Papal Propaganda Poker: I’ll See Your Grave and Raise You a Wall

The Israelis were a nose ahead in the political graphics war until they handed the Palestinians a propaganda gift in the shape of the separation barrier.

Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman
Pope Francis prays at Israel's separation barrier on his way to a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014.
Pope Francis prays at Israel's separation barrier on his way to a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, West Bank city of Bethlehem on Sunday, May 25, 2014.Credit: AP
Matthew Kalman
Matthew Kalman

I’d like to shake the hand of the Israeli official who came up with the brilliant new protocol requiring the pope to lay a wreath at Herzl’s grave. You’d think the finely honed minds in the several ministries that now seek to co-ordinate Israel’s public diplomacy might have stopped and thought for a while before imposing this pointless new pit-stop on the pontiff.

It’s almost as meaningless as the mind-numbingly stupid arrival ceremony for visiting heads of state that paralyzes Ben-Gurion Airport, which closes the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway and wastes several hours of the time of the entire cabinet, police and military command and senior officials at vast cost – only for most of them to re-group several hours later for a repeat run-through at the President’s Residence and again at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

But now visiting heads of state will have to pay their respects to the bones of Theodor Herzl as well as the president, prime minister, and at the Western Wall and Yad Vashem.

Was it any wonder that the Palestinians retaliated with an extra stop of their own: a silent prayer offered by Pope Francis next to the hated separation barrier in Bethlehem? Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps through ignorance, perhaps with carefully planned offence, Palestinian and Church officials decided that Francis should stop at a section of the wall sprayed with graffiti comparing Bethlehem’s plight behind the wall to the Warsaw Ghetto.

It’s one thing for the humble Francis to embrace the power of street art. It’s quite another for him to appear to give the blessing of the Holy See to a piece of mendacious spray-painted venom.

I know it’s mostly chain-link fence and not a wall at all, but the West Bank separation barrier must count as one of largest, most expensive planning disasters in modern history.

Like so many of the security measures employed by the Israelis to defeat Palestinian terrorism – checkpoints, midnight arrest raids, Palestinian profiling, cluster bombs, white phosphorous shells – the Israelis have achieved their immediate military aim, but the collateral diplomatic damage has been near-fatal. The wall, combined with a radical shift in the political climate and pinpoint real-time intelligence, has basically stopped the Palestinian suicide bombers who in their heyday a decade ago were killing more than 100 Israelis a month, but it has entrenched the image of Israel as a military ghetto, a fortress state.

The wall/barrier/fence runs for about 400 miles through the West Bank, severing the Palestinians who live there from Israel and in many cases from their own farmland, olive trees and, in some cases, their own homes. There are gates and checkpoints where Palestinians with the correct paperwork can run a gauntlet of barbed wire, steel turnstiles, cattle pens, metal detectors, X-ray machines and gun-toting Israeli army guards in order to cross over, but the vast majority don’t even try. Those who have permits arrive at 3 A.M., hoping to reach their destination inside Israel by the time their jobs begin at 8.

The Wall is punctuated by surrealist military watchtowers that resemble giant metal chess pieces fashioned from drab grey concrete and bullet-proof steel topped with barbed wire. As soon as it was built, it became a focal point for the activity that has come to encapsulate the essence of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all its complexity: graffiti.

Israel thought it built a wall to keep out suicide bombers. The Palestinians thought it was built to grab territory in the West Bank. They were both wrong. The wall was actually built to provide the largest street art canvas on the planet.

Just about the only thing the two sides agree on is that this is a great conflict for pithy slogans, eyeball-boiling imagery and award-winning graffiti. You couldn’t make up the imagery. The dove of peace has been shot, strangled, crushed, frozen, exploded and strafed with F-16 fire so many times it’s a wonder the poor creature isn’t extinct. If you thought barbed wire was for building secure fences, think again. It’s for making Stars of David, Crowns of Thorns, babies’ cribs and, of course, garroting the poor old dove of peace all over again. Keys, bricks, balls, swimming pools and other household objects have been pressed into service by the Palestinians to drive home the inhumanity of military occupation, land seizures and statelessness. The Israelis have done the same. One of my favorites is an old poster with a smoking green tube of sweets branded PLO instead of Polo with the caption “Mints look great with holes in. People don’t.”

I’d say the Israelis were a nose ahead in the political graphics war until they handed the Palestinians a propaganda gift in the shape of The Wall and its funky watchtowers. The Wall solved two crucial communications problems for the Palestinians: Time and place.

Until The Wall, time was running in favor of the Israelis. The Palestinians were always banging on about historical events that no one remembered and no one cared about. You only had to mention 1948 or 1967 for most people to start yawning and change the channel. But The Wall doesn’t fade with history. It’s right there, planted on the biblical hillsides, a must for every camera crew and passing blogger. Authors write books about it; photographers use it as a constant backdrop of brutality; artists sculpt, paint, imagine and re-invent it. There are video installations, holograms, travelling exhibitions, posters and documentaries about it. Comedians come and perform in front of it, film directors include it in their scripts. Even the last two popes have been routed past it.

The terrible atrocities committed by both sides fade with the passing years: Sbarro, Bet Lid, the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium, and the Park Hotel in Netanya are remembered by Israelis as the sites of particularly vicious suicide bombs, but everyone else has forgotten about them. Likewise, the huge Palestinian death tolls at Deir Yassin, Qana, Sabra and Chatilla have also passed into history.

Israelis take their visitors to Yad Vashem to recall Jewish suffering a half century ago, more than one thousand miles away. Now they will visit the tomb of Herzl, who died in Austria in 1904. But Palestinians take their visitors to the wall, the 30-foot-high, ugly, towering proof of Israeli-inflicted suffering, right here, right now.

In the complex game of Papal propaganda poker, that’s a Royal Flush for the Palestinians.

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