HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE THE WALL (006)
HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE THE WALL
A Muslim's mixed feelings about Sharon's barrier.
By IRSHAD MANJI
Published: March 18, 2006
ON March 28, Israelis will elect a new prime minister to replace the ailing
Ariel Sharon. But I'd bet my last shekel that I'll continue to hear the
phrase "Ariel Sharon's apartheid wall." It's a phrase spoken - make that
spewed - on almost every university campus I visit in North America and
Among a new generation of Muslims, this is what Mr. Sharon will be known for
long after he leaves office: unilaterally erecting a barrier, most of it a
fence, some of it a wall, that cuts Arab villages in half, chokes the
movement of ordinary Palestinians, cripples local economies and, ultimately,
separates human beings.
The critics have a point - up to a point.
They're right that Palestinians are virtually wailing at "the wall." When I
went to see its towering cement slabs in the West Bank town of Abu Dis last
year, an Arab man approached me to unload his sadness. "It's no good," he
said. "It's hard."
"Why do you think they built it?" I asked.
The man shook his head and repeated, "It's hard." After some silence, he
added, "We are not two people. We are one."
"How do you explain that to suicide bombers?" I wondered aloud.
The man smiled. "No understand," he replied. "No English. Thank you.
Was it something I said? Maybe my impolite mention of Palestinian martyrs?
Then again, how could I not mention them?
After all, this barrier, although built by Mr. Sharon, was birthed by
"shaheeds," suicide bombers whom Palestinian leaders have glorified as
martyrs. Qassam missiles can kill two or three people at a time. Suicide
bombers lay waste to many more. Since the barrier went up, suicide attacks
have plunged, which means innocent Arab lives have been spared along with
Jewish ones. Does a concrete effort to save civilian lives justify the
hardship posed by this structure? The humanitarian in me bristles, but
ultimately answers yes.
That's not to deny or even diminish Arab pain. I had to twist myself like an
amateur gymnast when I helped a Palestinian woman carry her grocery bags
through a gap in the wall (such gaps, closely watched by Israeli soldiers,
do exist). It made me wonder how much more difficult the obstacle course
must be for people twice my age, who must travel to one of the wider
official checkpoints nearby.
I appreciate that Israel's intent is not to keep Palestinians "in" so much
as to keep suicide bombers "out." But in the minds of many Palestinians,
Ariel Sharon never adequately acknowledged the humiliation felt by a
60-year-old Arab whose family has harvested the Holy Land for generations
when she has to show her identity card to an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant
in an Israeli Army uniform who's been in the country for eight months. In
that context, fences and walls come off as cruelly gratuitous.
For all the closings, however, Israel is open enough to tolerate lawsuits by
civil society groups who despise every mile of the barrier. Mr. Sharon
himself agreed to reroute sections of it when the Israel High Court ruled in
favor of the complainants. Where else in the Middle East can Arabs and Jews
work together so visibly to contest, and change, state policies?
I reflected on this question as I observed an Israeli Army jeep patrol the
gap in Abu Dis. The vehicle was crammed with soldiers who, in turn, observed
me filming the anti-Israel graffiti scrawled by Western activists -
"Scotland hates the blood-sucking Zionists!" I turned my video camera on the
soldiers. Nobody ordered me to shut it off or show the tape. My Arab taxi
driver stood by, unprotected by a diplomatic license plate or press banner.
Like all Muslims, I look forward to the day when neither the jeep nor the
wall is in Abu Dis. So will we tell the self-appointed martyrs of Islam that
the people - not just Arabs, but Arabs and Jews - "are one"? That before the
barrier, there was the bomber? And that the barrier can be dismantled, but
the bomber's victims are gone forever?
Young Muslims, especially those privileged with a good education, cannot
walk away from these questions as my interlocutor in Abu Dis did. If we
follow in his footsteps, we are only conspiring against ourselves. After
all, once the election is over, we won't have Ariel Sharon to kick around
Irshad Manji, a fellow at Yale, is the author of "The Trouble With Islam
Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith."