Mideast: Untold Stories of the West Bank

The walls stand 30 feet high, huge slabs of gray cement, snaking their way through the West Bank for almost 500 miles. They block roads, bisect villages, cut off kids from their schools, farmers from their fields, families from relatives. "Welcome to the Ghetto, Walls of Tears" reads one of the many graffiti. "The Dumb Wall Is Screaming," "Make Love, Not Walls," read others. And my favorite, in huge orange letters on the road to Ramallah: "Control*Alt*Delete." Around Bethlehem the walls have become a protest art gallery—an oversize white donkey with tears running down its cheeks, a dove wearing a flak vest with a bull's-eye painted on its breast, a young girl frisking a soldier. The Israelis call them separation walls. The Palestinians call them apartheid walls. They are a nightmare.

To spend a week among the Palestinians in the West Bank, as I recently did, is grounds for antidepressants. Not half enough has been written about what is going on there. The violence in Gaza gets almost daily press—more border attacks and rockets launched into Israel, a new retaliatory body count (including, just this week, a mother and four young children killed during an Israeli operation in northern Gaza)—but the slow suffocation of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, in Ramallah, in every village in the West Bank, gets scant attention. "Our dreams are dead," says Ali Asamil Abkhrka, a bead vendor outside a Bethlehem restaurant. "There can never be peace with the Israelis. Never." A Palestinian policeman in the Church of the Nativity echoes him: "The wall closes the earth, closes the life. Everything is going backward."

I was in Jerusalem with friends to visit our old friend Karim Nashashibi. Karim, a Palestinian, recently retired from the International Monetary Fund in Washington and is now financial adviser to Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Karim could have had any number of high-paying jobs in the United States but felt an obligation to help Fayyad, his friend and predecessor at the IMF, work toward peace with the Israelis. It seems a thankless job to me, but Karim's distinguished family's roots in Jerusalem stretch back five centuries, and his grandfather was mayor in the 1920s. Still, he's up against it.

Consider the Israeli travel restrictions. No Palestinian living in the West Bank is allowed to enter Jerusalem without written permission from the Israeli government. Islah Jad lives in Ramallah and is an associate professor in gender studies at Birzeit University. When her sisters visited her recently from Egypt, they wanted to go to Jerusalem to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque. Dr. Jad went to a nearby Israeli settlement to apply for a permit. "Come back tomorrow," they said. She went back. "It's not ready. Come back tomorrow," she was told. The third time she came home without a permission slip, she gave up. "Why waste a week for a permit for a few hours," she told me. "It's humiliating." Her sisters went to Jerusalem without her.

The license plate is key. Palestinians living outside Jerusalem in Ramallah or Bethlehem or anywhere in the West Bank have green and white license plates and are forbidden to drive on the smooth, wide "settler" roads that link the necklace of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Palestinians who live in Jerusalem have yellow license plates and are allowed on the roads, but such an apparent privilege is muted at the checkpoints, some 500 of them. The blue and white ID cards, which all Israelis and Palestinians carry, identify the bearer's religion and ethnicity. The Israelis are waved through. The Palestinians are pulled aside. "As soon as they see Arabic on the ID card they say, 'Security'," says Najwa, a lovely young Palestinian woman who works in a Jerusalem hotel. "We have to pull over, and they go through the luggage, the glove compartment, the papers of everybody in the car. It can take hours to get through. I have friends in Ramallah whom I haven't seen in years. The hassle is just too great."

The checkpoints have personalities of their own. The direct road from Jerusalem to Ramallah has been blocked by the wall, funneling the traffic through twisty, rutted roads to the Qalandya checkpoint. Getting through the checkpoint to enter the Palestinian city of Ramallah is easy. Getting back is not. Unless they have yellow plates, Palestinians with permission to travel to Jerusalem have to leave their cars on the Palestinian side, walk through a series of security turnstiles on foot, show their papers to the Israeli soldier on duty and then, if cleared, continue their journeys in so-called service cars, beat-up yellow vans jammed to overflowing. The checkpoint on the direct road to Bethlehem is closed to Palestinians altogether.

Despair is the word I hear most often from West Bank Palestinians, 58 percent of whom have fallen below the poverty line. "I can't get work from the Israeli side because I am haram [forbidden], and the Palestinians can't even afford to pay me bus fare," says an architect reduced to working in a bookstore. The night offers particular terrors. Jad, who works late, recognizes the sounds of frequent Israeli raids, "explosions and hard beats on doors and screams," she says.

