“When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago I was not aware that I was traveling in a vanishing landscape.” — Raja Shehadeh, Author, Palestinian Walks (2008)
For centuries, the landscape in historic Palestine was dominated by agriculture, in an organic relationship between agrarian villages such as Husan and nearby croplands of farmers from the town. The Palestinians managed to create an agrarian landscape ideally suited to an arid, challenging topography. Far from a desert, however, the Palestinian landscape in places such as Jayyous has a verdant character. In most places, the olive, however, still predominates, both on the landscape and as a way of life. These conditions still exist today, but they are under serious threat. The area we now call Palestine has shrunk to a fragment of its former size and is currently occupied by the state of Israel. What we are witnessing as a part of this occupation is a process of immobilizing and enclosing the society by reorganizing the areas of rural and urban geography. I call this a process of ex-communication on the land.
In Palestine today, there exists a situation where two groups of people have competing claims to the same territory. But these two groups do not exist together as equals. One group, the Israelis, is ascendant in historic Palestine and is controlling the life and fate of the Palestinian people who have lived there for centuries. This group with power is exercising its control in turn by reshaping the landscape where Palestinians work and live. In this process, the occupying force have emerged as gatekeepers on the land. The gates they open and close at their discretion control the movements and socioeconomic life of Palestinians. As this image of Bethlehem reveals, the group in power has created a truly foreboding landscape of walls, gates, and closed spaces.
I came to Israel/Palestine during the past couple of years with a camera to document how the Palestinian geography was changing. I want to take us behind the walls, and behind the gates, to reveal some of what is on the other side of this ex-communicated landscape.
In 1878, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire and had a population of roughly 440,000. Palestinian Muslims and Christians accounted for 97% of this population. The remaining 3%, roughly 14,000, were Jews who had been living there at least since Roman times. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism, which had a long history in Europe, became particularly unbearable for Europe’s Jewish communities. It was in response to this anti-Semitic upsurge that modern Zionism was born in the late 1870s. Zionism advocated a return of Jews to Palestine, which many Jews consider their Biblical home. But it was in 1896, when Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State, that Zionism evolved into an organized movement for Jewish statehood in Palestine. For Zionists, however, the problem of a Jewish state in Palestine was obvious. How do you take a territory overwhelmingly non-Jewish and transform it into something Jewish in character? The answer to this problem would prove to be a source of enormous friction and antagonism between the people already living there and the people who desired to change this area to something Jewish and European. After publication of Herzl’s book, European Jews indeed began to emigrate to Palestine as settlers in search of a new way of life. What was different in this period was that new immigrants were establishing colonies outside the traditional urban areas of Jewish settlement.
Some Zionists, however, understood the meaning of this colonization of Palestine very differently.
“Zionists colonization . . . can proceed . . . only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population — behind an Iron Wall which the native population cannot breach.” — Ze’ev Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall” (1923)
Other Zionists, notably David Ben-Gurion, had a vision of the Zionist project predicated on a far different idea.
“The compulsory transfer of Arabs from the proposed Jewish State could give us something we never had . . . Any doubt on our part about the necessity of the transfer . . . may lose us an historic opportunity.” — David Ben-Gurion (1937)
Admittedly, this idea of transfer was opposed by Zionists such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber who advocated a bi-national state in Palestine of Jews and Palestinians living together. But this idea of two peoples living together in one state was a minority view within Zionism.
“There is no room for both peoples in this country. After the Arabs are transferred the country will be wide open for us. . . not a single village or single tribe must be left. . . there is no other solution.” — Yosef Weitz (1940)
By 1946, the Jewish population had reached roughly 33% of Palestine’s two million inhabitants. In no part of Palestine, however, except in the newly created area of Tel Aviv, did the Jewish population attain anything close to a majority. In November of 1947, Britain relinquished its mandate for Palestine and turned the area over to the United Nations, which then decided to partition the territory into two separate states. The Jewish community, with about 35% of the population, received 55% of the territory. The Arab community received the remaining 45%. Almost immediately after the plan was announced, well-organized and heavily armed Jewish militias began conducting military operations inside the newly conceived Jewish state. During the next eight months, the landscape would be filled with columns of Palestinian refugees fleeing after being forcibly expelled by Jewish military and paramilitary forces. They set up tent camps, believing they would return to their homes once the conflict ended. Most of them thought they would be in these camps for only a short period of time. Unfortunately, these refugee camps have become permanent fixtures on the Palestinian landscape. Camps such as this one in Jabalya are among the densest concentrations of humanity in the world. The politics of settlement and dispossession that created these camps still operate today, but the pattern of settlement and displacement has been exported to the area of Palestine under Israeli military occupation since 1967.
