Terry Boullata is head of a private school in Abu Dis and an advocacy worker.
Terry Boullata: “Bit by bit the wall became more tangible”
I am 38 years old, and I am from Jerusalem. I was born and lived all my life here, and I am proud of that. I married 14 years ago with a man from Abu Dis who carries a West Bank ID card. I am myself carrying a Jerusalem ID. I studied at Jerusalem schools and then at Birzeit University. During the first Intifada I was arrested four times; the last time, while I was working as a fieldworker for a human rights organization, I was released after intervention of the former American president Jimmy Carter and Mme Mitterand. Later on I opened my own private school in Abu Dis, thinking that I should help in the development of the community I’m living in. I started the school in 1999 with loans from agencies and banks and it’s still working. Altogether I have 225 children from kindergarten up to the fifth grade elementary. But this year I lost around 77 children due to the building of Wall, which is less than 0,5 km from the school. Due to the loss of income I’m now also working as an advocacy worker for the Palestinian campaign for Freedom and Peace which was initiated with the visit this year of Dr Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
Abu Dis, Azzariyyeh and Sawahreh [villages to the east of Jerusalem] are totally isolated from the Palestinian areas. They are a canton, a ghetto. On the eastern side of the Wall you have now 70.000 people without access to proper health services in Jerusalem nor in areas within the Palestinian Authority. If you cannot go to Jerusalem, the nearest hospital is Jericho, at half an hour drive. And the checkpoint of Jericho is closed after eight in the evening.
My house is historically part of Abu Dis. But in 1967 the Israelis annexed my area to Jerusalem, and it became Jerusalem area according to Israeli law. According to international law it is part of the occupied territories. When we married it didn’t really matter as the area was still open to the West Bank. The borderline was on the map, not on the ground. But in August 2002, we suddenly woke up to see that the army had shifted the Jerusalem checkpoint towards the entrance of Abu Dis. And they brought cement blocks one meter high. So we started to have quarrels with the soldiers because they sometimes denied us access to Jerusalem and sometimes to the West Bank. Bit by bit the Wall became more tangible. Every day they were bringing more trucks with cement blocks that were put in accordance with the Israeli map of Jerusalem. Bit by bit we in the neighborhood became more and more isolated from the center of Abu Dis, from my husband’s family, and from my own school. Until January 2004 we were still able to jump over the one-meter high wall that was there at the time. As my house is on a hill, I could more easily jump over the one meter. But during that period I was pregnant twice and I lost twice, because of the jumping. But that was almost the only way to reach my school.
My neighborhood was turned overnight from a residential base into a military zone. The lifestyle in the neighborhood changed totally. Men, women, children - everybody was jumping over the wall at the low point near our house. Early morning the children on both sides of the wall were trying to reach their schools on the other side, including the children from the west side who were going to my own school on the east side. You could always find children jumping amidst teargas and sound bombs. On a daily basis. The early morning and afternoon were also exactly the times when the army would come to harass the passers by. The border police had a military camp in front of my house, where they settled down and ate and drank. They came to know us better; in our neighborhood there are only 13 families, and we live on the highest part so that the army or border police always came and sat around our house. But they were still harassing me and asking for my identity card. I told them: “You know me and you know that I’m going to my school and you still want to know my identity card?” My family was renovating the nearby Cliff hotel, which later on was confiscated. They were teasing us: “Why are you renovating the hotel, we’re going to take it anyway.” “Take money, let us rent it, it is much better for you.” I wouldn’t allow my children to play in the streets of the neighborhood because the army jeeps, with their teargas, were there all the time.
The construction of the Wall, from one meter to nine meter high, and six meters from our house, took place in January 2004. The jumping from our house became impossible of course, and we had to look for other ways to sneak into the village of Abu Dis. My husband is a West Banker, he cannot be in Jerusalem. I as a Jerusalemite was however able to go around the Wall along an Israeli bypass road so as to enter Abu Dis from the other side. It became half an hour drive to my school instead of the normal one-minute drive. Still I could drive at least, but my husband had to look for the lowest parts of the Wall that were still under construction and not yet nine meters, and jump over the hills or go through small openings.
However, when sooner or later the Wall is completely finished he will not be able to come back to the house by jumping. Very recently my husband – he is a merchant, he sells stones – was able to get a permit that allowed him to be in Jerusalem from five in the morning until seven in the evening. After seven he is living and sleeping illegally with us. That’s one of the things we joke about. My husband is afraid that he can be kicked out any moment from the house. Or that he jumps over the wall to Abu Dis and then can’t come back. Other cousins in the neighborhood who own property here but carry West Bank ID cards are living illegally in their own property. If they don’t get Jerusalem ID cards or permits to live, they can be kicked out and their properties can be turned into absentee properties [to be confiscated by the Israeli state]. Khaled, our cousin, was three times arrested, literally upon entering his own hotel, the Cliff hotel. And the scary part is that in May 2004 they established a settlement just behind our house. It is called Kidmat Zion, with 250 housing units, which means nothing less than the arrival of 15.000 Israeli settlers. The famous Moskovics [American Jewish philanthropist who sponsors settlement building in East-Jerusalem] is of course the one who started this settlement, and of course with subsidies and Israeli government approval. This settlement is growing on our account and will squeeze our neighborhood.
