During my 2010 trip to Israel, I visited the West Bank and came face to face with something that you are unlikely to see in the standard tourist flyers about Israel: the 700 km long, eight metre high security wall that separates the West Bank and Israel.

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The eight-foot high security wall that encircles the West Bank. ©incoherentboy.com

Here’s a simple question: what comes to mind when you think of the West Bank? If we’re being honest, it would probably be ‘terrorists’ and ‘suicide bombings’. And if I’m being honest, I had the exact same thoughts too. But my lack of courage was assuaged by my Singaporean friend Celine, a former journalist who was working as a volunteer with an NGO in the West Bank town of Nablus.
We arranged to meet at a checkpoint in Bethlehem, through which we could enter the Palestinian part of the town. And so I took a bus and a cab there, to be greeted by this:
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©incoherentboy.com

The first sight of the thick concrete slabs quite literally stuns you into silence. It resembles prison walls, complete with watchtowers, barbed wire and armed guards. The feeling of being imprisoned only intensifies when you realise that it’s double the height of the Berlin Wall. And the wall has adversely affected the livelihoods of many Palestinians, as could be seen by the number of touts who approached me, offering their services as guides.

There are also multiple checkpoints through which many Palestinians must pass on their way to work each day, as much of the West Bank’s population works in Israel itself. I was later told by Celine and other Palestinians I met that the process of passing through the checkpoints – ensuring you have the proper permits, being questioned and sometimes strip searched – can take hours. As a tourist, I had few problems, being waved through by Israeli Defence Force personnel once I produced my passport.

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©incoherentboy.com

The security wall was first built in 1994, ostensibly as a stated of reducing terrorist incidents and suicide bombings in the state of Israel. Construction of the wall intensified in 2002 following an extended outbreak of violence in the Palestinian Territories, and remains ongoing. While its supporters point to reduced terrorist incidents, detractors of the wall say that it is little more than a means of illegally annexing Palestinian territory.

Ironically, the wall itself has become a canvas for artists, both Palestinian and international, to express sentiments ranging from anger to sorrow to hope. The results are moving, beautiful and heartbreaking.

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A depiction of Handala, the symbol of defiance created by the late Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali. ©incoherentboy.com

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Even in the midst of an ongoing conflict, there is the hope for peace and reconciliation, interspersed with feelings of rage and resentment. ©incoherentboy.com

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A depiction of the Old City of Jerusalem, to which ordinary Palestinians are often denied access, due to the need for security permits. ©incoherentboy.com

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The Statue of Liberty weeps for Handala. The Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was allegedly complicit in the assassination of his creator Naji al-Ali. ©incoherentboy.com

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Will this ever be possible? ©incoherentboy.com

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There is more than a bit of irony in many of the illustrations too. ©incoherentboy.com

But beyond the security wall lies the heartbeat of the West Bank – a population of more than 2.6m, each with their own story to tell. So Celine led me to Aida, a refugee camp established in 1950 to house the thousands of Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. The Palestinian exodus is commonly known as al-Naqba – ‘the catastrophe’.

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The entrance to the Aida refugee camp. The giant key is a reference to the ‘right of return’ – many Palestinians fled their homes in 1948, never to to return. Most of their homes now lie on Israeli land. ©incoherentboy.com

Located between the towns of Bethlehem and Beit Jala, Aida has a population of more than 5,000, and covers about 0.7 sq km. Aida is one of the smallest of the 27 refugee camps located in Palestine. It has often been the site of repeated incursions by the Israeli military, in search of protestors and terrorists. According to UNRWA, more than 40 per cent of its population are unemployed.

I had expected to see tents and unsanitary conditions, but was surprised to see that Aida resembled a modern township. Living conditions appeared decent, and there were even some two-storey houses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Sixth Avenue or Bukit Timah. But if you’re interested in a more detailed overview of Palestinian refugee camps in general, check out cartoonist-reporter Joe Sacco’s Footnotes In Gaza.

Celine and I were also trailed by smiling Palestinian children, who ran after us and repeated their catchphrase and little else: “Hello! What’s your name?”

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Palestinian children followed us everywhere, such as these three adorable girls. ©incoherentboy.com

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The boys were a little cheekier. ©incoherentboy.com

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This picture of Celine and I was taken by one of the Palestinian kids who grabbed my camera. ©incoherentboy.com

The camp itself has plenty of graffiti too, often beautifully rendered.

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©incoherentboy.com

Israel, West Bank, security wall, graffiti, Aida refugee camp

The ubiquitous Handala. ©incoherentboy.com

Celine led me to the home of Echlas, 36, a disabled Palestinian artist whom Celine had been helping out. Machlas is confined to a wheelchair, as she was born with a degenerative disease. She makes a living by teaching Arabic.

As we chatted, Echlas told me about her family history. Most of her siblings have migrated, and her father was jailed for many years by the Israelis. When I expressed my surprise that the camp was not a tent city, she replied with a smile: “At the beginning, it was like that. There used to be only one toilet for dozens of families.”

As it was Ramadan, I also had the privilege of sharing Iftar, or the evening meal, as Echlas’ family broke fast. It was a simple meal of rice, vegetable stew and chicken prepared by Echlas’ mother, but very tasty.

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Echlas’ mother dishes out the food. ©incoherentboy.com

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©incoherentboy.com

Israel, West Bank, security wall, graffiti, Aida

©incoherentboy.com

It’s been two years since my trip, and I often think about the people of Aida and the West Bank.

Echlas’ mother has since passed away. The wall is still there, and the kids we saw are probably aged 10-14 by now.I wonder what sort of future they will have, in a land surrounded by walls and dominated by uniformed men with guns.

Will they grow up to be as embittered as their parents’ generation?  Somehow, it feels as if their only hope will be in leaving the place where they were born, for greener pastures overseas.