What is under threat from these settlement policies in occupied Palestine is the integrity of the Palestinian agricultural town and the shape of the landscape itself. The Palestinian town has very distinct features. Invariably, Palestinian villages are built into the side of a hill, leaving the hilltop to agriculture, grazing, or simply as open space. What the Israeli occupation has done in the territories under its control is to take the land on hilltops belonging to Palestinian towns in order to build their own settlements, in this case building the settlement of Gilo on land belonging to Bethlehem and Beit Jala. Here’s the pattern for the Palestinian town of Marda and the Israeli settlement of Ariel above. Invariably, these settlements, after they have taken hilltop land from Palestinian towns, begin to grow beyond their original boundaries. These expansions are demarcated on the landscape by trailer containers. The settlement outposts, as they are called, are ubiquitous throughout the Palestinian West Bank. Undoubtedly, one of the most dramatic instances of this hilltop colonization occurred on the hill of Abu Ghneim, near Bethlehem, in the West Bank. In 1997, as documented by the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, bulldozers broke ground and began grading the site, putting in the roads and infrastructure. By 2004, Abu Ghneim was no longer recognizable.
What is particularly contentious, however, is when these settlements are built in close proximity to Palestinian towns and villages. Many of these settlers try to encourage their Palestinian neighbors to move by burning their crops and vandalizing their lands, as happens almost on a daily basis to Mahmoud Sabatin of Husan. When Sabatin tried to complain to security personnel at the Betar Illit settlement about these activities, authorities told Sabatin that people involved in committing these crimes were simply tending the land. In other instances, the actions of the settlers are even more dramatic. In these images, settlers from Zufin uprooted and destroyed 300 olive trees belonging to Toufik Hassan Salim of Jayyous. Why did they do this? Because the trees of Mr. Salim grew on land coveted by the settlement for expansion. I was with Mr. Salim when he came upon this scene and learned the trees cultivated by his family for the past 300 years had been destroyed.
Undoubtedly, the most dramatic example of proximity conflict between Israeli settlers and Palestinians comes from the Palestinian city of Hebron. In 1979, a small group of religious Jews took over the second story of an abandoned hospital in Hebron’s historic old city. Today, this group numbers roughly 400 persons. To accommodate this expansion, however, this group of settlers demolished the walls on the upper floors of adjacent buildings and took possession of adjoining apartments, dispossessing Palestinians who were living there. These settlers are constantly throwing all types of debris down on Palestinians passing by underneath. Palestinians living in the old city had to construct nets and fences to prevent debris from hitting passersby. Occasionally, even bricks and heavy construction material are thrown at people below.
This network of settlements is maintained by an elaborate system of checkpoints that creates a geography of partitioned spaces in the Palestinian landscape. These checkpoints do not regulate traffic into Israel. Instead, they control the movement of Palestinians inside the West Bank, between one Palestinian town and another. There are over 500 of these scattered throughout the landscape of Palestine. Some of them are large terminals, such as this one in Qalandia, or this one at Bethlehem, in which the Israeli authorities seem to be marking the occupation itself. One of the most notorious of all these checkpoints is the Huwara checkpoint, well known because of the difficulties Palestinians encounter at this location. It is at checkpoints where Palestinians come into direct contact with Israelis, almost always soldiers or police. These encounters are poignant metaphors of unequal power between the two groups. It is Israeli soldiers who determine whether Palestinians can proceed to where they are going, and it is these soldiers who can choose to impede individuals.
Most of the time, what occurs at checkpoints are long waits in lines, sometimes for hours. Getting to work, running a business, going to school, or visiting friends and families becomes a series of constant unknowns. Checkpoints are also instrumental in regulating vehicular traffic inside Palestine. Often these checkpoints on roadways are set up by surprise and are therefore called “flying checkpoints.” These flying checkpoints often have adverse impacts on perishable goods being trucked from one location to another. Palestinians also have to contend with a flying roadblock created during the night by Israeli military bulldozers. Instead of setting up a flying checkpoint, these bulldozers would simply dig up earth during the night and deposit it on a road, effectively preventing access. The result is that people have to get out and walk across the roadblock, hoping that they can get another taxi on the other side.
