A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank – by Nir Baram – translated by Jessica Cohen – published by text publishing
Nir Baram is an Israeli novelist, a highly respected journalist and an accomplished editor. So it is hardly surprising that his description of his journey around East Jerusalem and the West Bank is eminently readable, although much of what he recounts is worrying enough to give the reader many sleepless nights despite the shafts of optimism that occasionally shine through the text.
The state of Israel is a small country with a population of fewer than ten million people. In many respects — economically and educationally, for instance – it is a success story. Israel consists of territory mandated by the United Nations in 1948 and extended as a result of wars to include the occupied territories: the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the process of this expansion, many Jews have realised their dreams while many Palestinians have been dispossessed. A so-called Green Line marks Israel’s borders, some of which are in dispute.
Nir Baram is an advocate for equal rights for Palestinians but concludes that perhaps he, along with most other interested people, ‘deliberate the finer points of the occupation without knowing where the Green Line actually runs, what a refugee camp looks like, how many people live in the Shomron outposts or where the separation wall cuts through Bethlehem’. He therefore decides to visit the occupied territories to observe the situation first-hand and listen to what the locals have to say. The result is this excellent book which details Baram’s numerous trips to these contested areas over an 18-month period. He recounts various fascinating conversations that give the reader insight into the complexity of the situation in which many Jews and Palestinians find themselves.
In addition to the significant cultural and linguistic differences between Palestinians and Jews, there are regulatory differences depending on how a location is designated. Baram explains that land designated as area A is under full Palestinian control, area B is land under Palestinian civil administration but under Israeli security control and area C is land under Israeli administration and security control.
Baram visits Hebron, for example – a town in the West Bank some 30 kilometres from Jerusalem. Part of Hebron is designated H1 and part H2. It appears H1 is similar to A and H2 is more like C. Baram is told that not many Palestinians have stayed on in H2 because of local persecution. Transpose that to where you live. Your suburb is designated H1 and the adjacent suburb is H2. The border is a shopping street which you cross at your peril. Baram points out such a crossing is less likely in East Jerusalem as areas there are separated by walls, and transit from one part to another requires going through a checkpoint with adequate documentation.
Many of his Tel Aviv contemporaries are unaware of much of this.
A number of Baram’s anecdotes relate to checkpoint experiences. In Bethlehem, Baram drives to a restaurant he used to know well. Instead he finds a wall. Possibly the restaurant is on the other side but it is late and the checkpoint gates are shut. In Ramallah, Baram visits a language school run by former Hamas members. Afterwards, chatting with some locals in the street, a little boy walks past and hears Baram speaking in Hebrew. ‘Are you Jewish?’ he asks. Baram nods. The boy shakes his head in disbelief and asks the surrounding people in Arabic for confirmation. One of the older Palestinians points out that the boy has never seen a Jew before; Ramallah is only 10 kilometres from Jerusalem.
Such brief descriptions of such episodes from the book barely do it justice, but they do give a taste of what the reader will encounter in A Land Without Borders. Baram obviously believes that the occupation should end and that Jews and Palestinians could then live together in harmony, enjoying equal rights. Clearly, he believes the current situation will not lead to this, but what – if anything – will bring peace and genuine progress to this region remains unclear, even to him.