This article originally appeared on VICE Switzerland
In 2002, the Israeli government began building a border wall across the West Bank. For some, the 440 mile-wide barrier is an effective security barrier protecting Israel. For others, the wall represents racial segregation in the region – the checkpoints Palestinians are forced to go through being a humiliating daily ordeal. Whichever way you lean, the structure has grown into a lasting symbol of the ongoing conflict.
Earlier this year, I travelled to the West Bank and Israel, because I wanted to talk to people living near the barrier, and learn what effect it had on their lives. Of all the people I approached, most were too afraid or uncomfortable to open up about the subject – but ten of them were willing to talk about the challenges they've lived through over the past 15 years.
Noor, 39, accountant, lives in a refugee camp in the West Bank
"My little brother was killed in 2003. They came in tanks in the middle of the night – at first you could just hear sirens and screaming, then they started shooting and spraying teargas. We ran into an alley to hide. I screamed, 'Murad, you idiot, get down!' When he stood up for a moment, just like that, he was shot in the throat. Murad gasped and started to cough as his eyes went blank. There was so much blood – it was everywhere.
"The next thing I remember is waking up in jail. I was imprisoned for 18 months. When I got home, we celebrated for two days. I never speak about what it was like to be tortured – believe me, it's not something you want to hear about.
"Sometimes I think the wall has silenced us and we should speak more about our experiences – our hopes and fears – but how? Once, in Hebron, an old man spoke to me in Hebrew. Even though he was smiling and just being friendly, I started to shake. My wife, Dana, tried to calm me down, but I couldn't speak – I just ran away like a child."
Micha, 34, salesman and former soldier, West Jerusalem
"I shouldn't tell you this, but I want to be honest – I didn't really mind killing people during my time in the military. Once, our lieutenant showed us some research that said killing is only difficult at first. Whenever you shoot someone without being hit yourself, it feels great because you managed to get away. It's like an out-of-body experience – all you want to do is feel that way again. When you're in the moment, you can't think about whether what you're doing is right or wrong. And when it's over, you're usually too exhausted to really think about it. A soldier who wants to get philosophical about their actions isn't a good soldier. Afterwards, you start doubting yourself. But by then, it's too late.
"I'm still affected by my experiences in the army. I can still see the fear in the eyes of the Palestinian boy at the Qalandia checkpoint. I can hear the anguished screams of my friend, Schmuel, whose legs were blown off. There is a lot I can't comprehend. The past is in the past, but my memories stay with me."
Fatima, 58, farmer, Nablus, West Bank
"My kids were playing in the street when they came, one afternoon in the spring of 2003. They kicked down my front door and locked us in a room, while they tore all the pictures down from the wall, ripped apart our furniture, smashed plates and stripped our closets. The soldiers were laughing and jeering the entire time.
"A house should protect you – it should provide security for you and your family. How much does someone have to hate a person to destroy their house? How much must you despise them to do such a thing? When that happened, I was so scared for my children, it was as if I was paralysed. I let them scream at me and slap my face. If they came back today, I don't know what I would do. My house is everything to me, and they took it from me."
Ehud, 32, engineer and former soldier, Tel Aviv
"When I was serving in the army, sometimes, when we were done for the day, we would spend the evening relaxing and drinking beer – talking about our plans for after we retired from the military. We were living in two completely different worlds. As we talked, we convinced ourselves that we were doing the right thing. Which we were. You have to remember that in war, everyone gets their hands dirty.
"But I hated searching people's houses – it felt so primitive. Ten of us would storm an apartment – breaking down the doors, smashing up the furniture and generally turning everything upside down. When the women yelled at us, we would just push them away or hit them in the face. The kids would tremble and hide in corners or under tables. They would either cry or just stare at you with their big eyes, filled with fear. It's something I could never forget.
"I was always relieved when we found stockpiles of weapons in one of the houses. If we searched a hundred houses, and we found weapons in just one, it made ransacking the other 99 worth it. I would have liked to be nicer, but that would not have worked. They didn't see us as humans, but as monsters who imprisoned and subjugated them, and bossed them around. Every sign of humanity, every friendly gesture would be taken as a humiliation – as if we wanted to show them exactly how pitiful we thought they were."