Undoubtedly, the most dramatic element contributing to this ex-communicated landscape is the wall. The Israeli government claims that the wall has been built to preempt Palestinian terrorism. What the government does not explain is why 80% of this wall has been built inside Palestinian territory. It is because of these facts that the International Court of Justice has declared the wall a violation of international law. The wall creates some of the most imposing landscapes anywhere — stark images of domination. It carves up neighborhoods, and in an affront to the idea of the university as a channel of open communication, Israeli authorities have built the wall right on the campus of Al Quds University in Abu Dis. The scale of this structure on the landscape only heightens its foreboding and inhumane character. Where the wall does not quite create a sealed airlock and leaves some openings, it insults the dignity of Palestinians in trying to cope with it. In Bethlehem, where the wall has created a ghetto city, it is possible to see how this piece of infrastructure fits into a broader pattern of military occupation, settlement, and separation. Like all settlements, Gilo sits atop the landscape as a metaphor of the forcible seizure of land, in this case taken from Bethlehem and its neighboring suburb of Beit Jala. Israeli officials know very well how much resentment these settlements engender. They build the wall here to separate Gilo from Bethlehem, and in other places similar to this, because they understand the extraordinary measures they need to protect what they have essentially taken by force.
It’s important to realize that the wall is not just a physical barrier. It’s also a construction project, and like any construction project, the wall has impacts on the social, economic, and physical landscape. If you happen to live in a house where the wall has been routed, you are simply out of luck, as this poor homeowner was in Abu Dis, as well as this homeowner in Nazlat Issa. In other instances, such as this house again in Nazlat Issa, the wall came into contact with the home, and consequently the homeowner had half his house demolished to make way for the structure. At the same time, houses in close proximity to the wall, such as these houses in the Bedouin town of Ar Ramadin, are under constant threat of demolition.
The other major impact of the wall is environmental: very simply, it tears up the landscape. In addition, when the wall is built on agrarian areas, it cuts a pathway of roughly 80-100 meters wide. This eliminates land from cultivation, resulting in both land loss and crop loss. In these agricultural areas, the wall is having perhaps its most profound impacts in separating farmers from their farmland. By establishing gates for Palestinians to pass through in order to access their own fields, and by requiring these farmers to obtain permits for passing through the gates, the wall complements the system of checkpoints, by preventing farmers from working their land and earning a living. In this way, the wall functions as a key element in what Israeli human rights activist Jeff Halper terms the “matrix of control” that immobilizes Palestinians. For individual farmers, such as Fayez and Mona Taneeb, the construction of the wall can deliver a crippling economic blow. Israeli authorities told the Taneebs that they would be confiscating 60 of their 80 dunams of land to build the wall across their farm. This couple is actually famous throughout Palestine for pioneering methods of organic farming for vegetables. Today, the Taneebs have only 20 dunams remaining as the wall has confiscated the rest of their land. Israeli authorities told them, however, that they should be grateful that they did not lose their entire farm.
These issues of ex-communication on the landscape, settlements, the wall, demolition of crops and homes are perhaps most extreme in Gaza, a small strip of land roughly 25 miles long and 6 miles wide, home to 1.5 million people. The Gaza Strip is often described as the world’s largest outdoor prison. It acquired this pedigree in 1996 when, under the regime of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel completed the construction of the 63-kilometer fence around the area’s perimeter. By the end of 2000, however, during the initial months of the Intifada, the Palestinians managed to tear down many sections of the fence. Nevertheless, by June of 2001, Israeli authorities completed the construction of a very different type of barrier, concrete in most sections and steel in others. In addition, the barrier was pushed one kilometer inside Gaza. The result has been that crops and homes in this one-kilometer zone have been uprooted and demolished on a mass scale, more or less routinely.
