Palestinians, Contained

The Wall has made it much harder for young Palestinians to know Israel--and understand its people

  • Joachim Ladefoged / VII for TIME

    Ramzi Thaer Rafik lives with his family in a small apartment in a West Bank town. He doesn't know any Israelis

    On the question of Israelis, Ramzi Thaer Rafik knows what he knows. He spoke to one once. Five years ago. "I was 10 years old, but I remember it very well," he says. The Israeli was a soldier, and he demanded to know why the young Palestinian was going from one end of his village to the other. Ramzi informed him that he was on his way to school.

    At that point in Israel's 43 years of occupation of Palestinian territory, its army maintained a permanent checkpoint in Ein Arik, a village strung along a deep cleft in the steeply terraced hills just west of Ramallah. The young soldiers provided security to fellow Israelis living in hilltop settlements nearby and, in the bargain, afforded a viewing opportunity for young Palestinians who would henceforth know Israelis only as soldiers and settlers, the newly installed Wall having barred exposure to any other kind.

    Ramzi took what he could from the encounter — the soldier was brusque and belligerent, he recalls — and remained alert for further information. Some arrived on a recent Friday, from a neighbor he was helping repair a fence. Nidal Shaheen had been to Jerusalem three years earlier, having scored a day pass good for a few hours on the other side. He seized the opportunity to take his family to the zoo.

    "They were nice," said Shaheen of the Israelis he met there. Ramzi listened closely. The animals, he could conjure; his family has a satellite dish. Harder to imagine was an Israeli smiling at an Arab from a ticket booth. He gave it a moment, then piped up, offering with a knowing air the only explanation that made sense to him: "The zoo is split," Ramzi declared. "There's an Arab side and an Israeli side."

    The separation barrier — the seldom-used formal name for the Wall — turns out to be a label lush with meaning. Israelis credit the serpentine, 400-mile (640 km) system of fences, barricades and checkpoints with reducing terrorist attacks to almost nil since construction began in earnest seven years ago. But the Wall has done more than keep out suicide bombers. No less important, it has created a separation of the mind. Israelis say they simply think much less about Palestinians. And a generation of Palestinians is coming of age without even knowing what Israelis look like, much less the land both sides claim as their own. The absence of familiarity, names, basic knowing — the absence of the foundations of empathy — does not bode well for the chances of the two peoples one day living as neighbors in peace.

    The economic consequences of the Wall are plain: it has kept out of Israel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who used to travel there every day, mostly to work. In the living room of Ramzi's father, family friend Taeser Ihmad complains that after 20 years earning 200 shekels ($55) a day as a gardener at a Jerusalem hospital, he now makes just 80 shekels ($22) building houses in Ramallah.

    "I never faced a day that they were not nice to me," Ihmad says of the Israelis as Ramzi and his older brother Anis watch silently from the sofa, drinking in the adult conversation with both the silence expected of the young in an Arab household and the curiosity that betrays a less obvious effect of the barrier. Whatever lies beyond it — enemy, oppressor, kindly cashier — is largely a matter of speculation to those born in the hammock of optimism between the 1993 Oslo accords and the second intifadeh , the uprising that began in 2000 and ended after an iron curtain was drawn across the occupied territories.

    Ramzi's 12-year-old cousin Khalid has been to Jerusalem with relatives three times. They strolled in the Old City, common ground for Muslims, Christians and of course Jews. Khalid says he saw them. What did they look like? "Like the ones who are here," he says matter-of-factly. "Green pants, green shirt." No civilians? Khalid shakes his head. Really? No one in regular clothes, perhaps with a skullcap, like a settler? "I don't know what a settler looks like," the boy says. In fact, settlers stopped passing through the village a couple of years ago, after Israel completed a bypass road that whisks them from the nearest checkpoint to their hilltop subdivisions without having to encounter a native.

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