Wall keeping Palestinian ill-treatment out of sight is really in Israeli minds
By Giles Fraser, Friday 6 September 2013 14.29 EDT
Most Jerusalemites couldn’t find Shu’fat refugee camp on the map or give you any sort of directions. Yet it’s less than three miles from the Western Wall, fully within the municipality of Jerusalem itself. And despite many of Shu’fat’s Arab residents paying their Arnona (property) tax to the Jerusalem municipality – if they didn’t, they would forfeit their precious blue ID card, allowing them to find jobs in prosperous west Jerusalem and elsewhere – they get almost no services. This is land that Israel claims for itself, so the Palestinian police cannot operate here. But the Israeli police refuse to enter the camp, so it’s an anarchy zone. Local drug dealers sit in the sun at the entrance, under the gaze of Israeli soldiers who do nothing. The UN runs the schools, collects the rubbish and fights a losing battle to sort out sanitation. The Israelis refuse. It is a place without government, without government services and without much hope. And nobody seems to give a damn.
We visit the local secondary school of 2,000 pupils. There is flurry of temporary excitement as a rumour spreads that the water may be running today. It’s a false alarm. There has been no running water in the school for nine months. When we want to visit the loo, the UN man whispers advice: “Pee but don’t poo.” Poo turns out to be a continuous theme of the visit. The camp is surrounded on three sides by the separation barrier, in the valley of a hill on which the camp is set. The hole in the wall for sewage to escape has recently been blocked, creating what the locals call a “shit lake” up against the barrier and causing those the other side of the wall, in the leafy Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, to complain about the smell. Indeed, the smell of shit is the only reason the settlers of Pisgat Ze’ev come into contact with the humanity of those the other side of the wall, fellow members of the same city, a city that is supposed to be one of the holiest places on earth. To say it again: these are people living perfectly properly and legally in an area Israel claims to be within Israel, yet they are still placed behind a concrete cage.
For the last few days, Jews have been celebrating their New Year, Rosh Hashanah. They gather together as families to eat apples dipped in honey and pomegranates. Theologically, this begins a period of penitential soul-searching ending with Yom Kippur. My adopted family in Jerusalem are wonderful, fully engaged with the Palestinian issue and despairing of wider Israeli indifference. But the violin-maker from Tel Aviv is more representative of the Israeli left: “We just put our heads in the sand like ostriches,” he explains. In other words: the situation is too difficult so they give up thinking about it.
Understandably, Israelis hate outsiders like me arriving in their country and talking about the conditions in which Palestinians live. But they are the ones who have to live with constant security worries. And the situation is genuinely complex – especially, perhaps, for Zionists like me. But the wall is not as great a security provider as many assume. It takes under a minute for group of young men to scale it at Shu’fat. Ladders go up one side, a car draws up on the other, also with ladders. In a flash a group of young men are over and speeding off in the car. Thousands do this every day. Only the young, the frail and the elderly are really trapped by the wall. No, what the wall really does is keep the conditions of a place like Shu’fat out of sight and out of mind to the wider Israeli public. It’s more a wall of the mind than a wall of security.
Photo (modified) of Israeli border police detaining a Palestinian boy during clashes in the Shu’fat refugee camp outside Jerusalem, by Ahmad Gharabli (AFP/Getty Images), 5/15/2011. http://mediagallery.usatoday.com/Palestinians-battle-Israeli-troops/G2253