Excerpt: The Tangible and Intangible Barriers of Israeli Occupation

Excerpt: The Tangible and Intangible Barriers of Israeli Occupation

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By Laila Shadid | Summer 2023

Al-Eizariya was lawless. Literally.

“No police here! No Israeli, no Palestinian!” the driver said as we passed into the town on my first day. He removed his seatbelt and laughed.

I asked him how it worked to cross from Israel into the West Bank, expecting to wait in line at a checkpoint or at least see a sign.1 But there was none of that. We drove under a bridge and through an underpass, and on the other side he welcomed me to al-balad, “the homeland.” My driver, a Palestinian man who lived with his family in Jerusalem, was able to drive across these invisible lines because of his yellow Israeli license plate. Leaving the West Bank in the opposite direction, I would come to learn, was another story. The Apartheid Barrier, and its many structural and psychological counterparts, acted as a one-way border. No police controlled the flow of people traveling into the West Bank, but Israeli forces took every measure possible to control movement out of the West Bank—Palestinian movement.

In the narrative that follows, I refer to the “Apartheid Wall” or “Apartheid Barrier” to name the construction that the Israeli government began building in 2002 to separate the West Bank from Israel along the 1967 Green Line, a boundary to which the government paid no mind. The usage of “Apartheid Wall” draws upon Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch’s legal analysis of the Israeli occupation and their conclusion that the Israeli government has been committing crimes of apartheid—that is, “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”2—prohibited by international law.3 The Apartheid Barrier is both a physical wall in some areas, and an electric fence in others. I mainly focus on the concrete construction in the places I studied, but will discuss the details of this multi-layered structure in what follows.

It is also necessary to define two important events in Palestinian history—al-Nakba and al-Naksa. Al-Nakba, or “the catastrophe” in English, refers to the systematic ethnic cleansing of three-quarters of all Palestinians from their homes—a number between 750,000 and one million—by Zionist militias during the creation of the Israeli state (1947-49).4 Al-Naksa means “setback” or “defeat” in English, a word used to describe the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, wherein Zionist forces occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem—what we refer to today as the Occupied Palestinian Territories—as well as the Syrian Golan Heights and Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.5

During my first week in Al-Eizariya, I decided to walk the length of Jericho Road, taking notes on its chaotic scenes. It was the longest commercial street in the West Bank and ran through the length of the town. I quickly realized that this street was not made for a relaxing stroll; I spent most of the time dodging cars and curious stares. People knew when there was a foreigner in town, because there weren’t many of them in Al-Eizariya. I tried my best to wear plain clothes and keep my head down, but it was still obvious, especially as a four-foot-five, barely 21-year-old girl who looked more like 15 or 16 without her makeup. My orange reporter’s notebook made it worse.

no sidewalks, I scribbled. man yelling about fruit and vegetables on a speakerphone, he doesn’t stop

I passed the one police station in the town, but it looked rundown, unused. My driver was right. Police were absent from this city to the extent that young men volunteered to direct traffic on busy days—Eid, Thursday afternoons, and every day at rush hour. They wore neon yellow vests and stood at intersections, waving their hands back and forth like the inflatable balloons at car dealerships. The cars would ignore their exasperated pleas and speed forward anyway, whizzing past each other without warning and without lanes, parked perpendicular to the non-existent sidewalk, many of them unlicensed.

But traffic was the least of Al-Eizariya’s problems. Once a thriving suburb of Jerusalem, Al-Eizariya enjoyed a more stable economy and easy access to the city. But in 2002, the Israeli government began construction of the so-called “Separation Wall,” known to many as the “Apartheid Wall,” and subsequently cut off Al-Eizariya from its livelihood. Without easy access to Jerusalem, stores closed, tourism ceased, and hospitals fell out of reach. Without the wall, the residents of Al-Eizariya would be a 10-minute walk away from the Holy City.

At the entrance of Al-Eizariya, I first noticed a large red sign in Arabic, Hebrew, and English: “This Road Leads To Palestinian Village, The Entrance For Israeli Citizens Is Dangerous.” Often, these signs stood in the middle of a rotary that led to a Palestinian city in one direction, and an Israeli settlement in the other. En route to Al-Eizariya, one could not miss Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest illegal settlements in the West Bank, inhabited by close to forty thousand, its checkpoint entrance adorned with Israeli flags and the typical armed iron-gated barriers of a settlement.

When I reached the wall at the end of the road, I decided to walk its length for as long as I could. I was mesmerized by the graffiti, writing down quotes in English and Arabic that covered many of its massive concrete slabs:

“Soon everything will be magic.”

“Free is all you have to be, dream dreams no one else can see.”

“Peace on earth.”

And, of course, “Free Palestine.”

Through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I traveled to Al-Eizariya in the summer of 2022 to understand and report on how Palestinian children conceptualize the Israeli occupation. But on that walk in my first of eight weeks, it became clear that no story could be told without understanding mobility. Jericho road encapsulated this impulse, a road that runs between Ma’ale Adumim and the Apartheid Wall, placing the suburb in the maws of occupation. Al-Eizariya, like many Palestinian cities and citizens, was stripped of its mobility.

In the early 2000s, Mimi Sheller and John Urry published an article titled “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” which provided a sociological framework for movement. They wrote that, “The mobilities paradigm indeed [emphasizes] that all places are tied into at least thin networks of connections that stretch beyond each such place and mean that nowhere can be an ‘island.’”6 Indeed, the mobilities paradigm explores how, where, and why people and things move and the social implications of that movement—viewing movement as an intersectional and multifaceted action. Through a complex web of restrictions on movement, life, and society, the Israeli government exerts physical and psychological control over the population of an estimated 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. In their context, the paradigm can be better understood as one of immobility.

This thesis aims to explore both the tangible and intangible barriers to mobility in the context of West Bank Palestinian society and how people navigate day-to-day life under extreme restriction, with a particular focus on how children conceptualize their ability or inability to move. The people I met in the towns of Al-Eizariya, Abu Dis, and Bethlehem speak for themselves. They tell stories that cannot and should not be generalized to every West Bank Palestinian’s experience of life under occupation, but stories that each represent a strand of this complex web—strands that, like a spider’s web, woven together are five times stronger than steel. They tell the stories of Palestinian lives and livelihoods lost to immobility. They tell the stories of a place ignored by moral discomfort, where Western media and the world has settled on fatalism. I hope to leave readers with one main takeaway, that the Israeli occupation’s restriction of Palestinian mobility in the West Bank is an act of aggression and repression.

“Resistance takes many forms,” Palestinian activist and scholar Dr. Yamila Hussein said to me, “many of which are cultural and intellectual, and usually those are not what interest journalists.”

She was right. In the early days of my research, I had fallen victim to that trap. Many of the stories that stood out to me on the other side of voice recordings, notebooks, and transcripts were the ones that fit into stereotypical narratives of resistance. The ones that highlighted physical violence or communal protest or tear gas and broken windows. This resistance was important to understand, and to report on, but what about the resistance in living? In carrying out your daily routine as a Palestinian under a regime that prays for your demise. Under a military occupation that manufactures countless visible and invisible barriers to stop you from living—from going to school, to work, to a wedding, to a funeral. To take away the innocence of childhood. To replace the anxieties of life with those of death. To traumatize you in so many ways that the word loses meaning. To destroy any guarantee of your day, week, month, or year. To make it impossible to plan, so that you can never plan for your freedom.

“Palestinians are often reduced to heroes or victims, and both of these, even if combined, are dehumanizing,” Dr. Hussein said. “We are human beings. We hate and we love and we make mistakes and we are stupid and we are awesome and we are just complex human beings like anybody else.”

This thesis is a web of stories of people who are human just because they were born human, in all of their flaws and strengths—people who don’t need to be “humanized” because “humanizing” implies an inherent inhumanity. These are stories of life under a brutal military occupation that assumes this inherent inhumanity. Stories of movement—successful, failed, and limited. Movement through, around, and impeded by barriers.

Mobility, as Mimi Sheller and John Urry discussed, is complex, like the people who move. The mobility these scholars focused on was the tangible, but how can you understand the tangible without the intangible?7 They exist together, inextricably intertwined. Where a barrier rests across a road, another lays upon one’s chest. The physical translates to the emotional, because freedom is as much a mindset as it is a reality.


The excerpt is selected from Laila Shadid’s thesis in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, “The Tangible and Intangible Barriers of Israeli Occupation,” published with the author’s permission.