Three Walls

Three Walls

In the shadow of a wall, every house is different.

The Nation of Hani Amer

The wall was concrete and eight meters high. It was May and hazy in Mas’ha, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, the sky a whitish blue. Just before the cement of the wall gave way to a chain-link fence studded with motion sensors and topped with nine strands of barbed wire, someone had painted a Palestinian flag on the concrete and the words, in Arabic, “Welcome to the nation of Hani Amer.” A padlock locked the high and rusted metal gate connecting the fence and the wall. I stood waiting outside it with Irene Nasser, a journalist and producer who had been here once before. She laughed as I stood marveling at the wall and the yellow-painted gate, trying to make sense of it. Then she made a phone call, and after a minute a little boy ran out from Hani Mohammad Abdullah Amer’s house. He struggled on tiptoes to reach the lock and, managing at last to turn the key, removed the lock and let us in.

Amer sat waiting on a long metal swing beneath a pomegranate tree outside his home, perhaps 40 feet from the wall. The pomegranates were just beginning to redden. The skin around Amer’s eyes was wrinkled deeply but his mustache and eyebrows were still bushy and black, his hair cut short and hidden beneath a white, woven cap. He was 57, he said, “maybe a little more, maybe a little less.” The boy crawled up on the swing beside him.

“I’m tired of telling this story,” Amer told Irene. I asked him to tell it anyway, because I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. There was the wall and the gate beside it, and, on the other side of Amer’s home, perhaps 12 feet from its rear windows, another fence, a line of coiled razor wire behind it, and just beyond that, the red-roofed houses of a settlement. It was as if the earth had been folded, the folds marked with concrete and barbed wire, and Amer trapped between them, in the crease.

Grudgingly, Amer began at the beginning. His father was born in the village of Kafr Qasim, just to the north and west in what is now Israel. In 1948, Amer said, soldiers killed his grandfather and pushed his family from their home. His dating was likely more symbolic than precise: The Nakba began in 1948, but the infamous massacre of Kafr Qasim, in which 49 Palestinians were killed by Israeli Border Police, did not occur until 1956. Yshishkar Shadmi, the officer who ordered the massacre, was famously punished by the Israeli courts with a fine of one piastre (the equivalent of a penny). The survivors fled here, to Mas’ha, six or seven kilometers east of the Green Line, leaving their land and property behind. In 1977, the settlers arrived: Gush Emunim, the same group of religious nationalists who built Halamish. Among them was a young officer named Shaul Mofaz who would later become the IDF’s chief of staff, and after that the minister of defense. He was the security liaison for the settlement, which would be called Elkana. The settlers, Amer said, caused endless trouble. “They’ve shot at us, thrown stones, come into our homes.” One of his sons was hit with a rock just above his eye. “They broke all the windows on the other side of the house,” Amer said, tying his grandson’s shoelace on his knee. His own shoes were caked red with dirt. “The last problem that we have,” he said, “is the wall, which you see.”

They came, he said, sometime between 2000 and 2002—he didn’t remember exactly. The police came, and the army, and the Civil Administration, the Israeli military bureaucracy charged with governing much of the West Bank. “They said, ‘We’re going to build a wall and your house is on the route of the wall.’ They said, ‘You have two choices, either we can demolish your house and you can live on the other side, or you can stay in your house and we will build the wall around you.’” Masha is several kilometers from the Green Line, but the wall here dives far from Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries, carving out a finger that juts deep inside the West Bank to enclose the settlement city of Ariel, the settlement industrial zones and smaller settlements to its west, and all the Palestinian land that falls in between.

Two more little boys joined Amer on the swing. They were his grandchildren. “I don’t like adults,” Amer said. “I like kids.” He told the Israelis that there was a third option: They could build their wall in the space between his house and the settlement so that he would not be caged in and cut off from the rest of the village. They said they would think about it. A few days later they came back. An electric line would have to be moved, but they had talked to the engineer and it wouldn’t be a problem. “We can move the pole and build the wall between you and the settlement,” they said. “Congratulations.” But when they returned a month or so later, the deal was off. “The bulldozers came and they bulldozed everything around the house, the greenhouses, the garden, everything.” Amer lost two-thirds of the land around his house, plus another 20 dunams (about five acres) on the other side of the wall, which he could no longer reach.

