Teen novel depicts Israeli settlements as unnatural

Book cover of William Sutcliffe's The Wall

William Sutcliffe’s The Wall is a young adult novel that follows Joshua, who discovers a secret tunnel leading from his fictional Israeli settlement of Amarias to the adjacent Palestinian town, where he meets Leila. In a tautly-written, thoughtful book, Joshua encounters reality on the other side of “the wall” and discovers the damage which his own actions can inflict on others.

The Wall joins Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Where the Streets had a Name and Elizabeth Laird’s A Little Piece of Ground on the list of young adult fiction tackling the subject of Palestine. The differences of authorship are interesting; Shihab Nye and Abdel-Fattah are women of Palestinian origin, and Laird worked in association with Palestinian writer Sonia Nimr, and they write about Palestinian protagonists.

Sutcliffe describes himself as “atheist Jewish” and has said that “there is a large amount of pressure on British Jews like myself to keep quiet about negative opinions towards Israel. But I feel the most important lesson the history of the Jewish people has to teach is it is immoral to ignore injustice, oppression and racism. Blind, uncritical loyalty to any nation state, including Israel, is dangerous” (“William Sutcliffe: It is immoral to ignore injustice, oppression and racism,” Metro, 16 April 2013).

And he has written about an Israeli settler boy.

“Storm of hairy spiders”

All three books use the characters of children not only to appeal to their core readerships, but also to explore the potential of young people — their identities and prejudices not perhaps as solidified as those of grown-ups — to show how human contacts can cross politically-imposed barriers. Sutcliffe’s book is perhaps the darkest and most complex of these young adult books.

Of course, though, one could read The Wall as a simple teen novel. Sutcliffe cleverly employs familiar tropes of the genre, but rewrites them with larger political connotations. So Joshua, like the protagonists of most teen fiction, is in a state of constant conflict with his mother and stepfather.

There are occasional references to messy bedrooms and sports aspirations, but the tension has bigger ramifications when Liev, the stepfather, is a militant, religious settler who spouts hatred against “the other” (neither Palestinians nor Jews are named in the book; the fictional Amarias is the only place name mentioned). Although the tone is often gritty and plot-driven, it is alleviated by comic imagery, such as Joshua’s fantasy of Liev’s permanent state of rage causing his beard to explode like “a storm of hairy spiders.”

Joshua’s memories of his dead father don’t just compare stages of his life or the characters of Liev and his “real” dad, as one might find in many children’s books. They implicitly juxtapose a secular life in present-day Israel, where militarism and ideology are unwelcome interlopers, with the rigid life of the settlement and its edgy, intolerant inhabitants.

Settlement “unwrapped from cellophane”

The Wall also features the usual personal angst of teen novels. But again, they suggest bigger issues. Despite the aggressively masculine ideologies of the settlement — epitomized by boys who long for their conscription papers and bully their classmates in the meantime — Joshua has remained boyish and weedy. It is physical labor on the land — helping out Leila’s family, with whom he has developed ultimately dangerous relationships of debt and loyalty — which brings him “real” manhood, building muscles and calloused “man’s hands” but also a sense of duty and responsibility.

Sutcliffe’s portrayal of Joshua’s environment is also highly suggestive. The settlement is described as new — “like it’s just been unwrapped from cellophane” — and in terms which repeatedly imply artificiality and a sharp misfit with its surroundings. It is explicitly not “normal.”

In contrast, the nearby Palestinian town is “ordinary,” its streets bustling rather than empty and sterile. Indeed, the fact that we aren’t ever told that one town is a settlement and the other Palestinian in some respects strengthens the reader’s ability to see the differences between them, bypassing any preconceptions we might have. Those familiar with Palestine may draw conclusions from the descriptions, but for others it is only the book’s afterword which makes it explicit where Sutcliffe is portraying.

Furthermore, both Palestinian people and their built environment are endowed with age and rootedness. Of Leila’s father Joshua observes: “he was old, my town was new” — even mortal people outdate the newness of Amarias — and Joshua directly contrasts the Palestinian family’s farm with his settlement. “The person who built this wall once put his hand on this very rock, exactly where I’m touching it now, maybe 20 years ago, maybe a thousand,” he says. “Everything around here seems to be either brand new or very old.”

And, despite his claims to be historically linked to the land they have occupied, Liev helps destroy the environment by shooting chunks out of two old Palestinian olive trees. The settlers not only live in a sterile, plastic world, but actually physically attack nature — and by implication the Palestinians who are so often connected to the olives.

Rising above simplicity

This is not to say that Sutcliffe over-idealizes Palestinian people. Leila’s family are both welcoming and suspicious of Joshua, and their poverty and pride remain a prickly, difficult subject to which neither Joshua nor the reader are given any easy answers. Gangs of angry young men make Joshua’s forays to the Palestinian side dangerous, and there is no starry-eyed rapprochement in store here either.

On a political level, one could question the focus on an Israeli rather than a Palestinian child and — in the violent denouement — on Jewish rather than Palestinian suffering. But there is more to The Wall than that. In the complex ramifications of the plot, it rises above any simplistic idea that human contact — like that of depoliticized “encounter” groups bringing together Israelis and Palestinians — is the answer.

And in depicting an ending in which there are no unequivocally happy outcomes, where everybody loses out somehow, Sutcliffe conveys a powerful message not just of the violent military imposition of occupation on the Palestinian people. That is taken as read.

He goes further, emphasizing the utter corruption of the entire system of Israeli colonialism, how this touches even those who try to ignore its implications or use their privilege to evade them, and the consequences for those who challenge it. In the end, every aspect of Israeli society is seen as balanced precariously on a militaristic superstructure — both ideological and actual — even in its most sun-soaked sites of denial.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.