Saed, 34, social worker, Al-Far'a refugee camp in the West Bank
"For hours, my cousins, brother and uncle were forced to sit on small stone blocks – legs bent, black bags soaked in manure or vomit over their heads. When my uncle was released from prison, his ribs were broken and his back was bent. When he got home, he was so happy he kissed the ground and said, 'this land gives me strength!' His strength was taken a few days later when my mother was arrested. After three nights, they let her go. When she came home, all she would say was that she was fine. She didn't want to talk about what she went through, so we didn't ask.
"I never think about getting revenge – it would spoil my soul and take all of my strength. But would I shake hands with an Israeli? Never – he could be the person who tortured my mother. I can learn to live alongside them, but not with them. Does that make sense?"
Rahel, 31, saleswoman and former soldier, Tel Aviv
"The first time I saw a Palestinian was in 2003 at a roadside checkpoint in the northern region of the West Bank. I had just joined the military and we were still building the wall. A few months earlier, my friend's father was badly maimed in a suicide attack in Tel Aviv. His left arm was blown off and his left leg was ripped apart. So when I stood in front of that Palestinian, I just thought, 'you shit-head'. It's not something I like to think about now.
"After my military service was over, I moved to a settlement near Ramallah in the West Bank, where the apartments were new and half the price of the ones in Tel Aviv. I could see a Palestinian village from my kitchen window. Often, I would stand at the window and watch the children play, the mothers work in the fields and the old men talk and smoke by the roadside. Once, while standing there watching, I suddenly started to cry. I never talked to them – there was a social barrier between us. We had our own streets, buses, taxis, supermarkets, schools and military.
"Living there weighed heavily on me – I could barely sleep. That is when I asked my husband, Dori, whether we could move, because it wasn't our land. We now live in Tel Aviv. On sunny days after work, I take my sons to the beach or stroll through town. It is beautiful and clean here. I rarely think about the wall, but I know it's there. I am still afraid of Palestinians. That might sound idiotic, but I cannot help it."
Bassam, 24, graphic designer, Hebron
"I know I'm not supposed to say this out loud, but I want to leave this filthy country – I am fed up with it. If you drive through Hebron, you'll see how bad it is. It wasn't like this when I was growing up. The wall has made us stupid. We tell ourselves that we won't be defeated, that we won't be expelled. We tell ourselves that one day, our land will be free. And people really believe it – but I think we are losing.
"Since I was a little boy, my father has told me to be patient, and to believe that our time will come. But it's not coming – the wall has stolen time from all of us, including from the Israelis. There is no progress. The almonds blossom, the olives fall from the trees, then the almonds return, and before you know it the olives fall again. Another year goes by and nothing changes."
Benjamin, 38, banker and former tank gunner, Chadera
"We were sent to the West Bank in retaliation for a terrorist attack in Netanya, in March 2002. We crossed through Nablus and drove into the Balata refugee camp in our tanks. Imagine entering a refugee camp in a tank – the streets are so narrow it's like a maze. We were told there were a lot of terrorists in this camp, and that they could come from anywhere. I wanted to shit my pants, that's how scared I was.
"We attacked three times that day, with full force. We tore down buildings and smashed roofs made of corrugated iron. It was like we were in a film. They had bombed our people, so it was really just self-defence – you would have done the same.
"Today I live in Chadera, and earn enough money to go on nice holidays and party with friends. Sometimes I think about what life must be like in Nablus. I was there just that one time, in a tank."
Meir, 40, university lecturer and former soldier, Tel Aviv
"I was on duty throughout the second Palestinian uprising. I wouldn't call it a war though, because they didn't have an army. All they had were kids with rocks, Molotov cocktails and burning car tires – while their grown men had broken weapons and old grenades and bombs. There were thousands of us in tanks and helicopters, using the world's best rifles, bulletproof vests, night vision goggles and communication devices. We had access to any equipment we wanted.
"That doesn't make us heroes or the Palestinians martyrs. The way I see it – they played around with us and we played around with them. It's a game, with the mere addition of dead people. I shit on this conflict, I don't want to hear another word about it."
Leah, 72, farmer, East Jerusalem
"Is the wall really want we want? Years and years of fighting, which just builds more and more hatred on both sides. Maybe we should stop waving flags in support of one side or the other, and just kick out all our politicians from the country.
"I know what I want – I want children to be able to play outside without being afraid of anyone or anything. I want open neighbourhoods where everyone trusts each other, a good harvest, to see the sea one more time, an antenna on the roof that actually works and a few nice days with my husband, Mahmoud. He'll die soon and I'll be alone."
*All the names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees.