Behind the Wall

For the past three years, the Israeli government has been building a wall through the West Bank and around Jerusalem in order to, it claims, combat Palestinian terrorist attacks. But Palestinians and other critics say Israel is using the wall as a means to annex Palestinian territory. French-Israeli filmmaker Simone Bitton focuses on the impact of the wall's construction in her new documentary, titled simply, Wall.

The Israeli wall was initially approved by the Israeli Defense Cabinet in 2001. At that time, according to the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MOD), the "security fence" was intended "to prevent illegal entry into Israel through the seizure, interrogation and arrest of [terrorist and criminal] elements" and to be constructed in three separate areas for a total of 80 kilometers. However, the MOD determined that in order for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and police to operate more effectively, "a contiguous obstacle" was necessary. That is what remains under construction today.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which refers to the wall as the "anti-terrorist fence," says it will eventually be 720 kilometers or 480 miles long -- nine times the length of the original plan. Parts of it include huge concrete sections, electronic chain-link fences, razor wire, paved patrol roads, dirt roads, and ditches -- all of which are under constant surveillance by the Israeli army.

A number of international bodies have criticized the construction of the wall. Amnesty International said the majority of the wall is being built on Palestinian land, "separating farmers from their land and Palestinians from their places of work, health care facilities and other essential services." In 2003, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said construction of the wall should cease. The following year, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion that the wall was "contrary to international law" and that Israel should "cease forthwith the works of construction of the wall being built in the Occupied Palestinian Territory." Writer Noam Chomsky has called the wall a "land grab."

Israeli Wall

Meanwhile, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs says that "the route of the fence has been determined on the basis of security needs and topographical considerations" and that it is a "temporary defensive measure, not a border." (For an Israeli map of the wall, visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Defense.)

But "wall" is an inadequate word to describe the immense barrier that Israel is constructing. It is also a contested word, as the Israeli government insists that the majority of the obstacle is a chain-link fence, not just the tall concrete blocks that have received media attention. Wall may not be an accurate word, but "fence" is too innocuous to describe what is under construction.

Simone Bitton's 100-minute-long documentary, Wall, takes a personal and contemplative look at the wall's effect so far on the people and the landscape. Born in Morocco to a Jewish family, Bitton has both French and Israeli citizenship and speaks several languages, including Arabic, French, and Hebrew. She decided to make the film after she saw a television news report in 2002, announcing the wall's construction.

"The very idea of a wall erected between Israelis and Palestinians tore me apart," recalls Bitton. "I had the feeling that I was being cut in half, that who I am was being denied -- an Arab Jew whose entire being is the site of a permanent dialogue."

She began scouting locations in 2003 and soon put together a crew for a four-week shoot, capturing different views of the wall in its various stages of construction and including details such as the artwork painted on several tall concrete sections -- Matisse-inspired dancers cavorting with doves, pastel landscapes and desert scenes, and colorful animals and figures similar to Keith Haring's outlined blocky style.

As Bitton filmed, locals often approached her to talk about the wall. "We've been suffering for three years now," says one man. "We need to live together, that's it. And leave our destiny to God." Another man says that he does not feel safe and that the wall is "a waste of money. Were the fence the solution, they'd have built it 50 years ago."

Bitton also interviewed General Amos Yaron of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, who describes the wall as Israel's greatest engineering achievement, using 500 pieces of equipment that move millions of cubic meters of earth every day at a cost of around $2 million per kilometer.

The presence of the wall is overwhelming, looming psychologically and physically throughout the film. Clearly, it is not a solution, but a terrible and disastrous barrier to peace, which is an underlying message in the film. One way Bitton tried to break through seemingly impenetrable boundaries was by not identifying whether she was filming on the Palestinian or the Israeli side of the wall or whether she was speaking to a Palestinian or an Israeli. She made this conscious decision because for her, Israel-Palestine is one country "inhabited by Jews and Arabs alike." In fact, she says, "Nothing touches me more, in life as in my film, than to mistake a Jew for an Arab or vice versa."

Bitton has directed more than 15 documentaries about the history and culture of Arab people, including Mahmoud Darwich: As the Land Is the Language, which focuses on the renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich. Wall, in Hebrew with English subtitles, has been screened in many festivals worldwide and makes its California premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 23. Bitton spoke with AlterNet about filming difficulties and the people she interviewed for the film.

In your research for choosing locations, how did you decide where to go?

I just went all over looking for the wall and for the sites where it was under construction. There was very [little] information about the wall and that is still the case. You cannot know from the newspapers or from the official communications where exactly they are building it. All the maps are false and the projects change all the time.

I wanted to show how the landscape is destroyed by the wall and for this you need to find high places, special angles. It was very strange because while looking for the wall, I rediscovered the beauty of the place at the same moment it was being destroyed.

Israeli Wall

Did you need permission to film or was the press card enough?

You need the press card to pass the checkpoint but many times the press card is not enough. Sometimes I asked for permission and sometimes I didn't. In many places I filmed, I was not supposed to be there according to the law or all kinds of military regulations, which change every day. I just have to sneak in or out, which is how Palestinians mostly live for years now.

Did you have any trouble with the military at the checkpoints?

I wouldn't say so. It was not easy all the time. There were some moments of tension, which you can somehow feel in the film but nothing really serious. But that's because I'm an Israeli and a Jewish Israeli. Nobody will shoot at me.

A Palestianian colleague could not move in the territories even without a camera. I used my tribal privilege to make the film. It would be obscene to talk about my difficulty considering that Palestinians are not allowed to walk one kilometer from their home.

In one scene, you are talking to a Palestinian man working on the wall. You seemed angry that he was building the wall, pointing out the irony of the situation. But he's resigned to his position, which he sees as a decent paying job.

Because this is how it is. You said ironic. I would say it's tragic. Just for feeding their family they are obliged to build the wall against themselves. And this is not a new phenomenon. Long before the wall, for example, all the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories have all been built by Palestinian hands, and most of them on the land which has been expropriated from the villages from which these workers came.

They are building the settlements on their own land because they have to make a living. All these people used to be farmers and when their land is taken, they become workers. All they have is their hands.

The economic situation in the West Bank and in Gaza is such a catastrophe with all the checkpoints, the closures and everything, that the only way to make a living without humanitarian food distribution is working for Israeli settlements, walls, etc.

You also show people circumventing the wall, finding little places where they can climb over.

All the West Bank is full of people looking for the holes. There are fewer and fewer holes but they are obliged to. They are not crossing it to go to Israel. They are crossing it to go to the other side of their own village because the wall is in the middle of the land, in the middle of the villages. So they are just trying to find any holes to go on with crucial things in their lives, going to school, to hospital, to water their land, etc.

Israeli Wall
Filmmaker Simone Bitton.

Many of the Israelis that you interview seem quite ambivalent about the wall. But everyone seems to feel like it can't be stopped. Do you think that it will just continue?

It's continuing. New kilometers everyday, new walls everyday. What you are pointing out is a very general problem with the Israeli population, which is that every time you make a survey, there is a majority of the Israeli population who is in favor of dismantling the settlements, in favor of the Palestinian state, etc. But it doesn't happen. Many people didn't vote according to their ideas or maybe they don't have anybody to vote for because all the Israeli traditional political establishment is in favor of the occupation.

Do you feel that your documentary is a good reflection of the way people are feeling there?

I made it very clear in my film that this is a very personal and intimate look at things. I show the reality through my eyes, which I believe are well-informed eyes and thoughtful eyes. I think it's interesting for people to see this place through the eyes of somebody like me. I know this place very well and I love it. I know the people and I am part of them.

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