Only compromise can end
perpetual violent stalemate
The modern, suburban Israeli community of Efrat clings to the hillside between Bethlehem and Hebron, four miles east of the Green Line. Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc.
THERE CAN BE NO DOUBT that in the Middle East security is paramount. But, sometimes, it is also futile.
It is totally understandable that in Israel, tight security checks at every public place have become a way of life. Residents don’t seem to notice; visitors, unaccustomed to it, hardly can not notice.
On two occasions during my recent 10-day visit to the region, security was both overwhelming and, seemingly, futile.
The first was on a trip deep into the so-called “occupied territory” where Israeli residents have established residential communities surrounded by Palestinians. My trip was to the environs of Bethlehem, near the large Israeli community of Efrat.
The second was on my trip to the West Bank, crossing the border on the main road from Jerusalem to Ramallah, capital of the Palestinian National Authority.
A PORTION OF my trip to Ramallah was described previously in Fear & Loathing: West Bank seethes with hopelessness.
But there is more to that story.
The great barrier wall is seen approaching Ramallah in the West Bank on the main road from Jerusalem. Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc.
As one approaches the border crossing, the stark difference between the two adjacent cities is jarring. Jerusalem is modern and affluent, booming with new construction, the streets crowded with shoppers and visitors from lands near and far.
In Ramallah, by contrast, there is little sign of economic vigor. The landscape is littered with half-finished structures (over built apartments no one can afford) and ancient avenues that seem to date from biblical times.
The security barrier at Ramallah seen from the West Bank side Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc.
There is an air of quiet desperation amongst the people I encountered. Jobs are scarce; hope is even scarcer.
At the border, one sees, for the first time, the enormous wall separating the two enemies. It is a wall of terror: meant to keep Palestinians out. But walls work both ways – this one also keeps Israelis in, inside what seems at times very much like a prison.
In fact, a large red warning sign at the border warns Israeli citizens it is both dangerous and illegal for them to cross into the West Bank.
AFTER SPENDING several hours in Ramallah, it was on the way back that my heart-pounding encounter with the security apparatus began.
The security checkpoint on the main road from Ramallah to Jerusalem, seen from the West Bank side. Moments after this image was taken, I was denied re-entry into Israel. Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc.
The image you see here was snapped as my driver and expert guide, Akram Halwani approached the checkpoint from the West Bank side.
Moments later, he was stopped by two guards.
They asked for identification. So far routine.
I handed my California drivers’ license for inspection.
Then, the guard said: “This is not sufficient. Where is your visa?”
He was asking to see the entry permit given every visitor on arrival in Israel. No longer do the Israeli immigration officials stamp one’s passport; they know this can cause insurmountable problems for those who may later wish to visit any of the surrounding countries.
Those who have visited Israel are barred form countries like Lebanon, Syria and many others, I was told.
Instead one is issued an adhesive sticker, and mine was with my passport back at the hotel.
My protestations fell on deaf ears. After an exchange in Hebrew between Halwani and the two security guards, the driver rolled up his window.
“We have to go back,” he told me as the young woman guard held on to both of our ID documents.
He drove a few yards into Israel, then did a U-turn and approached the checkpoint from the Israeli side. The waiting guard handed back our documents.
“We will find another gate,” Halwani said as he drove off south and east along the border wall on the main road to Hebron.
The next 15 minutes were the most anxious of my trip. I sat glumly wondering whether I would be trapped in the West Bank while, perhaps, someone could go to my hotel and pick up my passport.
I called a relative and explained the situation, asking her to stand by in case I needed help.
Suddenly, Halwani turned hard right off the main road onto a much smaller street heading west towards Jerusalem. Within a couple of minutes we approached another security checkpoint.
There was one guard on duty.
As I reached into my pocket to get my ID, Halwani said: “Wait!”
I sat, frozen, as the guard peered intently at us through the windshield for what seemed like an eternity.
Then she broke into a grin and waved us through – without even stopping us for an ID check.
EARLIER THAT WEEK, I had driven south from Jerusalem to visit family far across the line in the neighborhood of Neve Daniel near the much larger Efrat, just about 10 miles from Bethlehem.
The modern, suburban community of Neve Daniel has about 800 residents who are surrounded on all sides by mortal enemies. Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc.
The same 20-foot high border wall lined the east side of the road as we drove south. It was even higher in places, to prevent stones and Molotov cocktails from being thrown at passing cars, I was told.
Suddenly, just a few miles from the main turn-off to Bethlehem, the wall ended – in the middle of nowhere!
I was told that opposition from Israeli settlers had exerted sufficient pressure on officials to stop the wall from being extended on to their communities, which would have been divided by it.
But in so doing, it made circumventing the barrier a piece of cake for anyone who was determined to do so.
What, I wondered, is the point of half measures?
The massive security apparatus on the main road from Jerusalem to Ramallah could be easily circumvented, as it was in my case. Perhaps it was my appearance; ethnic and religious profiling is one way Israelis maintain their security – aged and balding with spectacles, I might have seemed harmless.
But the controversial wall, which has caused so much adverse criticism of the besieged state of Israel, ends in the middle of nowhere, making it all but useless as a defense against anyone wishing to circumvent it.
Both of these emphasize the impermanence of the arrangements. They are half-measures at best, futile at worst.
They are the strongest indications I got anywhere that security cannot be bought with walls and checkpoints. It is a chimera.
Security can only be attained through peace. And peace, it seems, can only be accomplished through compromise. Whether either side in this conflict has the ability and desire to make the necessary compromises needed for real security is an age-old question still open to debate.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But, I do have a lot more questions.
The city of Bethlehem, seen from the highest point in southern Israel (elev. 3,000 ft.) located in the community of Neve Daniel. Click image to enlarge. © SGE, Inc.
FEEDBACK: Contact site admin directly