Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
On May 6, I approached Campo, the tiny California border town at the southern end of the Pacific Crest Trail, just before dawn on my 50th birthday. A helicopter chopped through the sky overhead as Border Patrol vehicles passed on nearby roads. The 2,650-mile trail had taken me through some of the most beautiful wilderness on Turtle Island. Yet now, as I completed the trek, a monstrous structure loomed directly in front of me: the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
My first thought: I’ve seen this before, when was I here before?
And then, it hit me: The border wall, the patrol road running alongside it, the “secondary” fence topped with barbed wire… it was eerily reminiscent of the separation barriers in Palestine, both the 440-mile wall snaking through the West Bank, annexing Palestinians’ land under the guise of security, and the 37-mile barrier caging the approximately 2 million Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip inside the coastal enclave. I had encountered the walls in Palestine repeatedly during my two decades of work there, as a journalist, documentary filmmaker, and human rights activist.
My hike was a fundraiser to provide medical care for two kids in Gaza: 13-year-old Abdallah was born with a rare lung disorder, and 14-year-old Mohamed had been shot in the knee by an Israeli soldier in 2018, severing a nerve. I met both boys in the course of my reporting, and had stayed connected to them and their families.
The Israeli military had repeatedly denied Abdallah and Mohamed permits to exit Gaza to receive medical care that is unavailable in Gaza’s scarcely functional health care system. In Abdallah’s case, this meant that his lung condition could not be properly diagnosed, monitored, or treated. In Mohamed’s case, it meant that a time-sensitive nerve-transplant surgery had been delayed until six months after his injury. (The surgery was ultimately unsuccessful, and Mohamed may never walk again.)
I dropped my backpack, climbed up the southern terminus monument, and waited for the sun to rise, staring at Mexico through slats in the wall. The landscape was the same on both sides of the barrier. The wall violently interrupted what should have been a continuous horizon. As I checked the progress on the fundraising campaign on my phone, I thought about the thousands of children who have been ripped from their parents in the U.S., and the thousands more who have been crammed into improvised, inadequate border facilities. This militarized barrier separating those children from their basic rights and the militarized barrier separating Abdallah and Mohamed from theirs are intimately connected. The relationship is deeper than the visual similarities, and extends beyond the fact that the Israeli company Elbit Systems provides surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Both walls are rooted in histories of expansionist settler colonization, and reinforced by ethnic supremacy.
Israel and the U.S. were both founded on the violent displacement of the Indigenous peoples on the land, with the domination of ever more territory justified by the White supremacy inherent in “Manifest Destiny” and the Jewish supremacy inherent in Zionism. Not only do the walls entail land grabs (in Israel’s case, one wall effectively annexes almost 10% of the West Bank), but they are intended to keep out, make invisible, demonize, and criminalize the very people who have been most harmed by those colonial powers and policies.
A middle-aged man dressed in fatigues drove a dirt bike with an attached trailer onto the patrol road. Was he Border Patrol? I saw no official insignia. Was he a civilian out for a joy ride? Or was he an armed militia member? If so, who exactly was he trying to keep out and why? Would he support the deportation of my friend Alejandra Pablos? I’ve been collaborating with Alejandra on a play about the two-plus years she spent caged by ICE. Alejandra has lived in the U.S. since infancy, her entire family is here, yet she’s fighting the imminent possibility of deportation and exile from her only home to the other side of this wall.
The sun crested as a WhatsApp thread on my phone began blowing up with messages from my colleagues from Just Vision, an organization that uses storytelling to promote freedom, justice, and dignity for Palestinians and Israelis. A full-blown crisis was now unfolding in Sheikh Jarrah, a small neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Palestinian writer and activist Mohammed El-Kurd is from Sheikh Jarrah. I’ve known Mohammed since he was a teenager, through my work with Just Vision. Mohammed’s family, alongside his neighbors, have been fighting their displacement at the hands of Israeli settlers. There was a hearing scheduled for May 10 (since postponed) at the Israeli High Court, but the families in Sheikh Jarrah placed no hope in the hearing—Israel’s court system was designed to uphold discriminatory laws, including those meant to establish Israeli dominance over all of Jerusalem. In advance of the hearing, youth from Sheikh Jarrah had ramped up their resistance, and the Israeli police violently repressed the demonstrations.
