In constructing an apartheid wall around most of the illegally occupied Palestinian West Bank, Israel has tried to concentrate and control the native Palestinian population. This has been particularly true in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. Approximately a mile north of the Church of the Nativity, considered the birthplace of Jesus, the apartheid wall restricts Palestinian movement out of the holy city. Some of Bethlehem’s Palestinian residents have, however, used the wall to push back against this colonizing effort and share their personal narratives, memories, and acts of protest.
The wall, which will encompass 708 km (440 miles) upon completion, has had a substantial impact on Palestinian lives. It contributed to the fragmentation of Palestine and the devastation of its economy, and has limited Palestinians’ access to natural resources. Although the wall’s route violates international law, according to the International Court of Justice, Israel has continued its construction unhindered and with impunity.
Israel has justified this collective act of punishment by presenting the Palestinians as an existential threat to its survival. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he wants to “surround all of Israel with a fence” to separate it from “wild beasts,” the term he used to refer to the Palestinian population.
Notions of exclusion, containment, and removal of the indigenous Palestinian population have been central to Zionism from the very start. In the 1923 tract “The Iron Wall,” Ze’ev Jabotinsky – an early Russian Zionist leader who was involved in the creation of Zionist terror organizations (such as the Irgun) – fantasized about placing Palestinians “behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach” because native people have historically “always stubbornly resisted the colonists.” Interestingly, Benzion Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, was Jabotinsky’s secretary.
Physically excluding the Palestinians, who are controlled by Israel but denied access to rights, the wall is the epitome of apartheid – a physical structure that embodies Israel’s system of colonial control and racial segregation. But while Palestinians are generally misrepresented in the West, the wall has provided them with a canvas to illustrate and directly convey their experiences.
Based in Bethlehem, the “Wall Museum,” which was created by the Arab Education Institute (AEI), has displayed individual narratives by Palestinian children, in the hope that the “stories contribute to cracks in the Wall.”
Since construction first began in 2000, the wall has become a symbol for liberation struggles across the world. Indeed, activists from various countries have painted their wishes and goals onto Bethlehem’s part of the wall.
While this looming structure aims to further exclude Palestinians from the outside world, its omnipresence has made it part of Palestinian national identity and a venue for capturing and reflecting the suffering of oppressed people, Palestinian and otherwise.