The most famous section of the Israeli-West Bank separation barrier is also the shortest: the eight-foot-tall concrete slabs festooned with anti-Zionist graffiti, the vast majority of it written, somewhat tellingly, in languages other than Arabic, make up only 6% of the structure’s total length.
But this nevertheless remains the stretch of wall that most people are likely to encounter on their travels, as they cross from Jerusalem to Ramallah or Bethlehem, and its impact is not to be understated. As Bus 18 to the former of those cities proceeds along the Israeli side of the wall towards the eventual bottleneck that connects it to the Palestinian one, the unadorned grey of the slabs rushing by not a foot from the reflection of my face in the vehicle’s dirty windows, a feeling of physical sickness comes over me. Whatever you feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whatever you think the solution might be, you cannot help but feel, as you cross this particular rubicon, that you are entering a prison.
“Tall, isn’t it?” the young man sitting across from me asks. “Very,” I say.
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“I jumped it,” he says. “You what?” “On Friday morning.” He smiles broadly. “I wanted to visit the Dome of the Rock for Ramadan.”
The Israeli government made a point this year of allowing a greater number of West Bank Palestinians to visit Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, together constituting the third holiest site in Islam, ostensibly as a show of goodwill following a period of relative calm, the result of a security arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but more likely to help release some of the tension that has built up as a result of that very arrangement.
But Shehada, as the young man introduces himself, was not one of those allowed to make the crossing. Only those over 40, like his parents, were granted automatic access, while those between 35 and 30 were allowed to apply for it. Shehada’s siblings, who are all under 15, were also allowed to cross. Shehada, who trained as a violin-maker in Britain before returning to Palestine last year, is the only member of his family who falls within the Israelis’ feared demographic of angry young men. Not that he was going to let that stop him.
“A friend and I decided to go anyway,” he says. “We made a grappling hook and jumped the wall in A-Ram [a Palestinian town northeast of Jerusalem].”
“Didn’t it hurt? That thing’s eight feet tall.” Shehada nods and holds up his hands for me to see them. His palms have been cut to ribbons. “Things were worse for my friend, though,” he says. “The Israelis caught him. We don’t know where he is.”
But as he leads me from Ramallah’s central bus station to the Al-Wehdeh Hotel, where I have booked the cheapest room in town, Shehada says he doesn’t regret going over at all.
“I was there for Ramadan, the best month of the year. Oh, man, it’s so good. You wake up and you’re just excited to be alive.”
“I hadn’t been to Jerusalem for 14 years before Friday,” he says. “The last time I was there, my grandfather took me, and he’s been dead for years. And I was there for Ramadan, the best month of the year. Oh, man, it’s so good. You wake up and you’re just excited to be alive.” He invites me to share iftar, the fast-breaking meal, with his family the following evening.
I meet Ala Jaradat, a researcher at the Ramallah-based Institute for Palestine Studies, at the upscale Beit Anisa later that night. Thin-lipped, bald by choice, and with Russian-accented English picked up while studying in what was at the time still the Soviet Union, Jaradat, who is drinking alone, joins me at me table entirely by chance in an attempt to avoid having to listen to the the group of American NGO workers sitting a few seats behind him. “Well-meaning people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” he explains.
Over rather too many glasses of Palestine’s own Taybeh beer, the activist, former political prisoner and scholar explains why he thinks the Friday passes are a ruse. “The Arab-Israeli conflict is at its lowest ebb in quite some time,” Jaradat tells me, echoing the sentiments of a number of Israelis on the other side of the separation barrier. “But there is tension building on another front, another conflict brewing, and that is here at home. The Israelis are aware of this and are trying to ease that tension.”
Where is the tension coming from? “From the fact that we live in a police state,” he says. You mean the occupation? He shakes his head.