The area is subjected to aerial and tank bombardment from Israel on an almost daily basis. While in Gaza, I rode with ambulances of a Palestinian medical relief committee to get a firsthand look at the human costs of this violence. These doctors make old-fashioned house calls to the thousands of civilians injured in these bombings and shellings. Most of these are very poor people who happened to be in a wrong place at a wrong time. I am still haunted by the gaze of a shell-shocked young man, whose body was pockmarked by shrapnel wounds. His story is typical of the many I heard. He was simply sitting in his modest living room when an Israeli tank shell came crashing into his house, killing one of his brothers and leaving him physically and psychologically scarred for life. As you might expect, this indiscriminate violence leveled against civilians in Gaza has engendered enormous public outrage. Most of this frustration is channeled into funeral demonstrations for those killed. I was in Gaza City on an August evening in 2006 when an Israeli Apache helicopter fired a missile, supposedly aimed at a car being driven by a Hamas militant. The missile instead hit another car and killed three innocent people, including a three-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy.
Not surprisingly, Palestinians have taken to resisting their fate under the Israeli occupation. Since 2002, this resistance has taken as its central target the wall. For Palestinians, it is the wall that is the most tangible symbol of their condition. It is the element that communicates so prominently what they endure in terms of land confiscation, home demolition, crop destruction, and ex-communication of their communities. As the wall was first being built in 2002, local committees emerged in various Palestinian towns where the barrier was being constructed. The first widespread resistance to the wall occurred in the village of Jayyous, where the route of the wall separated 80% of the town’s farmland from the farmers who owned and tilled this land. In order to get to their fields, farmers were forced to submit to a permit regime at a gate in the wall, which was open only one hour per day. Despite the presence of Israelis and people from numerous countries, demonstrations in Jayyous were unable to prevent the construction of the wall and confiscation of their farms. Nevertheless, the resistance in Jayyous inspired many other cities.
One such campaign occurred in the village of Budrus, about 30 kilometers west of Ramallah. In Budrus, the route of the wall was poised to separate the village from roughly 3,000 dunams of its land. Under the leadership of a very creative local committee against the wall, chaired by a fellow named Ayed Morrar, the townspeople developed a campaign of peaceful demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience against the wall. In these actions, young women from the town played a heroic role. Their aim was not only to protest peacefully. On several occasions, these women actually jumped into bulldozers in an effort to disrupt the construction of the barrier. As a result, the town lost only a few dunams of land, instead of the proposed 3,000.
Undoubtedly, the most important of these other resistance campaigns against the wall is the campaign organized by the village of Bil’in. In this campaign, however, Bil’in confronts an enormously formidable adversary not present in Budrus. What you see on the map is how the largest settlement bloc in the West Bank, Modi’in Illit, is encroaching onto land owned by various nearby towns, including Bil’in. What you see in this image is what is represented on the map. It shows how Modi’in Illit and the wall protecting it are destroying the land and crops cultivated by farmers from Bil’in. Beginning in 2005, and continuing to present day, the town had organized a demonstration against this illegal land confiscation every Friday. As in other campaigns, the Bil’in resistance is forged from an alliance of a local committee, Israelis, and internationals. The stakes here, however, are enormous for the town because so much of the town’s farmland is being taken. Nevertheless, these demonstrations are completely non-violent.
Because the stakes are high here for the Israeli side as well, the occupation forces rely upon a particularly combative unit of army troops and border police to subdue the demonstrators in Bil’in. In almost every action, the pattern is identical: peaceful protesters are met by army personnel and border police, who in a matter of minutes begin firing tear gas, concussion grenades, and rubber bullets at demonstrators. In this sequence, I was threatened by a soldier for taking photos, and this soldier then fired a concussion grenade right at my feet. People are injured as the shooting and tear gas goes on for an hour or so. Oftentimes, there are arrests. Sometimes, some of these demonstrators are carried away violently. But the campaign in Bil’in goes on as we speak, in a hope that the writing on the wall will bring a different future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Photography and narration: Gary Fields. Camera and motion graphics: John Odam. Editor: Ed Sweed. Additional footage: Chris Gocke; Dr. Jad Isaac, ARIJ; UNRWA Photo Archive. Music: Samir Joubran and Wassam Joubran, “Tomaas,” “Takaseem,” and “El Nesf El Akhar.” Alternate Focus, 2009. The text above is a transcript of Ex-Communicated.