Witness – Writing on the walls in the Holy Land
(Photo: A Palestinian near the Israeli barrier in the Aida refugee camp in the West Bank town of Bethlehem November 9, 2009/Darren Whiteside)
Alastair Macdonald has been Reuters Bureau Chief in Israel and the Palestinian territories for the past three years. As a foreign correspondent over the past 20, he has previously been based in London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Baghdad. As he ends his assignment in Jerusalem, he reflects in the following story on how he has watched people in the region build an array of barriers, both physical and emotional, to cut themselves off from each other.
With one last exit stamp in my passport, I end a three-year reporting assignment in the Holy Land that has been marked by images of frontiers, by a sense of walls going up and fewer and fewer people finding a way through.
From the minefields of Israel’s frontlines with Syria and Lebanon to the fortified fences around the West Bank and Gaza Strip — much in this month’s headlines — to the walls, old and new, of Jerusalem, physical barriers shape the lives of the 12 million people cut off here in what was once called Palestine.
But those lives, and millions more touched by events that reach far beyond these borders, are marked, too, by less visible internal frontiers — religious, cultural, ethnic, political.
I’ve seen Israelis grapple with divisions among between descendants of early European immigrants and later arrivals from the Middle East, Ethiopia and the Soviet Union. Ultra-Orthodox boys hauling barriers around their expanding neighbourhoods in Jerusalem to protect their Sabbath observances from intrusion by secular Jews has also been a potent image.
Inside the Old City’s gates, Ottoman-era Quarters — Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian — map communal rivalries still alive today. Small battlefields marked by razor wire, flags and hurled garbage show where Israelis are settling in Arab areas.
As communities turn their backs on each other, I’ve seen the city’s trilingual street signs defaced: Arabic is blacked out in the west, Hebrew erased in the east. (The English is ignored.) I’ve also watched smaller groups like the Christian Arabs slugging it out in turf wars, in the church around Jesus’s tomb.