Reclaiming walls and fences: finding art and resistance in Palestine and Israel

By Elizabeth Kessler, Donor Life Cycle Coordinator, MCC Canada

This past May I travelled with an MCC learning tour to Palestine and Israel to learn about the ongoing conflict and about MCC’s work with Palestinians and Israelis who are working for peace. I travelled with several other MCC staff members and supporters of our work.

Each day we visited a different place, learning about a different aspect of the context. We learned about the realities of occupation, illegal settlements, uprooted people, destroyed homes, checkpoints, and divide-and-conquer tactics that are used by the Israeli government to assert control. We met Palestinians and Israelis, researchers, activists, businesspeople, tour guides, religious leaders, farmers and even a journalist and a politician–all with different stories and insights to share with us.

But what really stood out to me everywhere were the visual reminders of Palestinian resistance that had been posted or painted on walls.

Palestinian Political Prisoners hunger strike poster

One of the first places we visited was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which sits on top of a cave believed to be the place where Jesus was born. While visiting the church was ostensibly more of a tourist stop, it quickly became clear that tourist stops are not immune to politics. Even before we entered the church, we got caught up in reading these banners that had been posted nearby.

The banners were drawing attention to 1500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails on hunger strike at the time of our visit. The prisoners were demanding an end to the practice of detaining Palestinians without a trial and also calling for other basic rights like the right of a prisoner to have occasional family visits.

It turned out to be only the first of several demonstrations of support for the hunger strike that we would see during our tour.  At the time, the strike had been going on for a month. While the courtyard around the church was mostly calm, the presence of the signs was powerful, as if the people who put them up wanted to remind the tourists that amid the holy sites there are current, serious justice issues here not to be ignored.

key

This key is painted on the door of Lajee Centre, an MCC partner in Aida refugee Camp in Bethlehem. Aida camp is home to refugees from a number of different villages that were destroyed by Israel in 1948.

The camp has art painted all over its walls. The key is an important symbol for the refugees, many of whom fled their homes in 1948 believing that they would be able to return shortly. Most of them did not pack much, but locked their doors and took their keys. Almost 70 years later, the refugees have not been able to return, but the keys to their homes have been passed down through the generations.

Palestinians continue to advocate for the right of return. The people we met are realistic that they will likely not be able to return to their villages, but they do believe they have the right to at least be compensated for the loss of their homes and valuable agricultural land. It struck me that the symbolism of the key – which is painted and sculpted in a several places around the camp – is important for helping the children in the camp understand their history.

wall graffiti

I’ve always been fascinated by political graffiti and street art, and I have taken photos of it in many of the places that I’ve travelled. What was unique about Palestine was how much of it there was. It makes sense: graffiti is a small way for Palestinians to assert power over their own fate and their land— a non-violent way of reclaiming the space as their own. It proves that they are not defeated.

This image is from a section of the wall that we visited in Qalandyia, a Palestinian village in the West Bank near Jerusalem. The section of the wall cuts off a road that used to be a main artery. There is graffiti all over the wall, in English and Arabic and a few other languages, much of it calling for a just peace. On the right, the faded words say “This wall will fall”.

“No more fear!” was one of the most powerful messages I saw on the trip. Fear is a major underlying cause of much suffering in the world but particularly in Palestine and Israel. Fear drives Israel’s obsession with security and it justifies everything from tight control of Palestinian movements, to the building of the wall, to violations of the Geneva Conventions. To build peace in Palestine and Israel, we have to deal with fear.

more graffiti

This is a scene a few blocks up the street from the wall in Qalandiya (also written as Kalandia). We were told that the street used to be a busy main artery, but the separation wall has stopped traffic and the local economy. The place is virtually abandoned and extremely quiet considering how close it is to a main highway and Jerusalem.

The Palestinian flag in graffiti, like the one in this photo, were everywhere in the West Bank. Several of the Palestinians (and some Israelis) we met with throughout the tour spoke about the importance of pushing against the narrative that the Palestinians aren’t really there or have no history here–a narrative that is used to justify illegal Israeli settlements. The flag is a reminder that there is a people here with their own culture and history.

balcony

A sign on a balcony in Hebron reads “Caution, this was taken by Israel.” Jewish Israeli settlers have increasingly been taking over parts of this Palestinian city. Military rule has cut off Palestinian access to the market and, like in Qalandiya, had a severe effect on the local economy. Many of the buildings are abandoned.

mural

A mural in Nazareth commemorates the anniversary of the Nakba. “Nakba” means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and it refers to the time when more than 780,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes to make way for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

Nazareth is a city in Israel that is primarily inhabited by Palestinians, many of whom are Christian. While these Palestinians have Israeli citizenship (as opposed to Palestinians in the occupied areas who do not), they are denied access to agricultural land and to municipal services provided to Jewish Israelis. They are also cut off from their fellow Palestinians – including family members – who reside in the West Bank and Gaza.

We were told that secular Jewish Israelis often come to Nazareth on holidays, and some had repeatedly complained to the municipal government about this mural, which was painted illegally. The mural had been painted over four times, and re-painted four times.

flowers painted on wall

A wall in a refugee camp in Jerusalem that we visited on the last day of the tour. The refugee camp is messy. There is litter everywhere, and we found tear gas canisters and rubber bullets by the curbside – a sign that the military had made their presence known. But it was busy with people going about their business, and we met friendly people and curious boys on the street.  I think the artist who painted these images must have wanted to beautify the neighborhood and these stencils seem like a solid and lasting way to do that under the circumstances.

Being part of this tour renewed my belief in the importance of MCC’s peacebuilding work and my commitment to pushing the Canadian government to end its complicity in the occupation. MCC has a number of resources about Palestine and Israel which you can access here. You can also support our local partners working for peace and justice by making a donation.

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