The Separation Wall

The 1st of November is Samhain, the end of the harvest season and the first day of Winter in the old Celtic calendar. It is also the time when the dead rise out of the ground and walk among the living. It is a time when boundaries and dimensions dissolve and there is no separation between the past and future, when the finite and the infinite are one and where human existence in all its forms is the pulse of being. A portal is opened and human energy pours through. It is a time of celebration, not of fear. Samhain is about life and about death as both are realities. At Samhain you set a place at the table for the welcome dead and offer them hospitality so that all will be good. It is the opposite of what Hollywood markets as “Halloweeeen!!”

The real horror is that on the 7th October 2023 the weight of history came crashing down on Israel. Their Separation Wall and permit system was breached with the border guards somehow unaware and nowhere to be seen as death and destruction poured out on an unprecedented scale. Now, as Mike Small has pointed out, millions of words have already been written about what happened on the 7th of October and about the brutal and deadly response of Israel and I as a Scot, from the far northern village of Dunnet in Caithness, because of shock and grief, feel shorn of all authority and am reluctant to add to this word pile. Rather it is more important to listen to the voices on the ground who can articulate, in terms that we can understand, the tragedy of the Palestinian people. I offer you two.

One is the voice Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer, human rights activist and writer. He co-founded the award-winning Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq in 1979. In 2008, he won the Orwell Prize, the UK’s pre-eminent award for political writing, for his book “Palestinian Walks”. It was because of that book that I met him at the Ullapool Book Festival in 2009. He was a graceful, unassuming man who, like me, had a quiet passion for walking the length and breadth of his native land, which now, for him, is much more difficult than it is for me to walk mine. That quiet passion was very apparent when he talked about Palestine and her people. In October 2021, Al-Haq was branded a terrorist organization by Israel. So yet another separation wall was built between the truth and the rest of the world.

In the current edition of the New York Review Raja Shehadeh writes very eloquently of the on-going catastrophe. I make no apology for the length of the extract, because it tells us what we never hear in the media din – where voices are raised in righteous anger to justify one side and condemn the other,

“This latest audacious attack was unlike anything we had seen previously. It proved both that no Israeli fortification will keep oppressed Palestinians at bay forever and that Israelis will never be safe as long as they keep 2.3 million human beings locked in an area of 141 square miles (the Gaza Strip) and the population of the West Bank confined in unconnected enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements. The tragedy is that in the absence of any real political opposition, the present right-wing government will heed neither of these obvious conclusions.”

He goes on to highlight a reality unknown to most,

“All of us living in the occupied territories have been feeling tensions rise over the past six months as settlers undertake continuous criminal attacks against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. ‘A total of 1,105 people from 28 communities—about 12% of their population—have been displaced from their places of residence since 2022,’ the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has estimated. Those who fled gave ‘settler violence and the prevention of access to grazing land by settlers as the primary reason.’ The settlers, who as of July held some 2,600 weapons issued by the Israeli army, were no longer restricting their claims to the 62 percent of our land claimed by Israel—called Area C—but were encroaching on areas, such as those adjacent to Nablus, that the Oslo Accords stipulate are under the direct control of the Palestinian National Authority. So much for Israel’s respect for agreements signed with its adversary.”

The tragedy of the present Israeli regime, which is shared by all authoritarian regimes including the present and incoming Westminster versions, is that they are addicted to what the French scholar, philosopher, historian, and social theorist Michel Foucault called “biopower”. That is when populations are treated as problems to be solved by technologies of discipline and control, as Raja Shehadeh illuminates, rather than as sentient beings who must be nurtured so that they can thrive in peace.


The second Palestinian voice I offer you is that of Mahmoud Darwish. Although he died in 2008 he is still regarded as Palestine’s national poet. He used Palestine as a metaphor for the loss of Eden, birth and resurrection – at Samhain this is appropriate – and the anguish of dispossession and exile. In “The American Scholar” in 2012 David J. Wasserstein, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, described the legacy of Mahmoud Darwish in the following way,

“Far beyond the history of literature in Arabic, the study of modern Arabic poetry, even the expression of the 20th-century Palestinian tragedy, Darwish incarnates and reflects the tradition of the political poet in Islam, the man of action whose action is poetry.”

His revelatory and celebratory poem “A Song and the Sultan”, (translated by Rose Styron) which concerns itself with the struggle between freedom – a girl – and oppression – the Sultan, begins,

“It was no more than the description of a burst of rain

and handkerchiefs of lightning which burned the secret of trees—

then why did they resist her?

When she said that something different from this water

runs in the river

and the people of the shore are statues and other things,

why did they torture her?

When she told them the forest was abounding with secrets

and the moon was stabbed with a carving knife

and the blood of the nightingale was on that stone, abandoned,

why did they resist her?

Why did they torture her?”

The Sultan’s decree is to “Put that poem in prison!”, but the girl resists, declaring proudly,

“Go and tell the Sultan

that the wind cannot be wounded by the shake of a sword

that millions of trees can become green

in the cupped hand of a single letter.

But the Sultan was angry, and the Sultan is everywhere

on stamps, in psalms,

and on his forehead is the tattoo of hunting.”

Just what Mahmoud Darwish would make of the ongoing carnage which is consuming Gaza and her people I cannot say, but as his country has been occupied, divided and fought over since he was 7 years old I can confidently predict that he would not be silent. The evidence of his life suggests nothing less. He would fight with everything he had. His weapon would be poetry and few people on this earth love poetry more than the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, as Scottish CND reminds us, the US – the current Sultan – is building up fleets in the East Mediterranean Sea – with some 700 aircraft between them – as tensions with Iran escalate and the threat of a regional war – with global dimensions – mounts. This, without a doubt, is a dangerous moment, with unfathomable consequences to add to the already catastrophic conditions being experienced by people in Gaza. As Scottish CND state, the U.K. Government has made itself complicit with its handling of events. The Labour Party has added to this general mismanagement and has forbidden its members from discussing the innocent blood being spilled in Gaza or from going on demos. We must – because we are human – weep for those gunned down in cold blood on October 7th just as we must weep for the savage escalation. And we must refuse to have our right to a dialogue censored in anyway. As Mahmoud Darwish has the Sultan shout out,

It is ordered!

Execute this poem!”

As I write this another NATO war fleet has assembled off the North West coast of Sutherland. There are 19 vessels – warships and submarines – from 10 countries participating and firing live ordinance at the lonely sea stack known as An Garbh Eilean, just off Cape Wrath. In addition there are 20 aircraft involved and 2000 military personnel on the ground throughout the West Highland seaboard. Operation “Joint Warrior” is a twice yearly NATO training exercise and a flexing for the world to see of military power. From October 22nd to November 2nd significant areas of the North West Highlands are off limits to civilians. The majority of people in Scotland are oblivious to the militarisation of their country.

Separation walls appear everywhere, and they are on the increase. According to Daniel Immerwahr (The Guardian, 10/11/22)

“The number of border walls, separation walls, about 10 at the cold war’s end, is now 74 and climbing, with the past decade as the high point of wall-building. The post-cold war hope for globalisation was a ‘delusion’, writes political scientist Élisabeth Vallet, and we’re now seeing the ‘reterritorialisation of the world’”

This “reterritorialisation” takes place each time a NATO shell and missile rips into An Garbh Eilean, off Cape Wrath. It happens as the IDF drive their tanks into the heart of Gaza where everyone and everything is a legitimate target, according to the logic of the Israel’s President Isaac Herzog – and so the separation walls rise up built with blood, racism and fear. We in the Highlands are lucky in as much as we have everything and nothing. In Gaza they have nothing.