Freedom means for me to be with my husband Salah and children, to have a family life and to move around easily. So that we for instance are able to spend joint time on weekends. I can’t easily go with Salah to the West Bank. Jericho is a well-known winter resort. But I can’t go to Jericho as a Jerusalemite. I need a permit. It’s easier for him as a West Banker to enter Jericho. On the other hand, Salah can’t come with me to Jerusalem. Even when he has a permit he is often denied access; for instance when the Israelis announce a general closure. The Wall is depressing us all. No family members can visit us, so we take the effort and visit them. Instead of us and the other members of the family going to a picnic we are just visiting them at home. It becomes boring for your children. Also, my husband lost income. Nobody is building houses and so he doesn’t sell stones much. You run, run, run from checkpoints to destinations and at the end of the day you just have enough to pay all the bills. In Jerusalem you have so many taxes to pay.
Salah nowadays sometimes says: let’s move into the West Bank. He and his own family have a house there that will lessen the expenditures of paying the rent and the taxes and the bills. But I cannot do that because the moment I live in the West Bank I will loose my residency in Jerusalem. I will not get any other residency because the Palestinian Authority is not giving ID cards to Jerusalemites who loose their ID cards. They claim that they do not want to encourage Jerusalemites to leave Jerusalem. Moving to Abu Dis would put me in a more brutal life of having no exit at all, just living in Abu Dis, without being able to leave the village.
The only time that I can breathe is when I leave for a conference abroad. Although there is harassment on the borderline, you still go out and see the world. That’s part of your personal freedom, to go abroad, a freedom which my husband is denied. He cannot travel; the Jordanians do not allow him to travel through Jordan. We want to be free as a family, to live wherever we want and that’s not easy. I say to him: I don’t want to live in a smaller ghetto. Yes, East-Jerusalem is a ghetto but it is a somewhat bigger ghetto than the Abu Dis ghetto. I want to have more opportunities for my daughters. On the Jerusalem side they can have music or ballet classes. I am a middle class woman, I would like to have some of those opportunities available for my daughter. He says that when they kick him out he wants to stay in the West Bank; he doesn’t want the harassment anymore. That would mean that he would have to take the girls a few days with him, and the girls would have to come back and live a few days with me. So the whole family would be affected when the Israelis really impose the expulsion of Salah from the area. So we have to choose between my own family and my husband’s family, and even between living together as a family and to divide.
At the end of the day I am a mother. As I always say and brag: we created life. So we have to create hope. You don’t have another option than surviving for the sake of your children. I better be on a special level of hope and creativity and easiness and fun, in order to survive, and to give a better life for your children. Many Palestinians share that, the only hope is for our children. It’s not an easy thing. Now I work in Ramallah. It is so frustrating to stand in line before the checkpoint of Kalandia every day, for 1,5 till 2 hours sometimes, if not more. It used to be half an hour drive but now it’s an hour. When I am back home I am totally exhausted. I have no time or energy to spoil my daughters, I have to quickly cook, clean, put them to study, to sleep. It’s sometimes becoming so frustrating and tiring. But at the end of the day you still have to go beyond that frustration. Daydreams? No, my only daydream, in fact my nightmare, is when I come back home and Salah is not able to come back. For instance when I am stuck at Kalandia and Salah cannot come home because he is stuck at the other side of the Wall and the children are left home alone. You never know. Or when something happens during the day, and I am stuck on one side and my daughter on the other.
I am an activist now. What gives me hope sometimes is that I speak more with the press and with Israeli groups. I am receiving lots of Israeli delegations coming to see the Wall. Sometimes I am more happy to receive Israelis than to receive foreigners. If the Israeli point of view changes it can make our life easier because they can have influence from within their own society. I believe that lobby-wise or campaigning-wise I should work more and more within the Israeli society. Still we as Palestinians have a long way to go to address our issues more strongly but it gives me hope when I see Israelis discussing, listening, especially when they see that the Wall has no sense of security for them. And that it only separates Palestinians from each other. Making us suffer more and more and putting us more and more into the corner is bad also for them. You talk with intellectuals and the young generation. Especially the young give some hope. Sometimes there are a few decision-makers coming like Knesset members, or the Israeli media visit us and they write about us. You see the fear that the Wall is giving them, not just us. When we work together with these Israelis, many of them may cross the line. They have become more active against the occupation and the icon of the occupation, which is the Wall.
Very recently, we established Artists without Walls. I am not an artist, but because of the area, Palestinian and Israeli artists approached me and said how can we help you? So in April 2004, Palestinian and Israeli artists came together to make the wall transparent by putting screens, projectors and lights, as in a video conference. The people from both sides were able to see and speak with each other. This gives hope to the people who are living in the ghetto, and who were listening and watching us. These are windows of hope that I can see from time to time. We as victims need to work hard to make the perpetrators aware of what they are doing to us on the human level. On our side not everybody is convinced. Many people are steeped in their own anger and frustration and I can understand that. I don’t identify with it especially when it comes to suicide bombings, but I can understand what is happening to those people. And this is what we have to say to the Israelis: Put yourself in our shoes. Would you expect yourselves to accept the daily humiliation at the checkpoints and the Wall, while it has no sense of security?
Toine van Teeffelen is development director at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem. This interview is part of a series made for United Civilians for Peace. The interview has been printed on EI with permission of the author.