I will never forget the first time I saw the wall up close – on a tourist trip to the West Bank in September last year. Photographs, like those in Banksy’s coffee-table book Wall and Piece, rendered it immediately familiar but could not have conveyed the breathtaking scale of the concrete slabs.
Rising twenty, thirty feet high, if you’d seen it in a Hitchcock prison movie you’d think its size exaggerated for cinematic effect.
The Israelis would call it security but the wall’s purpose is to inconvenience, to intimidate, to annex and to alienate. In all those ambitions it’s very effective.
The United Nations has backed this view. In 2004 the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to support an ICJ ruling that the wall was “contrary to international law”, requiring Israel not only “cease forthwith the works of construction” but tear down that which it had already built. Israel continued building, because the strong do what they can.
I will also never forget my first taste of tear gas. With a few hours free before dinner at our Bethlehem hotel, a small group of us decided to go and photograph the murals on the wall.
At one point we found ourselves on an enclosed stretch of path when we heard a couple of polite “pops”. Soldiers from the two Israeli army monitoring posts, at opposite ends of the road, had each fired over the barrier. As two sickly chemical clouds drifted towards us, there was nowhere we could go, and nothing we could do but pull clothing over our mouths and wait for the air to clear.
There had been no unrest, let alone a riot or anything remotely resembling violence to stifle. Maybe the soldiers were just bored? A small group of locals, from teenage boys to older men, watched us from a nearby workshop with a bemused but kindly curiosity, offering no hint that this was anything but normal.
Unforgettable too the scorched earth of Bil’in. Stripped bare of the olive trees that once provided a good living for the village’s farmers, now seeded with little more than rubber bullets. Hard and heavy, more weapons of war than bouncy balls, they are used to put down the weekly protests against the adjacent illegal settlement. They can kill. Have done, do, will again. Unforgettable, yes, but normal.
Normal Palestine looks very different from the Normal Israel which Richard Abraham eloquently endorses in his recent article and is encouraging cycling fans to cautiously experience through the lens of the Giro d’Italia.
192 astonishing athletes, from upwards of 30 different countries, taking it in turns to tuck in and roll out while helicams soar overhead, broadcasting one “sport-washed” side of the story of the most divided city in the world. A city in which one group of people has rights, and the other has “permits” -layer upon layer of discriminatory difficulty- at best.
Of course Israel wants to show Normal Israel. Normalisation is the whole point. What the State of Israel doesn’t want you thinking about is that the price of Normal Israel is the open-air prison that is Normal Palestine.
Whatever my colleague might say, if you weren’t thinking about that before the Giro, you likely won’t be when the race arrives either. Not in a way that will detract from the PR efforts of the Israeli state. Otherwise they wouldn’t be hosting it in the first place.
Cycling is freedom to me, yet when it comes to the Giro in Jerusalem it will only represent and compound further the imprisonment of a people.
“Where do you draw the line in a globalised world?” Richard asks. My response is, do you really not draw a line anywhere? Whataboutery only leads to a place where apathy and nihilism reign. Are there no crimes he’d be prepared to march in opposition to? Unless you oppose every injustice with equal fervour you’re a hypocrite if you oppose any?
Yet the most disturbing suggestion is that the neutral, reasonable, civilised position is one of support for the Jerusalem Grande Partenza, and that to choose not to watch it is tantamount to an act of aggression. What could be more peaceful than exercising one’s right to withdraw custom?
If you decide to watch the Giro next May, particularly if you attend in person, you will be making at least as much of a political statement as someone who decides not to. For nothing that the state does can exist outside of politics. Israel’s application to host the Giro d’Italia was an indisputably political act, likewise RCS’s decision to award it to them.
Whether supportive or opposed, any response is inescapably political as well.
The argument that boycotting the Giro would be “a simple response to a complicated issue”, but could the same have been said same about the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955? Or the South African anti-apartheid movement?
Human rights are human rights. Whataboutery works both ways.
One final memory which stands out from my trip to the occupied territories, is of travelling through the West Bank in a rickety old minibus.
Staring out of the window, as we rolled along ancient valleys and over hills that stretched the vehicle’s engine to its limits, I caught myself thinking about two wheels not four, and what it might be like to load the landscape into my legs.
Then I wondered if there could ever be a Tour of Palestine. Then I stopped myself. It seemed too far from normal.
It’s up to you what you do next May, but at this point I don’t think I’ll be able to watch the Giro myself. Because I will never forget the first time I saw the wall.