People of the Wall

Yonathan Mizrachi on lives affected by the Separation Wall

Yonathan Mizrachi worked for the Antiquities Authority during the construction of the Separation Wall. These excerpts come from his book, People of the Wall.

Archaeologists can dig for days and come up with nothing. When they need to excavate in residential areas, in addition to shards and antiquities, they come into contact with residents and passers-by who become part of the site excavation story. The residents and their relationship to the excavation varies from site to site according to the character of the neighbourhood. Will the residents benefit from the excavation or will it interfere with their lives? Is the site part of their own history, or does it tell the story of another ethnic group?

In some cases the environment is more interesting than the archaeological finds.

In Jerusalem, archaeological sites are spread throughout the city, but the Arab neighbourhoods and villages surrounding the Old City have the greatest concentration of antiquities. The Arab villages in East Jerusalem are the direct continuation of the ancient settlements of diverse historical periods.

For two years, from the summer of 2003 until the end of the summer of 2005, I served as the archaeologist accompanying the construction work of the ‘Otef Jerusalem’, the Jerusalem Separation Wall. My job was to ensure that the infrastructure works would not damage any archaeological sites, and to discontinue work should antiquities be exposed. The Antiquities Law states that any infrastructure work on a declared antiquity site (all of Jerusalem is a site of antiquity) requires a permit and must be co-ordinated with the Antiquities Authority. If construction threatens to damage an archaeological site, the Antiquities Authority may discontinue work and demand an archaeological excavation. In such a situation, the area will be freed only after the excavation is concluded, the finds documented, and all the important items removed. Numerous sites are excavated, documented and destroyed only after the important finds are removed. At more important sites, the Antiquities Authority may demand that changes be made to the building plans, or that the excavated site be covered up to prevent its destruction. The route of the Separation Wall is tangential to numerous archaeological sites. I accompanied the entire building process, from north to south and even, in some cases, beyond Jerusalem’s city limits .

My daily encounter with the wall introduced me to a variety of figures and professions: members of international organizations, politicians, artists, merchants, job-hunters and, in the middle of it all, people trying to lead normal lives while political decisions dropped like bombs around them. I met people who believed that by building the wall they were saving lives and accorded their work national importance.But the Separation Wall brought new depths of disturbance and misery to those living in East Jerusalem.

The stories in this collection describe events that took place in the shadow of the building of the Separation Wall. They tell about people not the politics of the wall and seek to describe events in a place where it is sometimes hard to differentiate between reality and imagination. As an archaeologist, I am preoccupied with the importance of place. I took care to preserve the names of all the places we visited.

The area of the city of Jerusalem was determined by the Israeli government after the Six-Day War. The city annexed a large part of the area occupied during that war. The population in all these new areas was Arab. The area called ‘East Jerusalem’ comprises the Arab villages surrounding Jerusalem on the east, north and south. To the south the residents of the villages of Akev, Beit Hanina, part of A-Ram, the village of Shuafat and the Shuafat refugee camp, part of Anata, were annexed to Jerusalem. To the east: residents of the Old City, the Sheikh Jarrah and Wadi Joz quarters, and the A-Tur, A-Sheikh, and Ras el-Amud villages. To the south: residents of the villages of Silwan, Abu Tor, Wadi Kadum, Jabel Mukhabar, Umm Lison, Zur-Baher and Umm Tuba. When the decision was made to build a separation wall in Jerusalem, the majority of East Jerusalem’s residents were included in Israel’s section of Jerusalem, except for residents of the refugee camps of Shuafat, Kfar Akev and the Dahid el-Salam neighborhood in Anata. Residents of East Jerusalem are defined as residents; they do not have the right to vote, but they do enjoy most of the services provided for the citizens of Israel.

Gold Diggers

I was sent to excavate an area ‘suspected’ of antiquities, which usually means there are pieces of ancient ceramics scattered all over the place or there is a rock bearing marks of hewing. Or there could be piles of stones and a cave opening there. I was to dig in that area and unearth the rock to see if there were any archaeological findings there, and if so, how big the site might be. It was located in the backyard of Abu Snena’s house. Abu Snena used the yard as an extension of his house though he never claimed it was his private land. He just told me he had been living there for the last fifty years and I was the first one ever to look for antiquities in his yard.

Abu Snena looked like a caricature Arab: fat, swarthy, with curly hair and moustache, dressed in galabiya and plastic slippers. He moved slowly, in no hurry to get anywhere. ‘Wallah, I don’t believe you will find any antiquities here,’ he told me and sat down next to me, scanning the area with his eyes. Before long, about twenty neighbours gathered around us and were watching the excavation as if the grave of Tutankhamun was about to be disclosed, or at least King David’s grave. They sat and watched. The dig itself hadn’t revealed much until suddenly we found an opening of a pit coated in plaster. At once, all the neighbours huddled around to see what was inside the pit. But they couldn’t see anything as their bodies, bending over the dark pit, blocked all the light.

‘Ya Allah, maybe there is gold here,’ said Abu Snena. ‘For fifty years I haven’t found anything, and you, in two hours, found a pit here I had no idea about.’ I wanted to tell him it was just a water-well, but they all became so excited I held my tongue. These people, who spend most of their time doing not very much, an expression of chronic tiredness and boredom engraved on their faces, had become animated by the excavation, and were following it like a football match. Abu Snena was most intense of all — seized by great expectations, as if he was about to win a major prize. He was swept away by his dream that God had hidden a treasure in his backyard that would soon reverse his bitter fate. He was reluctant to wake up from his dream, though the chances of it coming true were slimmer than the odds of winning the lottery.

