New Internationalist

As I walked out…

Issue 442

Comedian, activist and compulsive rambler Mark Thomas sets out to walk the entire 750-kilometre length of the notorious Israeli Separation Barrier. For fun, apparently.

Idil Sukan
Idil Sukan

Walking to the edge of the flat roof I stand, legs apart, hands on hips, looking through the hazy winter sunlight and to the distant hills. Two men, Palestinians, are standing behind me and together we survey the route we are about to take. Slowly, I raise my arms and point to a spot on the horizon.

There,’ I declare with all the gravitas of an Old Testament prophet. ‘That is where we start our walk.’

Where?’ inquires a man called Fadhi, with a voice that sounds as if he is squinting.

There, where my finger points. That is where we will start.’

The wind blows lightly, and high, high above a black bird circles. Then a voice behind says, ‘but this is Jordan’.

Fadhi pauses with the natural timing of a man who has spoken at many meetings before he diplomatically suggests: ‘You can start in Jordan if you want, but it will take some time to arrange…’

The bird circles closer and I remain still, facing the hills, looking out to the valley and saying one word. That word is, ‘Ish….’

I am sorry?’ says Fadhi.

I wobble my pointing finger, as if I’d always intended to be vague. ‘There… ish is where we will start.’

This could be Runcorn on the outskirts of an industrial estate, guarded by a 60-year-old bloke with a dog

Fadhi is the Jordan Valley co-ordinator of the umbrella organization, Stop the Wall, which has agreed to help with translators and guides. He joins me in pointing and declaiming. ‘That is the no-man’s land, the border, we shall walk up to there…and see,’ he says, leaving the final words hanging in the air, surrounded by possibilities.

Jacob, the second Palestinian on the roof and our translator for the day, smokes and smiles.

Jacob farms this land,’ says Fadhi, ‘so he will be able to take you westward, right up to the Wall. What can the soldiers do? Tell him not to farm? We will see.’

The two of them debate where to start the walk, but I am distracted. From up here, the Barrier is some 400 metres in front of us, and it appears as a rather dull-looking long fence, stretching across a plain and disappearing into the wonderfully crimpled geography of the Jordan river valley and the hills beyond.

The mundanity of this first impression of the Barrier is confounding. A line of wire mesh doesn’t fit into the image of ‘The Wall’; from my visual lexicon of walls that carve through countries, I expected romantic martyrdom, a dash of Expressionism, a nod at George Orwell, and the odd soundtrack of David Bowie songs recorded in Berlin. I expected the Barrier itself to be more dramatic, more epic, perhaps. The last thing I expected was a long mesh fence in a flat muddy field. I am about to spend eight weeks walking alongside this Barrier and will come to see it dominate the land in the most dramatic ways but for now this could be Runcorn on the outskirts of an industrial estate, guarded by a 60-year-old bloke with a dog and a Portacabin that smells of rolling tobacco and messy divorce.

The first day of any journey is full of emotions, but I wasn’t expecting disappointment to be one of them. I just don’t think I envisaged myself saying, ‘Well, it doesn’t look very oppressive’. But one thing is sure: if the view from the roof is anything to go by, the walking should be easy. A nice flat plain, with no major rivers, mountains or fjords that we can see; just flat farming land, a slight incline and a main road to cross about halfway through. There are a few clouds in the sky but these are wispy specks that quickly get blown across to Jordan. The going appears to get a little hilly towards the end, but it doesn’t look hard. This is what you need on the first day; no big climbs, or real prospect of rain; no surprises.

Twenty minutes later I get a familiar feeling of worry and excitement as we cross the fields towards no-man’s land. Phil the camera operator, Jacob, Fadhi and I are trudging directly towards a mass of barbed wire covered in red signs. The writing on them is indecipherable at this distance, but red signs on barbed wire rarely say: ‘St Luke’s Church Fête this Saturday’; they’re generally more likely to read: Blah blah Do not blah blah own risk blah blah death.’ (Later it transpires I am virtually fluent in red signs.)

Phil is a good judge of the mood and his eyebrows signal his emotional well-being. They are currently half-raised, set to ‘Caution’.

Is it OK to be here?’ I ask Fadhi.

No,’ Fadhi says calmly. ‘We are not allowed.’

Not allowed,’ I repeat dully as we keep walking.

Not allowed to be even here.’

But still we keep on towards the wire, doing the very thing we are not allowed to do.

Is it safe, though?’

Fadhi shrugs.

What will the authorities do if they find us here?’ I ask.

Fadhi mimes bringing a gun to his shoulder.

We might get shot?’

Perhaps,’ he says cheerfully. ‘Who knows? … We shall see.’

It is hard to tell how serious he is because it sounds as if he is making a political point rather than expressing a genuine possibility. Phil’s eyebrows are now at DEFCON 1.

Fadhi continues: ‘If the soldiers ask you what you are doing, you must tell them you are writing about birds and flowers.’

Well, there might be a mention of birds and flowers, I suppose…’

Don’t mention anything else. Birds and flowers, that is all. Do not tell them the truth.’

OK.’

If you want to walk the Wall, you have to be a very good liar.’

And with that Fahdi departs, leaving Phil, Jacob and me next to the barbed wire and the barrier.

Standing in the corner of the field, we are exactly where we want to be. We about-turn and start walking.

