There’s a poster that I see quite a lot around Amman. It’s a hand-drawn picture of Jerusalem. The colours are all orange and warm as though the sun is setting. In big capital letters at the bottom it reads “Visit Palestine”. The irony is that, for most Jordanians, visiting Palestine is not so easy. The even stronger irony is that the reason for this is that most Jordanians are originally Palestinian. While Jordanian Palestinians can, in theory, cross the border into Palestine like anyone else, the reality is that they are often turned away, and even when they are given permission to cross they are subject to hours of questioning and waiting.
But me, I’m a white woman with a British passport. I can visit Palestine without a second thought, just as the poster suggests I can (judging from the experience of the British and American students I’ve met in Amman, it takes you a hell of a lot longer to cross into Israel if you’re not white, regardless of your passport). A few months ago, practically choking on my privilege, I took advantage of this and visited Palestine, thinking as they waved me through the checkpoint of my Arabic teacher’s face when she told me that she had been refused at the border.
I didn’t know what to expect from Palestine. I’m not well-travelled beyond Western Europe and North America. I’ve never been to an occupied territory. I’ve never walked on the same land on which bombs have been dropped within the last fifteen years. I visited two Palestinian cities during my stay: Bethlehem and Ramallah, the latter being the de facto Palestinian capital. If I were writing a travel piece, there would be lots to include about the museums, the churches and the cafes etc, but I’m not going to write about that here because you can read about it from much more knowledgeable sources elsewhere. Instead I’m just going to share with you the people and the places and the stories that, three months later, are still etched most strongly on my mind.
In Bethlehem there’s a wall. Israel calls it the West Bank Barrier. When it is finished it will stretch 700km along the Israeli-West Bank border. It is justified as an Israeli security precaution and resembles the walls of a high security prison: at parts it reaches 8 metres high and is topped with barbed wire. This is the occupation good and proper. Crossing the wall is not easy if you’re an Arab. Even if you work on the other side of the wall your right to cross can simply be denied by Israeli soldiers, who are not obliged to give a reason for their refusal.
In Bethlehem I found a taxi driver, Iyad, to take me to the various tourist sites. At the end of the day he suggested going to the see the wall up close. In my ignorance, I didn’t really see the point in visiting the wall – a wall’s a wall, I thought, and I’ve already seen it. What I was unaware of was that the wall in Bethlehem, as in many Palestinian cities, has become a space for activism – a space where people rebel against a government that has denied them worth and stripped them of dignity.
The wall isn’t just a space for anger and defiance. It has a clear, thoughtful purpose, which is to make the world care and to involve the tourists in the struggle for equality. The population of Bethlehem generally does not have a high level of English, yet almost all the graffiti I saw was in English. The target audience is the tourists who are herded in by European tour companies and then herded back out, their heads full of the history, weeping for Christ’s sacrifice, turning a blind eye to the present injustice. There is one particular message which I saw graffitied around Palestine in various areas. It reads “Now I’ve seen, I am responsible”; this is what the wall is screaming: you, we, are responsible. We need to care. Iyad stood proudly next to the wall. “The wall will come down,” he told me. He was certain.
This hope did not belong to Iyad alone. It was echoed in the words of other residents of Bethlehem. I met one man who owns an olive wood factory. One of his specialities is building nativity sets. Since the wall was first constructed in 2002 he has begun including a wall in the nativities. “You can take the wall out of the nativity when the real wall comes down,” he told me.
As much as the wall is evidence of Israel’s power and strength, its very existence is also testament to the Palestinians’ resistance. Much as East Germany’s decision to build the Berlin wall reflected its own failures as its population was emigrating en masse to West Berlin, Israel’s building of such a barrier reveals its own failures to achieve its aims. Zionist visions of Israel never included the West Bank barrier because the Nakbah (when more than 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes in 1948) was supposed to be complete. The wall is a symbol of a struggle that Israel never wanted and a struggle which the Palestinians are far from abandoning. The wall demonstrates the Israeli government’s strength and its potential for cruelty, but the paintings with which it is covered demonstrate that while bombs may flatten Palestine’s cities, they cannot crush Palestine’s pride.
In Ramallah, unlike Bethlehem, it feels almost possible to forget the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Bethlehem Palestine feels like a courageous rebel group, but in Ramallah Palestine feels like a state. It is very pretty. There are trees and the air feels clean. There are nice houses and parks for children. There are even mansions and shiny cars.
But you don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface to find the pain.
I stopped in a playground to find some shade. Like many British playgrounds, the walls were painted with murals. But here there were no happy images of animals and flowers. Instead, there was a painting of a dead baby. The writing surrounding the dead baby read “What’s children’s guilt?” On top of this, the emptiness of the place was striking. There were no children in the park, despite schools being off for the holidays. The very centre of the city had some life, but further out the streets were deserted. When I asked someone whether the streets were usually this quiet, he told me that they weren’t, but that the people here are still recovering from the recent attacks in Gaza. Events like that take their toll on the West Bank, too, he told me, and it takes a while for life to return to normal. People are scared, cautious. As you go still further out of the centre, you’ll find the refugee camps, in which approximately thirty thousand people live, without homes and in danger of being without futures and without hope.
Fear isn’t the only reaction to the Israel-Palestine conflict in Ramallah, though. Just as in Palestine, there is a stiff resistance, manifested in Ramallah in a fierce nationalism. The most striking manifestation of such nationalism is probably the Mausoleum of Yasser Arafat – a Palestinian leader who led the Palestinian National Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The mausoleum is a huge complex, including a mosque and gardens. All the buildings and walk-ways are white and kept immaculately clean. The building in which the actual tomb is found is built surrounded by water, representing the temporary nature of this resting place; the aim is to move Yasser Arafat’s body to Jerusalem if and when Jerusalem becomes part of an independent Palestine. The entire place is guarded by armed soldiers and adorned with the Palestinian flag.
I began this article by telling you about a poster. There’s some more irony here, of which I’m not sure all those who display it are aware. The poster was drawn in 1936 by an Austrian Jew named Franz Kraus who emigrated to Palestine to escape the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. This is a poster encouraging the immigration that ultimately led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. And yet it is displayed by Jordanian Palestinians who long to return.
Does this make this poster evil? Is it a racist call for Palestinian extermination? No, it is a tragedy. This poster is a tragedy firstly because it is an expression of longing by a man who wished for a homeland where he would not be persecuted because of his faith, a man who was forced to leave everything he knew due to the anti-Semitism of 20th Century Europe, which still continues today. That this same poster is now used to express almost exactly the same desires but by Palestinians rather than Jews is a tragedy; it is heartbreaking that the events of WW2 did not lead us to understanding but rather seemed to confirm the age-old truth that violence begets violence and hatred begets hatred.
The life of this poster began with the pencil of a Jewish refugee and ends in the shop window of a Palestinian refugee, all the while expressing the same longing for a homeland free from prejudice and fear. Within this horrible tragic irony, though, I see hope. While on one level the life of this poster sees hate lead to hate lead to hate, the way that Jews and Palestinians have used exactly the same image to express exactly the same feelings of fear and longing for a safe home, is a reminder that whatever our differences, we are all humans; we are similar in more ways than we differ from one another. We have to hope that this common humanity wins out in the end.
(Note: I switched in the last couple of paragraphs to using the word “Jewish” rather than “Israeli”. This is because the artist was not Israeli but Jewish and the fear he was expressing was the fear of Jewish people not Israelis. This is not supposed in any way to suggest that Jewish people are oppressing Palestine; it is the Israeli government that is oppressing Palestine and many Jews and even many Israeli Jews do not support this government’s policies towards the Palestinians.)