Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Waiting at the Gate

On Saturday night a friend called to say that for several weeks, many farmers in Mas’ha village have not been allowed through the Wall to reach their land. Although the Israeli government claims that permits and gates allow Palestinian farmers to access their land across the Wall, the reality is that permits can be impossible to obtain, and soldiers are rarely on hand to open the gates even when farmers have the permits. A colleague and I agreed to accompany the farmers in the hope that we would have more luck in reasoning with the soldiers.

The next morning we walked from Mas’ha village to the gate with three farmers, their donkeys, one child, and four Israeli activists who had come from Tel Aviv to help. The farmers said the army passed by about once an hour on the security road on the other side, but that they rarely stopped when there were only Palestinians waiting. We began to wait. We waited an hour with no sign of the army. Two farmers sat down on the ground beside the road. Another farmer went to fetch us food from the village. One farmer’s small child walked up to the gate and started to shake it, trying to break through. He could see his family’s land on the other side. After a while he sat down, playing a game of putting small stones through the holes in the fence.

In rural parts of Palestine, the Wall is composed of wire fence instead of the concrete that is used in urban areas. Nonetheless, I find references to the Wall as a “fence” very misleading. Unlike a typical fence, the Wall is armed with heavy-duty electric sensory wire, thermal imaging, video camera, sniper towers, and razor wire.[1] The psychological and impenetrable natures of the structure are more those of a wall than of a fence. The fenced sections of the Wall are also more destructive to the landscape, since almost all trees and crops within at least 100 feet have to be cleared to make room for an army road, a 6-foot trench, and another fence—on each side (three fences, two trenches, and two roads in all). Some Palestinians say they prefer the concrete sections of the Wall, where they can usually at least access the land left on their side of it.

We tapped the electric wire a few times hoping it would provoke the army to come investigate. Sure enough, a jeep pulled up and three soldiers hopped out. The soldier in charge explained that something had happened and all the gates had to be closed. He apologized on behalf of the army, saying things were not run the way he would like. “Off the record,” he said to an Israeli activist with us, “I’m getting out of the army in a few months and I’ll come join you on the other side.” The activist was unimpressed. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he explained to me later. “He’s one of many Israeli soldiers who tell themselves they are against the Occupation. But the Occupation would not function without them.”

We called the District Coordination Office (DCO), the supposed facilitator for movement in the Occupied Territories, and were told that the gates would open an hour later, at noon. We spent the next five hours waiting in vain before giving up and heading home. We decided to return the next morning at eight, when the DCO had assured us (again) that the gate would be opened.

A colleague and I arrived at the gate with the farmers around sunrise and began to wait. The army did not come. At one point a truck passed slowly along the road spraying pesticides through the fence, and we ran to avoid being sprayed. One farmer said it was plant poison to keep grass from growing near the Wall.

At last an army jeep drove down the road. We waved emphatically, but it passed without stopping. I wanted to scream. The farmers were more patient. One of them was a cheery man with short legs that bounced on his donkey when he rode it. The other farmer was older, and the entire left half of his body was paralyzed. He walked slowly with a cane, taking frequent breaks but never complaining, even after walking and standing for hours with no results. Sometimes when he found his balance he would set his cane aside and take out two sheets of paper with his functioning hand. One was a land deed that he claimed went back to Ottoman times, proving that the land belonged to his family. The other was an Israeli permit allowing him access to his land from mid-November to mid-February. He would look through the papers over and over again, reading through them to himself, as if trying to understand what he’d done wrong.

At nine o’clock, one jeep finally stopped. Two indifferent-looking soldiers leaned their heads out, listened to our story, and then drove away. They said they had no orders to open the gate and “didn’t feel like” calling the DCO to check. We continued to wait. Twenty minutes later another jeep stopped and four soldiers hopped out.

It’s amazing how different the soldiers can be from one another. One soldier wearing reflecting sunglasses and a smirk yelled, “Sabah al-kher!” (“Good morning” in Arabic) in a sarcastic tone. Another soldier was older and quieter. The Palestinians picked out the second soldier and brought their case to him. “Look, these women came from France and America to help us,” one farmer said, pointing to us. “Won’t you help us?” The soldier was too distracted to answer—his partners were laughing at something funny one of them had said.

One of the soldiers eventually spoke up: “Look,” he said, “we are only doing this for security. There are terrorists and that’s why everything is closed.” I asked him if he thought the two unarmed old men were a threat, pointing out that one of the men was half-paralyzed.

“You never know.”

I asked the soldier if he thought it was right to treat everyone as a terrorist because “you never know.” I pointed to his friend. “What about him?”

“No, he’s not a terrorist.”

“So you only suspect certain people of being terrorists. Don’t you think that’s a little prejudiced?”

He paused. “What are we supposed to do? We have orders not to open the gate.”

“There have been some heroic people in history who were strong enough to disobey unjust orders. Alternatively, you could call the DCO that told us the gate would be open.”

The soldier disappeared for 10 minutes and returned. He told the other soldiers to take away the razor wire and he opened the gate to let us through. I asked him how we would get back into the village after we were finished. He asked what time we preferred, and the farmer said noon. He agreed and we began walking to the land.

It had rained hard the night before, so the farmers could not pick or plow, but they seemed content just to be on their land. After a while the cheery farmer suggested we have a picnic and called to ask his family to bring breakfast and supplies. We watched him approach the gate and catch bread, soda, and hummus as his son threw them over, one by one. He rode back to us on his donkey, whistling an old song that bounced as he did. We feasted for an hour or so before going back to the gate to wait to be let back into the village.

[1] Razor wire is similar to barbed wire but with small razors instead of barbs; Wall components cited in Carter, p. 192.

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