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10.22.10

Tearing Down Jerusalem's Walls

Despite the stalled Middle East peace process, Israelis and Palestinians are finding common cause. Dayo Olopade reports from Jerusalem on the new prizewinning documentary Budrus.

The first thing I learned in Jerusalem: “There are glass walls all over this city that Israelis and Palestinians don’t cross.” So says Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who has been monitoring tensions in the holy city for 30 years. There are real fences as well—after grapes and olives, the region’s most fruitful crop is barbed wire—but on my first trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, organized by the New America Foundation, I saw virtual barriers eclipse the official ones.

We visited the once-bustling center of Hebron, a major Palestinian city reduced to chilly silence by a policy of curfews and checkpoints known as “sterilization.” A young Palestinian vendor named Islam tagged along until we hit the invisible glass; he fell back while we walked onto the land he cannot touch. Mikhael Menkin, a former IDF soldier leading our group, was unfazed. “We’re at a point where nobody has to say anything or do anything—we know our roles.”

Budrus, a prizewinning new documentary produced by nonprofit Just Vision, intends to break the glass. The film begins in 2004, as bulldozers rumble toward the sleepy town of Budrus. “We must empty our minds of traditional thinking,” local leader Ayed Morrar tells the villagers, distraught that the wall dividing Israel from the West Bank will uproot their olive groves and cleave their cemetery. Over 10 months, the men and women of Budrus stage 60 nonviolent protests, which gain Israeli and international support—and stop the wall. The film, screened at a host of international festivals and released in major American cities this month, is uplifting, despite its subject matter.

As the United States-led peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority stall out, the message of Budrus is sorely needed. Though there hasn’t been a suicide bombing in Israel in more than two years, mutual suspicions still run deep. Members of the far-right Zionist community justified the building of settlements on Palestinian lands with continual reference to “Arab riots” in the mid-20th century. And, walking through the gentrifying, historically Arab neighborhood of Ajami at the southern tip of Tel Aviv, a young student stopped to glare. When our guide, Ph.D. student Sami Abu Shehade, greeted him in Arabic, the child laughed and answered back: “Why didn’t you say you were Arab?” “And what if I wasn’t?” Sami replied. We discovered the answer to that question moments later, when another boy hurled a rock at our foreign bodies.

Since the outbreak of the second intifada and the subsequent construction of a security barrier between Israel and Palestine, it seems the glass walls are hardening. The Israeli students we met at the tony IDC university in Herzliya, on the sea shores just north of Tel Aviv, is unlikely to encounter the Palestinian students whom I met in Ramallah—themselves more likely to see an Israeli armed behind a security checkpoint than at any of the bars or restaurants in the de facto Palestinian capital. Whereas once 120,000 Palestinians used to commute to Israel from the Gaza Strip, the blockade has halted interactions between ordinary people.

In the small town of Walajeh outside Jerusalem, Budrus is happening today. The proposed route for the separation barrier will cut through the town’s 200-year old olive groves and cemetery. One house will be walled off completely. And yet, says Joseph Dana, a journalist and activist who brought us to Walajeh, “Every day these people look over here and see the wall going up—and they probably have no idea what this town is called.”

The movie Budrus is just one way activists are using media tools to try and bring down the walls. Gisha, an Israeli human-rights organization, has created a video game called “Safe Passage” demonstrating the stifling constraints on movement between the West Bank and Gaza. If you want to know what the daily commute is like for a merchant who cannot sell his goods, or a student who cannot attend university because of the Israeli blockade, you don’t have to travel to Gaza to find out.

Similarly, Facebook has been a principal organizing tool for Israelis and Palestinians challenging the construction of illegal settlements in the East Jerusalem quarter of Sheikh Jarrah. For over a year, urban Israeli settlers have been forcibly evicting Palestinians in the neighborhood from their homes. One such victim, Nasser Galwi, spent five months sleeping on the streets after a phalanx of 900 Israeli soldiers tossed him and 54 others out of their apartments. Similar clashes have erupted in Silwan, another East Jerusalem neighborhood recently profiled on 60 Minutes.

Israelis and Palestinians who first met online are now gathering every Friday in Sheikh Jarrah to protest “one of the most worrying events in East Jerusalem,” says Avner Inbar, an Israeli who has worked closely with the protest organizers. “I know it’s the right of the Jewish people to live in peace—but not on my land,” says Galwi.

We found out moments later, when another child hurled a rock at our foreign bodies.

Some commentators, most recently Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, doubt whether virtual connections can change the world. But in this drawn-out conflict, where walls of all kinds are a habit, virtual contact takes on greater significance—and can build the “strong ties” that characterize successful social movements throughout history.

“The possibility of meeting someone like-minded in your real life—your work, your neighborhood—is so negligible,” says Didi Remez, a liberal Israeli activist. “I go to the protests and I see a physical manifestation of the Internet.”

Or as Iltezam Morrar, of Budrus, puts it: “It’s good to remember if you’re small, and have nothing, you can [still] do all this.”

Dayo Olopade is a political reporter for The Daily Beast and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.