What's on the wall? I'm talking about Israel's separation or apartheid wall that is splitting an already split place into splinters. Construction began in 2002 after the intifada or "shake off" began in an effort to deter attacks from Palestinians on Israel. As my colleagues and I travel from Jerusalem to Ramallah, to Bethlehem and Hebron we see breathtaking swaths of this barrier cutting through countryside, slicing cities, and intruding on towns. Bethlehem is a good example.
The wall through Bethlehem (yes, the city of Jesus's birth) has become a mecca for public art. Fifteen to 20 feet high in some places it's covered in poignant graffiti and satirical comedy. Huge murals depict the towns and villages from which Palestinians living in Bethlehem's refugee camp Aida have fled. Abu Ghosh, Beit Awn, Rafat ... They left home in the throes of war, expecting a short stay in UN emergency tents. WIthin three years the tents were replaced by clay and concrete. Sixty years later there are schools, medical centers, grocery, antique and souvenir shops. Vendors sell giant brass keys that used to open the doors of houses these refugees used to call home.
We were astonished and amused to see advertisements, too! Restaurant menus. Furniture stores. s. The Caritas Hospital promoting its excellent care. Sarcastic street signs proclaim "Wall Street" and "Apartheid Avenue." There are the requisite protest paintings. And then there's this little guy. A cartoon character called "Handala," (accent on the first syllable) that has charmed this part of western Mesopotamia with its simple message of patience, resistance and resilience. Handala is the creation of Naji Al Ali, an Arab Garry Trudeau, who used his art to core regional politics with acerbic intent. Handala's back is always to you. His face searches his homeland. "I drew him a child who is not beautiful; his hair is like the hair of a hedgehog who use hs thorns as a weapon," writes the late Naji Al Ali. "He is barefooted like the refugee camp children … His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way."
Handala "was born" ten years old Al Ali says. That's how old the cartoonist was when his family fled their town of Ash Sharjara to the Ein Al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon. Al Ali never shows us Handala's face; the cartoon won't turn around until he returns to Palestine. "When he returns, Handala will still be ten," says his creator, "and then he will start growing up."
You'll be interested to know that the wall is about 60% complete. They say it will be 700-800 km long when it's done. That's 450 to 500 miles of wall in a country less than 300 miles long. Where do the extra 200 miles go? They wind in and out of towns, up and down hills, and ring circles around refugee centers. The wall runs through a gas station along its route, leaving the pumps on one side and lanes for cars on the other. There are homes sliced in half. It's quite a feat of engineering.
Naji Al Ali never saw the wall. Nor did he see Handala grow up -- not just because of the ongoing occupation. Al Ali was assassinated in London in 1987, just as the first "shake off" began. His little hedgehog-haired pencil drawing now stands sentry along the wall, as if waiting at a gate for an invitation.