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.

Let the little children come . . .

But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” – Mark 10:14

I read this familiar scripture text while travelling in Palestine a few weeks ago, specifically, the day we visited a Bethlehem refugee camp and learned about the life of children there. I read the text again a week later; it was posted on the wall of a Christian organization that provides rehabilitation services to children and youth who have been injured, detained or traumatized by political violence.

I have travelled to Palestine four times in the last dozen years.  This visit, more than others, I was touched with the devastating impact of military occupation on children.  Over and over I heard and witnessed how Palestinian children and youth are assaulted physically, emotionally and psychologically as they endure occupation. Israeli children suffer too.

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Boys play soccer next to the separation wall.  Photo Ryan Dueck

Palestine has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. Over the past 50 years, that occupation has become entrenched by a high separation wall, hundreds of checkpoints, severe restrictions on movement, and the growth of Jewish-only settlements in Palestinian territory. An end to the occupation is nowhere in sight, and another generation of Palestinian children is growing up without the hope of freedom.

At the Bethlehem refugee camp, in existence since 1948 when the creation of the state of Israel created 750,000 Palestinian refugees, a father tells us how his 5-year-old daughter expresses the wish her mother give birth to another girl rather than a boy – because a boy is so much more likely to be detained, injured or even killed. When a baby boy arrives, the daughter tells her parents her new brother should sleep in an inside room, away from the window, where he will be protected from the teargas and the bullets that are common occurrences.

As we walk through the refugee camp, our guide points to a wall listing some of the names of the 551 Palestinian children killed during Israel’s war on Gaza in July 2014.  It doesn’t list the 3,346 injured and the 10 percent permanently disabled. Life is very cheap for Gazan children, it seems. During my two-week stay in Palestine and Israel, two more Gaza children are killed by an Israeli missile attack, a brother and sister, 10 and 6 years of age.

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Schoolgirls in East Jerusalem walk along the separation wall. Esther Epp-Tiessen

A group of human rights lawyers tells us about children and youth in military detention. Defense for Children International, an NGO monitoring children’s rights around the world, has documented the arrest of 8,000 children since 2000.  Most of them have been detained for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. They are usually arrested by heavily-armed men during night-time raids, blindfolded and bound, taken to an unknown location without accompaniment and then interrogated at length.  While most youth detained are between 10 and 20, some are as young as eight years of age.

The lawyers tell us that the night raids are so terrifying, many mothers stay awake most of the night so that if soldiers arrive to conduct a raid, the mothers can waken their children quietly rather than have them woken by the door being smashed open by soldiers. (Not surprisingly, many mothers in Palestine suffer high levels of anxiety, headaches and hypertension.)

Children who are released from detention are severely traumatized. They sleep poorly, have recurring nightmares and often wet themselves. They typically withdraw from others, refuse to return to school or play with friends. Children who have been detained are 13 times more likely to drop out of school than others. Without rehabilitative help, young people who have been traumatized are much more likely to engage in violence and destructive behaviour themselves.

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Palestinian boys play with a kite while soldiers observe. Photo Ryan Dueck

As the occupation drags on, the hopes and dreams of young people fade and disappear.  Many youth cannot even imagine living freely in the land that is their home.  Another father, a longtime advocate for a free and independent Palestine, observes his daughter’s despair.  “Give up, Dad,” she says. “The Israelis have won; there will be no free Palestine.”  I wonder if despair is what drives Palestinian youth to attack Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem. Their actions are not defensible but they are understandable.

The occupation not only victimizes Palestinian children; it also harms Jewish Israeli children and youth.  At a new Jewish settlement In East Jerusalem (by international consensus, Palestinian land), I witness children playing behind a massive iron bar fence with separates them from soccer-playing Palestinian kids nearby. The Jewish children are guarded by a dozen or so machine-gun toting soldiers.  In a few years they will be soldiers themselves, as mandatory military service demands that they become part of the machinery that upholds the occupation.  I mourn that Jewish children and youth grow up with the sense that they are surrounded by danger, and that the only response is military might.

It is deeply and profoundly wrong that generations of Palestinian children have grown up essentially imprisoned in their own land.  It is deeply and profoundly wrong that Jewish Israeli children grow up learning that the security of their people requires the oppression of another.  It is unconscionable that much of the world continues to turn a blind eye.

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator of the Ottawa Office.