Separation, Settlements and Guerilla Graffiti: The West Bank in Pictures

With construction beginning in 2003, the Israeli authorities erected the 8m concrete wall with incredible speed. It’s aim, they say, is to help stop Palestinian suicide bombings on Israeli soil. Since then, the number of attacks has declined by more than 90%.

Banksy at the Bethlehem Checkpoint

However, the wall makes life for many Palestinians even more difficult. For a start, Palestinians cannot get through the checkpoints and onto the other side of the wall without a permit, and permits are very difficult to come by. If you have a job on the Israeli side, and you have kids, it can be easier, but your permit will still only last 3 months, meaning that people have to withstand constant questioning and bureaucracy in order to go about the simple business of getting to work.

Wall Graffeti

Separation

What’s worse for many however is the fact that the wall separates them from family and friends. I met one woman – Sarah – who used to live next door to her aunt, but now the wall travels along what was once the fence between their homes. Sarah is now only able to get a permit to travel across the border to see her family-member once a year.

Annexed Olive Groves

The wall also habitually separates Palestinians from their land. These olive groves have been split in two by the wall, with a substantial portion annexed into the Israeli side.

In this case, the diversion from the ‘Green Line‘ is due to the fact that Rachel’s tomb happens to be several hundred yards into the Palestinian territory. Rather than stick to these UN agreed boundries, Israeli authorities simply built the wall into Palestinian land, annexing the tomb and the olive groves around it.  The farmers have not received compensation.

Refugees

Aida refugee camp is just within the boundaries of the wall on the outskirts of Bethlehem. It homes around 5000 Palestinians, most descended from the original 800 or so that fled to the UN led camp in the 1948 “war of independence”.

All in all, around a million Palestinians fled their homes in what is now Israel, and most have resettled in the West Bank, where they now number at around 2 million.

The boys school in Aida Refugee Camp

Aida isn’t what you might imagine from a refugee camp. There are buildings, streets, schools and community centres holding theatre classes and dance workshops for kids.

One organisation in particular, Al Rowwad, does some amazing work teaching young people photography, theatre and journalism – it aims to help Palestinians tell their story to the world’s media.

Still, the walls are covered in bullet holes and barbed wire. Not sure anyone would choose to live here.

Resistance

Banksy – Separation Wall Graffiti

The wall has become a canvas for political graffiti, communicating messages of peace, anger, hope and despair. Banksy set the trend, coming out here a couple of times over the past few years, usually with a crew of 4-5 other graffiti artists

This one (above)  is one of his. Some argue that this trend is a bad thing, as it somehow trivialises people’s traumas and injustices.

Separation Wall Graffiti

For others, it is an essential way means of protest for Palestinians; taking this symbol of oppression and, somehow, making it their own.

Settlements

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities continue to build towns (‘settlements’) and roads on the Palestinian side of the wall.

Palestinians are not allowed to travel on many of the Israeli built roads or enter the settlements, which are most often populated with ultra-orthodox Jews from America and Eastern Europe who see this land as their own, as promised by Abraham in the Torah and captured by Israel in the 1967 ‘six day war’.

Israeli roads and settlements

Settlements continue to be built at an incredible pace, despite pleas from the international community, including America, to freeze this activity in order to give the peace process a chance of success. It seems like a peculiar brand of craziness (not to mention a double injustice) to go to the trouble of building a mammoth barricade between these two peoples, only to continue colonising the land on the other side.

The UN needs some (tough) love

The 64th session of the UN General Assembly started today, with diplomats and leaders from every country in the world travelling to New York to once again try to put the world to rights. As ever, the annual fanfare that marks the beginning of what will be a long season of talks, meetings and committee sessions will begin with a short(ish) speech from the Secretary-General, following by a silent meditation, followed by speeches. A lot of speeches. And from next week, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chairpersons and other leaders of numerous titles will take to the podium, each voicing their opinions on what should be top of the UN’s agenda.

However, most people won’t be aware of this. News coverage so far has been virtually non-existent, and when it does ramp up, it is of course more likely to focus on what’s bound to be a controversial speech from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than it is on the plight of smaller nations like the Maldives, who come back every year screaming (as loudly as the UN protocol will allow) that climate change threatens their very existence.

Having said that, I’m not surprised or even too concerned about this lack of public awareness of the General Debate. Within the international walls of the UN itself, every speech will play out to a packed out GA, and the issues on the table will be well known and understood by those that are in a position to make the decisions. Also, a lot of the speeches are very boring. Realistically, there are only going to be a few moments that will say something new, and therefore be deemed newsworthy.

What the lack of media coverage does indicate however is how little we seem to care about what goes on in the Glass Building on New York’s 1st Avenue. And why would we? Bureaucracy and political will (or lack of it) hamper the UN’s ability to take meaningful action time and again. Virtual deadlock on the Security Council, where at least one of the P5 (USA, UK, China, Russia or France) vetoes nearly every resolution that could actually make a difference, makes the UN’s main chamber little more than a frustrated talking shop.

But I do love it. It’s a kind of tough love. I genuinely believe that it is an incredible institution and a force for good in the world. The very fact that somewhere like it exists, somewhere which invites people from every corner of the globe to work on making the world a better place, well, it really gives me hope. Where else are the major global issues – climate change, poverty, disease, human rights – going to be tackled? And tackled jointly, meaningfully, and with true international consensus? For these reasons the UN is deserving of our attention if not our support.

But it definitely a prime candidate for some tough love. And with Obama primed to take the stage – it just might get it. My big hope for the General Debate is for the USA to demonstrate that they think the UN is worthwhile. Eight years of a hostile Republican Government has marginalised the UN in the minds of the world’s only super-power, and therefore for the rest of the world. Obama offers a chance for some real commitment to making the UN work, and with the weight of the US behind it, it just might happen. No doubt Obama will have some harsh words for the UN community about reform but I, like everyone else who has worked in the Glass Building, will be hoping those words are under-pinned with a spirit of commitment, vision and hope. God knows the world needs it.

Watch the General Assembly and the General Debate on the UN webcast