Sunday, March 29, 2015

So Many Sides Now: Different Views of Israel's Wall

Tzameret Zamir's "Path to Peace" mosaic along the Gaza border
So last week as part of Perspectives Israel, we got a tour of the West Bank security barrier with Danny Tirza, the man who designed it.  While there was a lot about Tirza's presentation that got under my skin--I found his tone a bit glib and took issue with his attempt to show how cushy and comfortable life was for Palestinians in refugee camps as a way to I guess make them seem less deserving of international sympathy--it was definitely interesting to hear about the practical considerations that the government had to weigh in order to move forward in such a major security construction project.  This created a weird sort of symmetry to the emotional journey I've been on with Israel over the past decade.

Danny Tirza (right) explains to us the context and concerns that went into his design of the wall)
When I first visited Israel in 2004, the wall was in its beginning stages. Firmly rooted in the values of humanitarianism and liberalism, the whole concept horrified me.  The fact that my tour group wouldn't engage with me on the complicated politics of the region further enflamed my tempers, and I penned an angry editorial for the Boardman High School Bugle raising my concerns that Israel was not exhibiting the Jewish values I had cherished.

The visit with Danny marked one of many vantage points through which I have seen the wall on this trip.  Not going to lie, as a child of American peace activists, I was actually extremely excited the first time I got to see the wall from the Palestinian side, to see the kind of protest art that would no doubt be present.  And the splendor of the barrier in Bethlehem near Rachel's tomb did not disappoint.  There were vibrant, poignant, and soaring images that showed the international community was deeply invested in the Palestinians' plight.

Artwork on the wall surrounding Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem
Similar grandeur was present on the wall leaving Ramallah before the Qalandia checkpoint, though perhaps a bit more confrontational.  Here along with calls for peace, liberation and human rights was also a giant portrait of Yasir Arafat and yes, a call for "Death to Israel" (In Danny Tirza's mind, the fact that Israel allows such graffiti is a testament to what a free democracy it is; I find such statements a bit of a smug copout).

Outside of the Qalandia checkpoint
In truth, I'd been a bit let down by the lack of vibrancy on the Israeli side of the separation barrier. But I suppose people who don't really through the borders on a regular basis won't give it much thought.  That's not to say Israelis were anywhere near unified on their views of the wall--I've spoken with people on the left who concede that it probably has improved Israel's security and settlers in the West Bank who see it as an ugly waste of money.

Young IDF soldiers in front of Zamir's latest addition to her mosaic
After we met with Danny, we travelled South to visit some of the Israeli towns that have been in the line of Hamas rocket fire in the last several wars.  In one, we met an artist who for years has been working on a mosaic project on the part of the wall that runs along the Gaza border.  A ceramic artist, Tsameret Zamir makes tiny plaques in the form of houses, animals and the Hebrew and Arabic words for "peace" that she has visitors affix to the wall on her mural that calls for a "Path to Peace."  But unlike the art on the wall I visited in the West Bank, Zamir's mosaic does not fall in a major tourist or commercial area.  To reach it, we had to weave in between two sections of a rather obscure part of the barrier, a section visible from neither Gaza nor the street.  It is doubtful that much of anyone even sees it besides Zamir's visitors or the young IDF soldiers stationed there.  And yet it was the aloneness and singularity of her mission that moved me: here was a woman traumatized by years of trying to raise children with both Israeli and Hamas rockets flying overhead, attempting to assert some ownership and control over her environment. It reminded me a lot of the Gazan artist Nidaa Badwan, who in response to the restrictions of movement placed upon her, turned her apartment into a gorgeous and vibrant art piece.

Regardless of whether people refer to it as the security fence, separation barrier, or apartheid wall, it is impossible not to imbue such structures with meaning.  To go all Joni Mitchell: I've looked at the wall from the so many sides now,  from up and down and all around, from segregation to security, and still somehow--it's illusions of Robert Frost and David Hasselhoff singing over a reunified Berlin I recall...

I really don't know this wall at all.

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