Amer’s home was soon surrounded: the wall on one side, the fence on the other. They built a gate and told him to choose a time and they would come and open it for 15 minutes every 24 hours. He demanded a gate of his own with a key of his own, so that he could let himself in and out when he wished, so that his home would not become a prison for him. They refused. He told them he would destroy their wall. They said they’d shoot him. “I said, ‘So shoot me. If you’re going to sentence me to death, do it quickly.’” He brought in activists, human-rights groups, the United Nations, the press. Soldiers raided the house at night and arrested Amer several times. In the end they relented. They gave him his own gate, his own lock, his own key.

At first the soldiers told him that only his immediate family could pass through the gate. Amer ignored them and invited whomever he wished. They locked the gate to punish him. The longest confinement lasted two weeks, Amer said. “Eventually we learned to be in touch with the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and they wouldn’t close it for so long, just a day. But if they locked us up for six months, we would be fine.” The shelves in his kitchen were lined with jars of pickled vegetables. “We have everything,” Amer said. “The basics: oil, za’atar, preserved tomatoes, flour, bulgur, beans.” Again the army relented. Anyone could come, they said, just no press, no cameras. Amer smiled and nodded at me, the proof of his defiance.

Eventually, he said, “We started creating a life here.” He began fixing up the house, building a garden with raised beds just beside it. “There are different types of victories,” he said. “There are military victories, where people destroy and conquer, but there is also the sweeter victory, where people try to create death and you create life out of that.” We walked through the garden. He listed the trees he had planted: olive, fig, pomegranate, clementine, lemon, apple, peach, almond, cherry, mulberry, apricot, carob, grapefruit, plum. Most were still too young to bear fruit. He named the vegetables he had planted between them, pausing as he walked to tear off a dead leaf or uproot a weed, to sit and pull his youngest grandson onto his knee. There were tomatoes. There was corn, peppers, onions, cucumbers, okra, herbs, watermelon, and squash.

Just across from Amer’s door, someone had painted an enormous bird on the concrete canvas of the wall. It wasn’t a dove. Its tail was long, its wings spread, its plumage fiery and wild. I asked Amer what he thought each morning when he woke up, left his house, and saw the wall. He chuckled. Maybe the wall looked like something to people who hadn’t suffered everything that he had, he said, but to him the wall was nothing. That’s what he said, at least. “Instead of seeing the wall,” he said, “I try to see the garden.”

Every Beginning Is Different

Bassem Tamimi had told me about Beit Ijza, in the West Bank. He had a friend there, he said, who had told him about another surrounded house. That was all he said, but even if he had described it in detail, he couldn’t have done much to spoil the surprise. In August 2013, he and Irene Nasser and I drove out through al‑Masyoun, an affluent neighborhood of new and ugly apartment towers and sleek cafés constructed since the beginning of Ramallah’s post-Oslo boom. We passed the Mövenpick and the Grand Park hotels, where foreign dignitaries and wealthy Palestinians from the diaspora stayed for hundreds of dollars a night, and the buildings grew squatter and the landscape more broken and industrial as we drove east through Beitunia until finally, of course, we hit the wall.