I skimmed through the thread, trying to piece together what had transpired over the past days. On May 4, my colleague Rula Salameh informed our team that three youths from Sheikh Jarrah had been arrested, among them Mohammed El-Kurd’s younger brother Mahmoud, along with two friends, Tala Obeid and Omar al-Khatib. On May 5, Rula updated the team that Mahmoud and Tala had been released early that morning, but Omar was still detained. I read the messages with a growing sense of urgency and dread.
RULA: Soldiers attack Amal Al-Kassem house and destroyed the furniture. And the main doors.
KATE: Mohammed also shared that a settler just stabbed a Palestinian in Sheikh Jarrah.
There was not much I could do sitting at the border wall without my laptop; I quickly sent a message to the thread that I would be back home in Seattle within a few days, and would be available to do whatever might be useful. Then my phone beeped with a new text message. It was my friend Anya, wishing me a happy birthday. “I know today has mixed feelings in it with Asel’s memory but I hope you can feel him with you,” she wrote.
I share my birthday with my friend Asel Asleh, from the village Arrabeh in the Galilee. Asel should be turning 37, but he had been murdered by an Israeli police officer at the age of 17. I thought about a conversation I had recently with a Palestinian friend, about whether I would specifically name Zionism as a system of oppression on the website promoting my documentary film about Asel. I didn’t want to alienate audiences we were trying to reach before they had seen the film. But my friend convinced me that naming the root cause of oppression was crucial; if not, I would be erasing Palestinians and obscuring Zionism’s accountability when Palestinians are killed.
The sun had fully risen as friends joined me at the border. As we ate a celebratory cake, my friend Craig Smedley described his Pacific Crest Trail hike in 2004. He was near Mount Laguna, 40 miles north of the border, and encountered the body of a man sprawled across the trail, likely a migrant who had died of exposure. He found a county sheriff and reported the corpse. The county sheriff responded that as the man was an “illegal alien,” it was Border Patrol’s issue. Craig flagged down a Border Patrol agent, who informed him that because the person was dead, it was the county coroner’s problem.
It took three days to make my way back home to Seattle, in which time the escalation in Palestine was dizzying: Aggression towards the families in Sheikh Jarrah had intensified; Israeli soldiers stormed Al-Aqsa mosque, injuring hundreds of worshippers; Hamas shot rockets from Gaza into Israel in retaliation; Israel pummeled Gaza with aerial bombardment.
I immediately channeled my rage and grief into an effort to be useful, helping colleagues in Palestine write op-eds, expanding the Pacific Crest Trail fundraiser to include families in Gaza in urgent need. I woke up morning after morning, turning straight to the news, then checking in on people I love. Abdallah and Mohamed were yet again in acute danger, huddling in their homes as missiles exploded around them, obliterating high-rise buildings and annihilating entire families. Mobs of Jewish-Israeli extremists rampaged through Palestinian neighborhoods in cities inside Israel (including Haifa, where Asel’s young niece and nephews live), attacking people, smashing cars and businesses, and chanting “death to the Arabs.” Mohammed El-Kurd’s family and their neighbors in Sheikh Jarrah continue to be attacked by Israeli settlers and police as they fight to remain in their homes. Israeli police are now rounding up and arresting hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel who protested these acts of violence and subjugation.
My fundraiser hike seems like a lifetime ago, yet given these recent weeks in Palestine, its conclusion at the U.S.-Mexico border feels more relevant than ever. I think about the man who froze to death near Mount Laguna and whose corpse no government agency could be bothered with, about Alejandra’s struggle to remain in her home, about the thousands of families who send their children on a dangerous journey to a militarized border with the desperate hope that this will enable them to live with some measure of safety and dignity. Zionism. White supremacy. Settler colonization. Interlocking systems of oppression. Systems that bomb, terrorize, cage, criminalize, dehumanize, and attempt to forcibly displace my friends.
Jen Marlowe is a filmmaker, author, human rights activist, and founder of Donkeysaddle Projects. Her books include The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian's Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival, and I Am Troy Davis.