The Walls that Divide

Tall concrete barrier topped by razor wire, set on the kerb of a street.
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I have been living in an Arab suburb of Jerusalem (or, Quds). The first day I was here the landlords invited me for coffee. They built their house here over 30 years ago, with room enough for a growing family. About ten years ago a mosque was built only 50 yards away. Speakers on the minaret broadcast prayers to the neighbourhood, and on Fridays that includes the sermon as well. I asked my landlord what the sermon was about. He grimaced, indicating he doesn’t listen. We have coffee just about every week; every week he comments on the loudness of the prayers. Eventually he told me that the sermons often have anti-Christian and anti-Jewish content. The Christians in the community feel the volume is so loud purposely to annoy them.

I have been trying to understand what it is like to be a member of a minority faith in relation to the majority faith. Here Christians are a double minority—both among Jews and among Muslims. While Muslims are the majority in the Palestinian context (with 1% of these being Christian), they in turn are the minority in the Israeli context (about 30%, and a Christian population of 1.5%). By comparison, the Muslim population of the UK is reported to be about 4%. What one feels keenly as a small minority is the barriers that communities raise between each other.

I began my reflections on Israel/Palestine in this Blog by speaking of the mental maps that people bring with them to Israel/Palestine, and how those maps affect what they see. In this, my last blog from Jerusalem, I consider the walls that are built by the various communities.

Tall concrete barrier topped by razor wire, set on the kerb of a street.

The ‘separation wall’

The most obvious wall here, impossible to ignore, is the barrier built by the Israelis between Israel and the Palestinian Territories during the Second Intifada. The very terminology used for this wall is an example of how everything is contended: for Israelis, it is a ‘separation’ wall, using the same term used for the central median on dual carriageways, or ‘security’ wall; for Palestinians it is the ‘apartheid’ wall. At checkpoints large signs in red lettering warn Israeli citizens that it is against the law to go beyond the wall/fence. Palestinians seeking to enter Israel face mountains of bureaucracy to gain entry papers, then stringent searches at the checkpoints. This physical barrier separates the communities, and prevents people from mixing or meeting one another in every day settings.

But there are other walls, or barriers, that are not as visible or easily detectable, and which are just as impermeable. There are the barriers of race, tribe, language. But overall is the barrier of religion and sect. These barriers appear on both sides of the wall. Jews, Muslims, and Christians create barriers between each other—and amongst themselves. This is not a phenomenon unique to this land, of course—but it is, perhaps, keenly visible in ways not always observable in the West to the majority populations —and the examples here are illustrative of the sharp divisions that shape the conflict in Syria and Iraq today. The ‘sound’ barrier in my neighbourhood separates my Christian landlord from his Muslim neighbours.
In a conversation with a Palestinian Christian teacher I was told that schools are still using textbooks introduced when Hamas was in the Palestinian Authority government, and that these included anti-Christian material.

Church building, with banner in front reading 'And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers'

Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel. The population is 65% Muslim, 35% Christian. I am told there are good relations between the two groups. On my recent visit my host received many warm greetings from Muslims as we walked along the street. He told me, though, that they simply do not talk about religion. That is how they get along. The sign posted in front of the Church of the Annunciation, however, seems a rather blatant antagonism: ‘And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers’ (Qur’an 3:85; see photo).
Traveling through Jordan and Lebanon I have found similar barriers of religion. My hosts regularly identified the village or the neighbourhood we came through as ‘Christian’ or ‘Sunni’ or ‘Shia’, or ‘Druze’. As conflicts continue, there seems to be an increasing clarity of demarcation between these identifiers. The religious identification inhibits social mixing—not simply in every day discourse, but in the choices of where to live and go to school.
This discussion focuses on religion as a major barrier placed between communities. This is a reflection of the extent to which religion has become the focal point of identity in today’s world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not primarily religious, but political and even nationalist. The same may be seen in other conflicts. But since 9/11 everything is viewed through the lens of religion. This is the world in which we now live, and while the solutions to conflict must address the political, nationalist—and economic—sources, they cannot ignore the role of religion.

It is easy to spot the barriers of others and to overlook those we ourselves erect—it is easier to see the speck of dust in the other’s eye than the plank in our own. It seems particularly difficult for a majority group to empathise with minority groups—rather than to be irritated with them for not being ‘like us’; for not assimilating to the majority. In our conflicted world, the great barrier between communities is fear. We see the Other, the one not like us, the immigrant and refugee, the person of a different colour or nationality or faith, as a threat to our routine lives and to our security. This fearful Other tends, in the West, to be Muslim. Out of fear we erect further barriers—silence, hostility, discrimination, ignorance.

Barriers prevent understanding, enhance suspicion, and perpetuate themselves when we hide behind them. If there is to be any hope of an end to the bloody conflicts of our time, it has to begin with the breaking down of the walls we place between ourselves, and with the necessary effort of trying to understand each other. When we do this, we are likely to discover our common humanity, our hopes and desires for a peaceful and secure life in which our families may thrive. From such ‘common ground’ we can then work at understanding how to live with our differences.
The great challenge of our time is to learn how to live together with our differences. MCSCI exists to advance this purpose.