The wall rode the hills in front of us and to our left like a ridge of spines on a reptile’s back. Then it did something odd. It branched off in a Y. Why the fork? If its purpose was security, to protect Israelis from Palestinians, what could the two branches possibly be enclosing? The Israeli architect and theorist Eyal Weizman observed in 2007 that the wall had by then become “a discontinuous and fragmented series of self-enclosed barriers that can be better understood as a prevalent ‘condition’ of segregation—a shifting frontier—rather than one continuous line neatly cutting the territory in two.” We were close enough to Jerusalem and its myriad suburban settlements that the wall formed neither a line nor a simple zigzag. The intricacies of separation and control fractured its path into a jagged cuneiform script scrawled in concrete across the earth. We passed beneath it through a tunnel, from Palestine to Palestine, and drove on past supermarkets and olive groves before we hit the wall again and dropped into another tunnel, this one almost impossibly long—Irene measured it on the odometer at a kilometer and a half. We entered it in al-Jib and emerged one village over, in Biddu. Again: from Palestine to Palestine. We had crossed beneath no river and through no mountain, through no natural impediment at all. The obstacles we had passed beneath were ethnic and political: The land above and around the tunnel had been seized from the neighboring villages to create the settlements of Giv’on Hahadasha and Har Smuel, and to build the smooth settlers’ highway—Road 443—that connects the central West Bank settlements to one another and to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a road that the journalist Gershom Gorenberg has described as a “long, narrow settlement” in its own right.

Irene recalled that there had been demonstrations here in the early days of the popular resistance fight against the wall. Five men had been killed in Biddu, three of them when the army opened fire on the village’s third demonstration in February 2004. They had lost, and stopped the protests. Biddu and the seven villages around it—Beit Ijza being one of them—had been turned into a canton, an enclave walled off from the surrounding Palestinian populations of both Jerusalem and the West Bank, accessible from Ramallah only through that tunnel, which could be closed at any time by a few soldiers in a single jeep.

We turned off the main road and onto a smaller one, potholed and dusty. It came to an abrupt end at a fence edged with coiled razor wire. We parked the car. On the other side of the fence we could see the red-roofed stucco homes of Giv’on Hahadasha, quiet and clean as any Florida subdivision. Just past what appeared to be the last house in Beit Ijza stood a short section of concrete wall. It was about 12 feet high and rimmed with another six feet of chain link. A gate opened in the wall: a heavy metal door, painted yellow, that led onto a narrow driveway perhaps 60 feet long. Low cement walls topped with 12 or 15 feet of heavy mesh fencing rose on both sides of the driveway. At the end of this concrete and steel tunnel stood a single house, a pretty, one-story stone building with a lush arbor growing over its front patio and fruit trees in the yard. The house too was encircled by a high barrier of thick steel mesh.

Bassem was laughing as he opened the gate. I suppose it was the look on my face. I don’t know if in the minutiae of this description I have managed to be clear: The house had its own wall, not one that happened to snake across its yard, as with Hani Amer’s home in Masha, but a wall that had been purposefully and with considerable care wrapped around it, sealing it off equally from the settlement and from the village of which it had been part. The house was entirely encaged.

We were greeted by a man named Sa’adat Sabri. He had a soft voice, a delicate, almost feminine face, and a construction worker’s rough and callused hands. Inside, the house was spotless. The sitting room was airy and bright. Its white tile floors had been scrubbed to a shine. Nowhere could I spot a stray hair or mote of dust. Sabri was 32 years old, which made him two years younger than Giv’on Hahadasha. The settlers—they too were from Gush Emunim—arrived before he was born, but his father, who had died in this house in 2012, had told him stories. The settlers first came, as they usually did, in caravans—glorified shipping containers that could be dropped in overnight as temporary lodgings. The leader of the settlers’ council, a woman named Rachel, approached Sabri’s father and asked to buy his land. She brought a suitcase filled with money, Sabri said. At first she asked for one dunam—about a quarter of an acre—but when he refused and continued to refuse she said she would settle for less, “even if it’s just a meter,” so long as he delivered his signature on a document ceding his rights to the land. His answer, he said, would always be the same.

Sabri laughed. “After that,” he said, “our problems started.”

The settlers, Sabri said, seized 40 of the family’s 110 dunams. In the daytime, they put up fences and electric lines. At night, Sabri’s father and brothers tore them down. The soldiers came and arrested them. The settlers took their own retaliation, targeting the house with rocks and Molotovs.

