beyond their content gaze lies a neighbour burning with a fury that will continue to manifest itself in hatred and violence.
Descending the hill toward the tourist centre of Bethlehem places a topographic obstacle between the Christian tourist and the wall. Beyond the hill and the ‘twenty-somethings’ so affected by the selective prison are the generations that produced today’s political tourists. Large tour groups, bused in from Israel’s airports, purchase coffee mugs with nativity scenes as they try and conjure in their minds what the first christmas must have been like. Festive cheer is pumped from speakers in shops adourned with snowmen and santas. Churches mark the spots where Jesus allegedly lay in his manger and shops advertise clay figurines that allow the visitor to bring the little baby Jesus home with them.
However, if Jesus had been born 2,000 years later, and Mary, Joseph and the burdened donkey would never have reached their heavenly manger. Where once they questioned the inn-keepers of Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph, both Jews, would be questioned and ultimately refused entry by soldiers brandishing American manafactured assault rifles. So as little baby Jesus wings its way toward a western coffee table, the children of Palestine apply for i.d’s hoping to be allowed drive 20km to share a coffee with a brother in Ramallah.