“We are living in a Palestinian-controlled police state. Mahmoud Abbas is the head of that police state. Critics are abducted from their homes, escorted out of their lectures at university and jailed, disappeared. Whether the Palestinian Authority is doing this at the beck and call of Israel or on its own initiative, so that its members can keep lining their pockets, is beside the point. I would not rule out either possibility, but it’s beside the point. The point is that we are living in a police state, period, and we must rise up to dismantle it. The third intifada,” Jaradat tells me, “must be a struggle against ourselves.”
He laughs. “Actually, places like this are likely to be the first targets in that struggle. When your enemy is economic inequality and a culture of graft, this is precisely the kind of up-market place you’d want to firebomb.” He points at Beit Anisa’s high wooden wall, which blocks the street entirely from view. “There’s a reason they’ve designed this place as a fortress, you know.”
For all of his criticisms of Palestine’s past and present leadership — Arafat was a “terrible” leader, he says, “a one-man barrier to peace” — Jaradat is hardly uncritical of Israel. To the contrary, he is a staunch supporter of a one-state solution. “I support the establishment of secular state called Palestine,” he clarifies, “not a nominally Jewish state called Israel in which Palestinian Arabs are citizens.” He dismisses out of hand the concerns of those like The Jerusalem Post‘s Jonathan Spyer, who told me that the end of Israel’s Jewish majority would mean the end of the Jews in Palestine, period.“This idea of pushing the Jews into the sea …” Jaradat says and dismisses the idea with a wave of his hand. “Muslims, Christians, Jews. We have been living together for thousands of years and, where we haven’t been living together, we’ve at least been living alongside one another. This is not primarily a confrontation between Judaism and Islam. There are Israeli Muslims, there are Palestinian Christians, and so on. This is about land. If it has become a religious confrontation, it is only because Zionist ideology has become increasingly bound up with the messianic Judaism of the settlers.”
But surely there must be some validity in the concern, I say, when both Hamas and Hezbollah have previously called for the destruction of Israel? “The destruction of Israel,” Jaradat says, “is not the same as the destruction of the Jews. This is a Zionist confidence trick, this idea that the destruction of Israel as a Zionist enterprise would be comparable to a second Holocaust. It gets its power from the guilt that Western liberals feel for that tragedy. Israelis themselves shunned Holocaust survivors for a long time. The Zionist pioneer of the twentieth century was the Jew to look up to, not the Eastern European victim of the gas chambers. It was only once the West Bank was occupied that the Holocaust was embraced. It became a useful excuse.”
This may be partly true — Thomas Friedman, writing in From Beirut to Jerusalem, discusses Israel’s turn towards Holocaust-justified self-pity at length — but does it preclude the possibility that these organisations’ official platforms might nevertheless be anti-Semitic? Jaradat demurs. “This is not a chicken-and-egg situation,” he insists. “The occupation came first. The anti-Semitism followed.”
The next morning, somewhat hungover from the Taybeh beer, I head to the town that gives the beverage its name to indulge in some hair-of-the-dog. Taybeh is Palestine’s last 100% Christian village and its eponymous ales and stouts are the only such products brewed on this side of the separation barrier. Nadim Khoury founded the microbrewey following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, predating Israel’s first microbrewery by about 10 years, and while residents in the surrounding Muslim villages were initially unimpressed with the godless enterprise, Arafat immediately saw the benefits of encouraging Palestinian entrepreneurship and gave the family of brewers his blessing. As the sherut drives towards Ramallah’s city limits, we pass one of the company’s ubiquitous billboards: “Drink Palestinian. Taste the Revolution.”
On the outskirts of town, signs point out various international aid projects: a German-funded road here, a Swedish-bankrolled government building there. A girl’s school, overlooking a rocky valley, is being reconstructed with funds from the US government. Shehada will later insist, to the point that I give up and let him, that the phrase “a gift from the American people” literally means a gift from individual Americans, rather than from the federal government. “The American government would never send us money,” he says.
“The second intifada made things difficult, but the construction of the wall made them nearly impossible. Israel used to account for nearly 70% of our sales. Today it accounts for less than 30.”