This went on for 15 years: “From 1979 to 1994, not one stone was laid on this land. There wasn’t a year when one of us wasn’t in prison.” When the settlers brought in workers—it is a little-mentioned truth that Israeli settlements are built by Palestinian laborers—the Sabris would figure out where they were from. They would visit their families and dissuade them from returning to work. Sabri didn’t specify how. His father had deeds to the land going back to the Ottoman Empire, so they tried the courts. It didn’t help: Sometimes the High Court would issue a stop-work order, but the settlers would ignore it and the soldiers would defend them. When Arafat returned from exile in 1994, Sabri’s father sought an audience with him. “There’s nothing I can do,” Arafat told him. “Just keep resisting.”

Resist they did. Their tenacity would not go unpunished. About a year after Oslo, the settlers brought in so many workers that the Sabris could not hope to persuade or scare them all away. The settlement grew. The Intifada broke out. By 2005, the wall around the village had gone up. Sabri, his father, and one of his brothers were all arrested. When he got out, the fence around the house had already been built. His home had been transformed into a single-family jail. One morning not long thereafter, Sabri woke up to find the gate locked. There was no soldier to complain to—just the intercom and a camera wired to communicate with a Border Police station several miles distant. Sabri went out to the gate at 7 AM and rang the intercom. He waited beside the gate, he said, for eight hours. Finally, an officer arrived. He had orders. No one would be allowed in the house, he said, other than those family members who already lived there. The gate would be opened at certain times each day. Whoever wished to enter would have to hold their documents up to the camera so that their identification could be verified.

Sabri smiled. “I’m just taking this as a conversation,” he told the officer. “I’m not taking what you say seriously.” Hypothetically, he wanted to know: What about his sisters who had married and moved out of the house? What if they wanted to drop by to see their parents?

They would have to submit a request for a permit a week in advance, the officer answered.

“I told him no way,” Sabri said. “We refuse completely.”

The gate stayed locked for the next three months. The Sabris appealed again to the Israeli courts. When they needed to leave the house—which they often did, as Sabri’s father was by this time quite ill—they would contact the Red Crescent, the United Nations, and the District Coordination Office of the Civil Administration, and wait for others to intercede on their behalf. Sometimes it would take five minutes, Sabri said, but sometimes it took hours. Either way, you had to stand outside and wait for the gate to click open. If you missed it, the whole process started over. Finally, at the end of 2006, the courts decided in the Sabris’ favor. The gate stayed open.

“Man is a creature that can get used to anything,” wrote Dostoevsky after four years in a Siberian prison camp. “That is the best definition of him.” Life went on. It has to. Sabri’s father died. His battles continued: The family was still in court over the fate of the 70 dunams that remained to them, which, like all of Beit Ijza’s agricultural land, were cut off from the village by the wall. In the meantime, they planned to stay put. Sabri’s grandmother remained in the house, along with two of his brothers, their families, and his own. His wife had given birth to a son. She was pregnant again. As we spoke, Sabri’s son and his nephews toddled into the room, climbed over his lap, fingered his cigarette lighter, his coffee cup and saucer, fell, cried, recovered, and scurried off again.

“Every beginning is different,” Sabri said. When the wall first went up, “we saw it as the end.” Now the house was full of children. They saw the fence and the barbed wire every time they glanced through a window or stepped outdoors. It was the same with the gate, Sabri said. In the beginning it seemed unbearable, but he knew now that they would have been OK even if the worst had happened and the gate had remained locked. Eventually, he said, smiling at this strange and painful knowledge, they would all have gotten used to it.


In Ramallah, I would walk or drive past the muqata’a almost every day. From the sidewalk and the street, I would see as much of the place as any ordinary person can. Which was not much. The muqata’a was a forbidding presence. Mainly I saw the high stone wall that surrounded the compound and Abbas’s official residence. Above it I could make out the top floors of the drab modern buildings within, which, like the guard towers along the wall and the wall itself, were faced with smooth white stone. In the driveway and all around the periphery of the compound, members of Abbas’s Presidential Guard stood watch in red berets, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. They were taller and fitter and looked better fed than any other members of the Palestinian security forces.

As well they should. They were equipped and specially trained by the United States, which had poured an average of $100 million a year into the Palestinian security services since 2007. Hamas had won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, and the United States, with the approval of Israel’s internal intelligence service, began to support the creation of an elite gendarmerie answerable only to Abbas. “One authority, one gun,” as US Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton would later put it.