We have begun. The walk to Jacob’s farm is a relatively short and simple one, but we’re distracted 10 minutes in by the whining hum of an armoured vehicle on the Israeli side of the barrier. It stops, sitting squatly behind the wire. Then it sounds a siren, an electronic honking sound, a warning squawk. It is an odd noise, this whoop; a mixture of draconian disco and electro camp, but it saves the soldiers from having to get out of the vehicles and shout, ‘Fuck off’ in Hebrew, Arabic and English. It works, too, as we are all startled by it, and possibly a little embarrassed by that.

We should move further from the Wall,’ says Jacob.

Is that what the noise meant?’

They do not want us so near.’

Jabob smiles, but I am slightly nervous. The path twists away from the wire, on to the farm’s dust tracks for a while, and the military departs. Ditches run by these tracks as we leave the Wall behind us, crowded with the burnt stalks of reeds, their short charred stems leaving black lines of soot on our trouser legs as we brush past. We circle around an Israeli settler farm planted with tall date-palm trees; cut through a grove of short trees where grapefruit-like pomelo fruit hang unripe and low; turn up a stony track and in front of us, once again, is the Barrier.

When do we get to your farm?’ I ask Jacob, as we stop for some water.

You are on it,’ Jacob grins, spreading his arms open then laughing his throaty laugh. His looks are rakish, his chin chiselled, his hair swept back; his natty roll-neck jumper, however, is tattered and frayed, but you can’t have everything: if Edward Fox was a Palestinian farmer, Jacob would give him a run for his money.

Right alongside the Barrier’s barbed wire is an old blue tractor, parked sideways on an incline.

Is it yours?’

Yes,’ he says, cocking his head playfully.

Hell’, I think, ‘even his parking is rakish.’

Jacob’s rented farm stretches out over 45 dunam (just over 11 acres) and slopes right up to the barrier. His fields are covered with thin lines of plastic wrapping, under which plant life vies for space; leaves push out from under the edges and the tears in the material reveal squashes, their stems twisting to fruition. He leads us across his land, past his greenhouses, calling out the names of vegetables.

And pointing: ‘Aubergine… cucumber.. beans …’ until we reach the very edge of the Barrier, where he tells us, ‘Here we can walk right by the wall.’

The Israeli use of the term ‘fence’ (eschewing the term ‘wall’ as an inaccurate and pro-Palestinian term) is somewhat disingenuous. True, actual concrete wall accounts for only four per cent of the barrier, but that does not make the rest a fence. In reality, and for the most part, it is a standardized configuration of fences, razor wire, ditches, roads and military patrols. It starts on the Palestinian side with six rolls of razor wire stacked three at the bottom, two in the middle and one topping it all off in a pyramid formation; this is normally about two metres high and uncoils along the ‘fence’. Next to the wire is a trench one or two metres deep: sometimes it is a ditch dug in the dirt, sometimes it is a concrete contraption. After the wire and the trench comes the sand path, enabling soldiers to see if anyone has come near the ‘fence’. Next to the sand path comes the actual bit of fencing; this is an electric fence with motion detectors and is about three to four metres high. There is then another sand track, making two in total, one on either side of the electric fence. Alongside the second sand track is an asphalt road, along which military vehicles drive. After this is another trench and finally the ‘fence’ is finished off with another pyramid. The whole thing is constantly patrolled by soldiers and/or the border police in Humvees and armoured Land Rovers, and a series of communication watchtowers monitor just about the entire length with cameras and state-of-the art spy equipment. From start to finish red signs adorn the ‘fence’, saying: ‘MORTAL DANGER: MILITARY ZONE. ANY PERSON WHO PASSES OR DAMAGES THE FENCE ENDANGERS HIS LIFE’ in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

A simple rule of thumb is if you can’t buy it in B&Q then it’s not a fence and if you can buy it in B&Q then you are probably in the Phnom Penh branch. To be accurate it is a military barrier that has some fencing in the construction. But the word ‘fence’ suits a certain way of seeing the conflict here, because it reduces it to the idea of a neighbourhood dispute, a local tussle between equals. Few neighbourhood disputes involve, however, one neighbour putting another under military occupation…

As we walk next to the barbed-wire coils, occasionally peering through the fence beyond, I catch sight of what appears to be a small trig point…

Is it a milestone?’

I don’t know.’

With one hand resting on its top, I lean in to look at its four sides. There is writing.

It’s in Arabic, I think. Jacob, is this Arabic?’

The words have been worn slightly by time and weather. Jacob peers to translate.

“Palestine. We are coming.”’

What?’

That’s what it says: “Palestine. We are coming.”’ Jacob straightens up.

We are right next to the Barrier, which follows the 1949 Armistice Green Line, the de facto border with the West Bank. Across the wire is Israel, and someone has stuck a plinth here reading, ‘Palestine. We are coming.’

Does it mean, “We are coming” as in: the state of Palestine will soon exist; in effect “Our state is becoming”? Or does it mean, “We are coming! Beware!” or “Charge!”?’

If it is the latter, you have to admit, it is a classy bit of gang graffitti.

“We are coming, Palestine is coming”.’ Jacob shrugs, indicating the former.

Extracted with permission from Mark Thomas’s new book, Extreme rambling, just published by Ebury Press, and available from the New Internationalist online shop

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on As I walked out...

Leave your comment