There are many sympathetic Israeli groups that document the treatment of the Palestinian people. Yesh Din, for example, monitors the trials of West Bank Palestinians in military courts and recently released a scathing report: 99 percent of defendants in 2006 were found guilty, many after hearings that lasted less than two minutes. Another group, Machsom Watch, which is made up of accomplished Israeli women, videotapes the treatment of Palestinians at the checkpoints. Their latest complaint, filed while I was there, involved 46 Palestinians looking for work being held for 16 hours at a checkpoint. The Palestinians were allowed no food or toilet facilities and were forced to stand for hours on end. "When they sit down they make trouble," the report quoted a member of the IDF saying. At some point during their detention, the tires of their vans were punctured and some of their cars were vandalized.

Prime Minister Fayyad wears heavily the burdens on his people. He looks tired when we meet in his modest office in Ramallah, but he perks up when he tells me about his children. His oldest son is at his American alma mater, the University of Texas in Austin, where Fayyad earned his doctorate in economics. His daughter has just received early admission to MIT; his youngest is still in grade school in Jerusalem. Like my friend Karim, Salam Fayyad accepted his post, first as finance minister and then as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, out of a sense of duty. "It was natural and instinctive," he says. "I thought it was important to be in a position to contribute."

Fayyad lays out clearly the Palestinian position. "The objective of this enterprise is to end the occupation and have an independent, viable, contiguous Palestinian state emerge on the land that was occupied in 1967," he says. "For us Palestinians to get a chance to live as free people in a state of our own, in peace and harmony with all of our neighbors, including Israel." That, of course, is what everyone wants. But how to get there?

Though he doesn't criticize the Israeli government, Fayyad methodically lists the impediments to the peace process. Foremost is the continued expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land in direct contravention of every peace initiative since 1967, including the current "road map" to peace laid out by the Quartet—the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia—in 2002. "Not one more brick!" Fayyad says emphatically. "It's a road map obligation. It means not one more block, no exceptions, no nothing. And that's not what is happening." In the five-week period following the re-ignition of the peace process in Annapolis in the fall of 2007, he points out, the Israelis added 747 new units to the settlements, which in fact are cities, commanding the tops of hills the length of the West Bank. "If this keeps on happening, clearly the viability of the solution keeps on eroding," he says. "This is logical."

Israel's "security behavior" in the occupied territories is also a deterrent. Fayyad is proud that the Palestinian Authority police force has been effective in bringing about "conditions of law and order after years of complete lawlessness and chaos. It is one of the things we have focused on." But the ongoing raids by the Israeli Army into urban areas "where we have our own troops," he says, undermines the PA's authority and credibility. "It's happening in Ramallah, in Bethlehem, everywhere," he says. "This has to change." So, he says, do the travel restrictions on Palestinians. "We cannot go on like this," he says. "You cannot have economic development under conditions of lack of mobility. The only way you can keep an economy like this afloat is by continuing to inject official assistance into the system, and that's not our vision for Palestine. We do not want to be a beggar nation."

On the Palestinian side, a major setback to statehood, Fayyad readily admits, are the militias. "To tell you the truth," he says, "were it not for the chaos of weapons for the militias roaming around, with everyone doing what they want wherever they want to do it, the political differences would not have translated into the bloodshed we experience." Weapons should be the "sure purview" of the state, he says, and the "key goal" of his government is to try to "import this concept."

Our interview is interrupted by the arrival of Jimmy Carter and his entourage. "He's early," says Fayyad, looking at his watch. Rosalynn Carter, whose memoir I worked on, is startled to see me. "What on earth are you doing here?" she asks as we hug. Fayyad's meeting with Carter is going to last at least an hour, Carter's senior aide says to me apologetically. The meeting with the Palestinian prime minister has become all-important because Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is visiting Washington and the Israeli government has stonewalled Carter because of his intention to meet with the head of Hamas in Syria.

I ask Fayyad when we resume if he is in touch with Hamas in Gaza. "No," he says. "I have no official or unofficial contact with them. However, I talk to the people in Gaza all the time. Here we are. You see? You just made a mistake, unwittingly of course, of using the word 'Hamas' and 'Gaza' interchangeably. That's not the reality. Hamas is in control of Gaza, there's no question about that, but not every Palestinian man, woman and child living and suffering in Gaza is Hamas or under Hamas obligation. This is an odd situation which I hope and pray will not be anything but transitional and will soon be a part of our past."

What about the walls, I ask him, and the checkpoints and the permits and the mood of despair I'd found in the West Bank? "I can definitely tell you it is justified," he says. Is he optimistic that things will change for the better? He pauses for a long time before answering. "I'm not discouraged," he finally says. "There's a big difference. I'm convinced we're going to get there."

He smiles and tells me a story that he says will illustrate something about his world view. Last week he was in a little village of 300 residents to inaugurate a kindergarten. The minute he stepped out of the car someone stuck a microphone in his face and said, "What about the walls?" "I said, 'Look at all the olive trees around you. The youngest tree is older than the wall.' And the mere fact that this event was about children and the future was the most positive of ironies. [It] was the most positive day of my life as prime minister—notwithstanding the miserable context in which all this is taking place."