A decade ago, most of the muqata’a was rubble, laid waste by Israeli tanks during the Second Intifada and the IDF’s long siege. Only a small segment of the concrete structure in which Arafat spent his final years still stands, hidden in the interior of the compound. But however hard the new buildings and high walls may work to replace that past with a slick and seemingly impregnable modernity, the muqata’a survives as a sort of stone palimpsest of 80 years of colonial and now neocolonial rule. Its core—the concrete structure in which Arafat was confined—was originally erected by the British, specifically by an Irish Protestant policeman named Charles Tegart. England’s colonial adventures began closer to home, and, between stints in Calcutta, Tegart had worked as an intelligence officer for the British crown during the Irish war for independence. He later proved so talented at crushing anticolonial insurgencies in India that he was granted a knighthood. His efforts there were not universally appreciated—Tegart survived no fewer than six assassination attempts and developed a reputation for rough methods (“torture” would be the contemporary appellation) that would follow him to Palestine, where he arrived in 1937, one year into the Arab Revolt. In Palestine, Tegart sketched out an early draft of what would become the basic infrastructure of Israel’s occupation: He militarized the colonial constabulary, constructed the region’s first border wall along what is now the Israeli-Lebanese frontier, erected pillbox guard towers along the roads, and built 62 reinforced-concrete forts, each designed to withstand a month-long siege.

This was the architecture of domination: unapologetically practical structures designed to protect and sustain an occupying army stationed amid a populace that did not want it there. After 1948, many of the Tegart forts that fell inside Israel remained police stations for the new Jewish state. Some became museums. Others were abandoned. One became a secret IDF prison and interrogation site known only as Facility 1391. Tegart, who had imported waterboarding to Palestine and in addition to his forts constructed a series of so-called Arab Investigation Centres, would have approved. The forts that fell in the West Bank turned into military bases and bureaucratic centers for the Jordanian authorities. Israel took them over after the 1967 war. The old British police station into which the settlers who founded Halamish first moved, which is now the nucleus of the IDF base outside Nabi Saleh, where I was briefly detained, was originally a Tegart fort.

So was Ramallah’s muqata’a—the word just means “district” or “division,” a node of administrative power—which soon became the regional headquarters for the occupation authorities, who added a jail and military court. It was there that Bassem’s sister died, and there that he was repeatedly imprisoned during and after the First Intifada. These transitions are shockingly smooth: When Israeli troops pulled out of Palestinian cities as part of the Oslo agreement, control of the compound passed to the Palestinian Authority. Briefly in 1995, the muqata’a was opened to the public. “There was such euphoria then, and a sense of pride that the prison and torture chambers where so many had suffered had been liberated,” recalled the writer Raja Shehadeh. “I remember looking forward to the day when former detainees would accompany young Palestinians and describe to them the bitter history of our embattled nation.”

But that day would not arrive. On a later visit to the muqata’a, Shehadeh was distressed to find that the PA had left the military court and the prison intact, adding “an annex to accommodate the activities of the new regime.” None of those structures would survive the Intifada. After Arafat’s death in 2004, the PA announced plans to construct, from the wreckage of the muqata’a—in the words of Abbas’s then–chief of staff—“a new headquarters for the President where he can meet world leaders and deal with them in a modern and civilized manner.” There would be no room for “bitter history,” or for any suggestion that past humiliations had leaked into the present. The new muqata’a would be a heavily fortified stage on which the rituals of statehood might be convincingly performed. Like the legislature that hadn’t sat for years and the government ministries that depended on Israeli permission for even the most trivial official acts, it was part of the show. The idea, said one official quoted by the scholar Linda Tabar, was to build something grand enough that it “creates the impression that we have a state.” Appropriately, the refurbished muqata’a was built with funds provided by foreign donors. “These civilized spaces,” Tabar wrote, “are the antithesis of what the Palestinian liberation movement has struggled for; they amount to sites of defeat where being modern is collapsed into accepting the very modes of domination Palestinians have struggled against.”

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