The Home Secretary Suella Braverman is building her own separation wall. Demonstrating in the streets of our towns and cities against the needless killing of innocent people and calling out for an immediate ceasefire and for humanitarian aid is now, according to the Home Secretary, to take part in “hate marches”. She seeks to make them illegal. She seeks to make the Palestinian flag illegal. Will she make the Saltire illegal as well? The right to protest and to have the freedom of speech is at the heart of our hard fought for democracy. Is not the Home Secretary, even by her own definition, indulging in “hate speech”? If a bloody conflict in the Middle East causes democratic liberties to be curtailed in Scotland because of a reactionary London government then terror and violence have won. The Tories and Labour do not seem to understand the nature of conflict, of history and that their temporary political placements and their tiny media fanned vanities have no meaning as the quern stones of human affairs grind on through time. Characters like Suella Braverman belittle everything and add nothing to the possibility of a resolution. How little they understand how their cruelty diminishes us and how what they say only displays an absence of compassion and a surfeit of ego. Separation walls are constructed from this lack of awareness.

So now it is Samhain and the dead rise up and walk among us and as the tragedy escalates in Gaza and as the regiments of the dead, the innocent, increase every minute, it is necessary to remind ourselves that hope is always possible and that optimism sustains the human spirit. Here is what Raja Shehadeh wrote just a week after the terrible events of October 7th. (New York Review, 16/10/23)

“The words that Haidar Abdul Shafi, then head of the Palestine Red Crescent Society, addressed to the Israeli people 32 years ago at the Madrid peace conference came suddenly to mind: ‘We, the people of Palestine, stand before you in the fullness of our pain, our pride and our anticipation, for we have long harboured a yearning for peace and a dream of justice and freedom.’ After enumerating the historical causes of Palestinian suffering, Haidar continued: ‘We seek neither an admission of guilt after the fact, nor vengeance for past inequities, but rather an act of will that would make a just peace a reality.” He reminded the Israeli people that their security and ours are mutually dependent, as entwined as the fears and nightmares of our children.”

That we are all mutually dependent means that all separation walls must come down, will eventually come down. At Samhain the dead demand it. The living must enact it. We must move beyond the horror.

©George Gunn 2023

Words On The Wind (Caithness in June), a film directed by George Gunn will be premiered at Lyth Arts Centre at 7.00 on Friday 10th November.

Copies of our ‘Scotland the Dump’ poster are created in collaboration with graphic artist Andy Arthur (follow him @cocteautriplets) are available in print form (A2 420×594) for cost and postage only from next week. Pay £5 (including p&p) Pay by Paypal here.

We will make this available in bulk if people want to order multiple copies for distribution. For bulk orders contact us here.

Comments (6)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    An example of art that attempts to place us in the bodies of civilians in a war zone is This War of Mine:
    “In This War of Mine for the first time you do not play as an elite soldier, but a group of civilians trying to survive in a besieged city; struggling with lack of necessities and constant danger.”
    I played it for a short while a few years ago and found it quite unsettling. Its empathic message is sadly ever-relevant.

  2. John says:

    Just been re reading about Rudolph Vrba. An escapee of Auschwitz I first became aware of over 30 years ago.
    I was fortunate to become acquainted with his grandson about 20 years ago. As a lifelong anti facist it has always been an educational ongoing matter to try to understand the nature of facists, racism and it’s various manifestations.
    Mr Vrba was not shy at calling out the roll of Jewish councils in Europe with complicity over years with the German led facists to exterminate a certain type of Jew. Many of the complicit whom it should be no surprise to know prospered in Israel as their families do to this day .
    Anti Semitic Zionist is my preferred term for these facists. They have never been so powerful in my lifetime. It’s to be seen how literal they will take their text books .

    1. John Learmonth says:

      Which ‘certain types of Jew’ were exterminated? and are you alleging that ‘other types of Jew’ were complicit in the holocaust?
      As for the article the author might like to be grateful that thanks to the ‘warmongers of NATO’ he is fortunate to live in a free society.
      Incidentally Jews have made for some great poetry for thousands of years, have you ever read the psalms in the old testament but obviously your sympathies lie elsewhere.

  3. David Mackenzie says:

    Excellent, comprehensive, humane. Many thanks

  4. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Thoughtful and will written. I shared it on sosial media.

  5. Daniel Raphael says:

    Your words were suffused with humanity and grace. Thank you for this beautiful article.

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