More food for thought:

http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/declining-palestinian-christian-population-fears-its-churches-are-turning-into-museums-1.317689
http://www.acommonword.com/finding-common-ground-between-muslims-and-christians/

Return to Damascus Gate

Satirical cartoon with figure on wall by banner declaring 'United Jerusalem' as various skirmishes take place below
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A small crowd gathered inside a taped-off section of walkway, in front of a gate in the city wall

Recent scenes at the Damascus Gate.
Photo: Haaretz.com

In my last post I introduced Jerusalem via the Damascus Gate of the Old City—the neighbourhood of my church. That week there had been two incidents at the Gate—a 16 year-old boy attacked police with a knife, and three West Bank men were shot dead when found with guns and bombs. The Damascus Gate continues to weigh heavily on my mind, as it has remained regularly in the news. In the past week there have been four more incidents. In two cases the attackers were shot dead; in the others a young woman and a young man were arrested.

In two weeks, six attacks, six dead, at the end of the very street where my church is located.

These, however, were only part of the almost daily incidents taking place in the West Bank. I call them incidents because they are hard to label. Some may involve armed men with clear intent to kill many people. Others seem opportunistic and random, such as driving cars into pedestrians. So many, however, are young people with common kitchen knives lashing out at highly armed police and soldiers.

The ministry of foreign affairs describes all of these as terrorist attacks, incited by radical Islamist groups. The army Chief of Staff, on the other hand, commented on the fact that half of what is now nearly 200 such attacks in the past five months have been by young people under the age of twenty. Teenagers. Security forces have had no advance intelligence about any of the attacks, few of them had links to terrorist groups or strong ideological motives.

Since September Palestinians have killed 28 Israelis and 4 others. More than 160 Palestinians have been killed — 111 during attacks; 50 in clashes with Israeli forces (figures change daily).

The Damascus Gate seems to have become a focal point for young Palestinians. What is the reason for this wave of hopeless attacks by youngsters?

Where might we begin to try to answer? Do we start with the present as it is, or view it all in the context of its history? Recourse to history is fraught with difficulties. How far back do we go? The 1967 war in which Israel first occupied the West Bank of Jordan and Gaza? The creation of the state of Israel by UN vote in1947? The Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 637 CE? The Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom of 135 BCE? I have seen all of these appealed to as explanation or rationale for actions of the present. The past is a tangible component of the present in the Middle East. An inescapable aspect of the conflicts which rage across the region is the clash of competing narratives about the past—the competing maps.

But, for today, it is not the history I wish to note, but the present reality coming out of that history. That reality has two sides of consequence: one, the existence of the state of Israel, and, two, the ambiguous status of Palestine after nearly 50 years of Israeli administration as an occupying power. The first is, and must be, unequivocal; the second is, and must be, resolved.

The Israelis live with the constant fear of terrorism; Hamas presents a realistic threat of violence at any moment, and the recent attackers from the West Bank have been able to enter Israel and settlements ‘below the radar’.

The Palestinians, in turn, live under military occupation and governance, increasing building of permanent settlements in their territory, and regular destruction of their own houses with little warning (113 houses just last week).

Hope of a solution is exasperated by a total lack of contact between the two communities, apart from the efforts of a few groups seeking reconciliation, and the absence of sufficient political will on either side.

Satirical cartoon with figure on wall by banner declaring 'United Jerusalem' as various skirmishes take place below

Yossi Verter cartoon. From Haaretz.com article

One thing that is inescapable to notice here is the security measures. There is the constant presence of police on the streets and street corners of the cities; outside of the cities there are army vehicles everywhere. There is the ‘security wall’, and control points; there is the continual military patrol of the borders, of the occupied territories, of the sea and the air; there is a huge network of prisons. The cost is enormous, and strains the national budget even with the vast subsidies from the US.

It has to be clear, terror is not acceptable, nor in any way to be condoned. But if the only response to the security dangers is more security, tighter controls, screwing down the lid on Palestinian society, it can be no surprise if, as with any pressure cooker when the lid is kept on too long, there is an explosion.

The question raised in my mind by the phenomenon of teenagers throwing themselves at police at the Damascus Gate is whether it can be labelled as terrorism in comparison to pipe bombs and missiles. These are children, no more than infants during the last Intifada.

Fifty years of occupation has been corrosive to Israel’s democratic ideals, and has undermined all Palestinian institutions of society and development. Both communities suffer in a death grip with little hope of resolution.

It would seem that desperation lies at the heart of the issue.

I know that virtually everything I have written here will likely be contested by someone. But the reality that sparked this post is the particularity of six people lying dead at Damascus Gate in the past two weeks, in my neighbourhood. Six grieving families, Muslim and Jew. And local teenagers are in prison for assaults that will pursue them and their families for the rest of their lives. And no resolution is in sight.

This is but a small example of the cycle of violence and response, violence and response, taking place in much more deadly fashion just across the border in Syria and across the Middle East. In each case we in the West are participants. Bombs and missiles rain from the skies from Western air forces to add to those on the ground.

And while armed men vie for power, another generation of children is born into the normalcy of bloodshed.