The sherut also passes a number of Israeli settlements, the blue Star of David fluttering serenely above the razorwire that encloses and protects them. The whole thing strikes me as surreal. On this side, detritus. On that, a couple dressed in clothing from The Gap, walking what appears to be a purebred collie. Pete Seeger’s “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” come to mind, with a few pillboxes made out of it, too, for good measure.
The dog-walkers do not appear, from the window of the bus, at least, to be the messianic ultra-Orthodox settlers who believe that every inch of ancient Israel must be settled as a necessary precondition for the Messiah’s arrival. (To Maimonides’ wry observation that the Messiah “may tarry,” such zealots coldly reply, guns cocked, “Not if we can help it.”) They appear to be ordinary, even boring suburbanites: perhaps those who have taken to the West Bank, not for religious or ideological reasons, but for economic ones.
In August, Al Jazeera reported that lower rents and higher education subsidies were increasingly drawing non-religious Israelis into the territories, especially recently-arrived migrants. Why else would such non-messianic types want to live out in here in a heavily-fortified chicken coop? It’s like Texans from El Paso willingly going to live in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, the one-time murder capital of the world: either you believe you’re on a mission from God or else you constantly and consciously lie to yourself, insisting that your little slice of heaven isn’t smack-bang in the middle of hell, where people resent you at best and want to kill you at worst.
Palestine’s first and only female brewer, Madees Khoury, is putting the finishing touches on a batch of ale when I arrive at the Taybeh microbrewery. As I wait for her, beer in hand, I peruse the walls: Khoury’s father and uncle, in near-identical pictures, smiling and shaking hands with Arafat; a flyer advertising this year’s Taybeh Oktoberfest, the village’s annual festival of beer and music; her father smiling wildly in the pages of a New York Times from a couple of years back. Khoury herself has spent most of her life in the United States — she speaks English with an American accent, which is more common of Israelis than it is of Palestinians, and wears a Boston Red Sox cap that breaks my Yankee-supporting heart — but decided to return to Palestine and try her hand at the family business five years ago.
We work our way through the formal part of the tour — this machine does this, that machine does that — before I ask about the map on the wall. It shows the West Bank, that familiar half-butterfly, and the commercial crossing points between it and Israel. Khoury is adamant: the construction of the separation barrier has been terrible, almost cataclysmic, for business.
“The second intifada made things difficult,” she says, “but the construction of the wall made them nearly impossible. Israel used to account for nearly 70% of our sales. Today it accounts for less than 30.”
Were it not for exports to countries like Japan, and the licensing of Taybeh’s brand and methods to a German brewing company, the operation may well have gone under, Khoury says. Many other, smaller companies have.
“We’re here,” she says, pointing at Taybeh on the map. “Most of our Israeli-side customers are in Jerusalem. But,” she wiggles her finger around over the contested capital, “there’s no commercial crossing in Jerusalem. We have to drive all the way down here, to the Tarqumia crossing, await inspection, cross over, and then drive all the way back up on the other side. The crossing inspections can take hours. Sometimes we’re asked to open every crate in the truck. You should see the crossing guards when we’re moving kegs. You’d think we were smuggling bombs or something.”
The result is that a beer run that once took several hours can now eat up a whole day or more, drastically limiting the numbers of runs that can be made to Israeli suppliers each week. Even as we speak, Khoury says, Taybeh’s latest business venture is being held up at an Israeli port: after producing a stellar little homemade vintage last year, the brewers are now looking to branch out into winemaking, but the state-of-the-art equipment they have imported from Europe is raising Israeli eyebrows. “It’s the same thing every time we import a new beer vat.” She rolls her eyes. “They act like we’re importing a nuclear reactor.”
Khoury has no doubt that the inconveniences experienced by Palestinian businesses are a product of Israeli design. “It’s better for them if we’re dependent,” she says. “We can’t even keep a small business on track and we’re asking to run our own country? That’s why it’s important to we keep doing what we’re doing.”
“Making beer is a form of resistance.”