Phyllis Bennis writes from the West Bank
The End of History: With a Period, Not a Question Mark
Letter from Abu Dis, Occupied West Bank
By Phyllis Bennis
The Nation - July 22, 2008
Beginning around 100 BC, the fabled Silk Road brought
goods and travelers from China and Central Asia ,
through the lands of Persia and Mesopotamia , and over
to Palmyra in Syria . One branch of the road then turned
south, crossing through Bethany, the biblical village
on the outskirts of Jerusalem , as it headed west from
Jerusalem to Yoppa (today's Jaffa ) and the Mediterranean Sea .
Today the town of Bethany is known as Abu Dis. It is
still on the outskirts of Jerusalem . And the ancient
road is still there. Dusty and pothole-filled, it winds
through the center of the Palestinian town, with auto-
parts yards and small dingy shops selling vegetables
and furniture lining both sides. The road then comes to
an abrupt stop, blocked by the towering, graffiti-
covered cement slabs of Israel 's separation wall.
Today, the Silk Road stops in Abu Dis. The road no
longer goes through Jerusalem , and can no longer reach
the sea. That grimy, garbage-strewn dead end marks the
end of 2,202 years of history.
When Israel first occupied the Palestinian territories
in June 1967, Abu Dis was a small, crowded West Bank
town outside of Jerusalem . After the war, Israel
expanded the municipal borders, and soon expropriated
and annexed huge swathes of West Bank Palestinian land
into what quickly became known as "Greater Jerusalem ."
The heavily populated Palestinian areas were excluded
so Israel could insure a 70-30 percent Jewish majority
in the city. Most of Abu Dis remained outside.
The Palestinians had long insisted on their right to
establish the capital of their future state in Israeli-
occupied Arab East Jerusalem . In 2000, in the run-up to
the Camp David talks that year, then-Prime Minister
Ehud Barak held out what he appeared to believe was a
generous offer. Instead of a capital in Jerusalem ("al-
Quds" in Arabic), Israel would allow Yasir Arafat to
establish the Palestinian capital in Abu Dis. Barak
added, as if it were a gift, that Israel would allow
the Palestinians raising their flag over the fetid,
arid town to "call it al-Quds." It was as if, in
negotiations over New York City , one side offered
Newark, and said "we'll even let you call it New York ."
As the New York Times reported at the time, "Abu Dis
looks like a village and, with raw sewage flowing
roadside, it smells like a village. No Palestinian will
ever mistake Abu Dis for Jerusalem itself. If the
Israelis intend it as an alternative capital for the
Palestinians state, which is what Mr. Barak seemed to
be saying last week, Palestinians find this an insult,
a joke and a deal-breaker."
When Israel began construction of the separation wall
in 2002, one of the first sections was built in Abu
Dis. Not between Abu Dis and Jerusalem , but within Abu
Dis, dividing the town in two. Suddenly students and
teachers could not get to school, patients could not
get to clinics, no one could go to pray in the mosques
of Jerusalem . At first the wall was only eight feet
high; just where the road ends today was an unofficial
crossing point, where international television crews
filmed old women in thobes, or traditional embroidered
dresses, being half helped/half hoisted over and across
the wall. Today the wall in Abu Dis, as in all of the
cities of the West Bank where it snakes through
Palestinian land, is eight meters--twenty-four feet--
high, and no one climbs over.
In the overall scheme of Palestinian life under
occupation, things in Abu Dis could certainly be worse.
After all, unemployment across the West Bank is only 49
percent; in the besieged Gaza Strip it tops 79 percent.
After all, people in Abu Dis can still move around
inside their town (even if they can't cross the
municipal border into Jerusalem ), while the 5,000 or so
Palestinians of Ni'lin, near Ramallah, recently endured
four days and nights of closure and curfew imposed by
the Israeli military during nonviolent protests against
the separation wall. After all, most people in Abu Dis
can at least leave their town most of the time;
Qalqilya, a city of 40,000 in the northern West Bank,
has been completely encircled by the wall for several
years--surrounded, with only one gate.
It could be worse. But residents of Abu Dis were
prescient. The separation wall only began construction
in 2002. Two years before that, when Israel handed
official control of Abu Dis over to the Palestinian
Authority, the move "even raised fears among residents
that a border fence would be built to separate them
from Jerusalem , and that they and the Palestinian
people would be left with their noses pressed against
the slats--so close and so far away," as the Times put
it. "'We are today closer than ever to Jerusalem ,' said
Abdul Rahman al-Shamali, the muezzin who calls Muslims
to prayer at one of five mosques in the conservative,
religious town. 'But to be frank, I am sad. I fear that
it will end here. I fear that my heart is going to be
divided. Jerusalem is my heart.'"
They were right. The Palestinians of Abu Dis, or
Bethany, are no closer to Jerusalem, despite being able
to see al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock from
high points within their city.
And dusty, tired Abu Dis is the place where history at
last, at least the fabled Silk Road part of history, comes to its end.
[Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy
Studies. Her most recent books include Understanding
the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and
Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN
Defy U.S. Power, as well as the forthcoming
Understanding the US-Iran Crisis: A Primer (Interlink
Publishing -- www.interlinkbooks.com).]