The true situation of Abu Snena was, in fact, the opposite of his dream. Soon, the concrete eight meter wall would be built five meters from his house and his life would be turned upside down. After the wall was finished, he would be disconnected from Jerusalem almost completely. He would not see the Old City and Dome of the Rock from his backyard anymore. He and his family would not be able to work in West Jerusalem, and they would have great difficulty getting to  hospital in East Jerusalem. Soon, they wouldn’t even be able to meet their neighbour, who was now sitting together with them watching the excavation. This wall would be a disaster for Abu Snena and his family. But for now it has lit an illogical sparkle of hope in his eyes, seeking in it the good Allah has sent to the courtyard of his house.

Abu Snena did not plan to oppose the construction of the wall or to demonstrate against it. ‘What can it help?’ he said. ‘Everything is from Allah.’ Thirty years of occupation have taught him that resistance against Israeli rule doesn’t pay. Though opposing the occupation brings honour on the Palestinian street, it is not worth the economic and psychological price he and his family would have to pay. For a small protest, he could spend months in the administrative detention.

Abu Snena was left only with his dream, born suddenly when I arrived to excavate in his backyard. He was not ready to give up this dream. A few days of dreaming before the eight-meter wall cast a long shadow over his house.

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The Yard

According to the Ministry of Defence’s original plan, the Separation Wall was to cut through an open space on the mountain range west of the Palestinian Parliament. This area belonged to the village of Abu Dis, but was considered part of the municipal area of Jerusalem. The local Jewish settlers claimed it was Jewish land, and the security establishment acquiesced. So the route of the wall was moved eastward, close to the Palestinian houses bordering this piece of ‘Jewish land’.

The new route ran across the yard of one of the Palestinian houses. Someone who desperately wanted the wall to abut Palestinian houses decided that a concrete fence eight meters high would pass through the yard. This was the way things were when I came to the yard to look for antiquities. Searching for antiquities in yards is not unrealistic. East Jerusalem is rich in antiquities and so are its yards.

A quick survey of the place, or rather, rummaging through the yard, exposed a wine press, a cistern, and another undefined installation. For some reason, the security people were in a hurry and decided to speed up the archaeological work so that the yearned-for wall could be built as soon as possible.

I found myself digging for antiquities in a private yard, without even informing the owner. I, three Palestinian workers, three security guards and a tractor came in one morning and began excavating the yard. Before we began work the relevant authorities were updated. But the owners were not.

The first to come out of the house was a veiled woman, dressed in traditional clothing. She spoke English, suggesting that she was well-educated. As she approached, the security guards bristled.

‘What are you doing here?’ she asked in a mixture of Arabic and English.

I explained to her that my sole function was to search for antiquities and that, if she had any complaints about the building in her yard, I was not the one to address. She explained to me in English that this was her home, and asked if this was the way peace was supposed to come. She was angry, albeit controlled. In this unpleasant state of affairs we continued our work, me, the Palestinians workers and the Israeli security guards. It was one of those situations in which no one is happy with what he’s doing but everyone carries on regardless.After some time the owner came over and asked what we were doing. I told him. He said softly: ‘But it’s my land’.

We continued working. The man sat on the fence, watching us. To salve my conscience, I asked him whether he had known that they were going to build a wall here. ‘Yes, I did know, and I have a lawyer, but in the end you do what you want. Where’s the law and order?’ he answered with a look of despair. ‘Wallah, I don’t even have a traffic ticket. I’ve never made any trouble, and this is what I get’, he continued. We continued working. The man stood there and stared.

‘If they started building in my yard,’ one of the security guards said to me in a threatening tone of voice, as if expressing the anger of the Palestinian owner, ‘… I’d blow the tractor up. I’d make you history and not archaeology. You’d flee the moment you entered the village. Look at him, looking at us and he doesn’t dare budge’. The security guard was angry at the Palestinian’s behaviour as well.

‘In the country in which I live,’ the owner responded, ‘if they decide to build a wall, you only have to take one step towards the tractor and you’re in administrative detention for six months. You’ll look like a man but you’ll have a wall in your yard in the best case scenario. And in the worst case you’ll have a wall in your yard but you won’t have a house.’

The security guard fell silent and returned to his observation point, ready to restrain any Palestinian law-breakers who might try to take us by surprise.

Tractors, security guards, contractors, shouting, dust, noise, invasion of privacy, military forces in the yard — and not one word of abuse. After working for several hours, a strange kind of intimacy developed between us. Talk of the situation, of life and our corrupt regimes made us closer. When the owner understood that we were ‘only doing what we were told’ he called his wife, who came out a few minutes later carrying a tray with some cups of coffee on it. We drank, we drank and I knew that we had lost. I felt how strong the coffee was, stronger than all the power that the State of Israel was investing in the face of one scared Palestinian family.

People of the Wall (2006, Pardes)

Yonathan Mizrachi lives in Jerusalem. He worked as an archaeologist in the Hebrew University projects, and for the Israel Antiquity Authority. Yonathan works in education, is involved in community archaeology projects and writes about archaeology

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