A dangerous game of guns and ladders

Stephanie Jenzer on the scaling of Israel's separation barrier.

Working in TV news offers many rewards — chief among them, being a witness to history. Every so often there are stories and images that stay with you long after a report is filed and a deadline has passed.

Often they are the kinds of stories that don't make the top headlines but they still stick in your memory.

One such moment played over and over in my mind as our team in the Middle East bureau began to talk about how we could contribute to the CBC coverage of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It was April 2008. CBC cameraman Samer Shalabi and I set off to interview some of the graffiti artists who were spray-painting pictures and slogans on the West Bank side of Israel's separation barrier.

Israel's separation barrier. Begun in 2002, it is eight metres high in most places and may eventually run to almost 700 kilometres in length. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

We were early for our meeting, or they were late, I don't remember.

What I do recall vividly is standing in the village of Al-Ram, north of Jerusalem, next to an eight-metre-high section of concrete barrier, when a lone Palestinian man came into sight carrying a crude wooden ladder.

Up and over

There wasn't much hesitation as the young man set about his mission on that day — to scale the height of the massive concrete slab and get to the other side.

It was clear he'd done this before. The ladder had been hidden, waiting. And he propped it up against the exact point of the barrier where he could hoist himself higher until eventually he could swing one leg over the top and pull himself to the other side.

Watch the barrier climber here in Stephanie Jenzer's video. (Runs 0:56)

Listen to Margaret Evans's account as she follows one young Palestinian who tries to make it "under" the wall through a sewage tunnel.

I realized later that I had been holding my breath until this little drama played itself out, exhaling only after his eyes darted around for one last look to see if it was safe to drop and disappear from sight.

His gaze had met our camera for just an instant, curiously unperturbed by its presence.

But of course it wasn't being caught on tape that would have worried him. It would have been being caught by Israeli security that was the concern, the consequence being a fine or jail time, or possibly a bullet.

Walled in

Israel argues that the separation barrier — a fence with barbed wire and sophisticated surveillance equipment in some areas, a concrete wall and watchtowers in others — is vital to its security.

But Palestinians say the barrier cuts them off from their land and devastates their economy.

I don't know exactly why this young Palestinian man went over the barrier that day. But I suspect it was because he didn't have the special permit West Bank residents need to pass through an official crossing and he simply had to try to get to a job in Jerusalem.

In the past year and a half, that particular section of the barrier has changed somewhat. Barbed wire now runs the length of that section of concrete, making it impossible to straddle safely.

A little anecdotal research told us there are indeed very few spots left to pass over the barrier.

A Palestinian man has his say about the wall at a West Bank community near Jerusalem. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

But earlier this week, we travelled to the village of Zayem in the West Bank, where one can see the landmarks of Jerusalem just on the other side of the barrier.

It's a spot where Palestinian men are still known to gather overnight and take their chances by making seemingly mad dashes up and over.

And so we watched

In the distance, Israeli soldiers in jeeps prowled the length of the barrier.

As the jeeps moved out of view, the Palestinians came out of hiding with their tools — large planks of wood and long pieces of rope — to make their attempts.

The Israeli jeeps inevitably circled back and the Palestinians scattered, a scene that repeated itself over and over.

It struck me as a bizarre and dangerous game of cat-and-mouse where there could be no winner.

As we sat on a curb, a couple of the Palestinian men told CBC Correspondent Margaret Evans they do it because they need the work and because there are job opportunities in Israel that simply don't exist in the West Bank.

A 21-year-old man talked about how he'd been caught a few times and beaten by Israeli soldiers for his efforts. But there he was, ready to take his chances again.

He would have been just a year old when the Berlin Wall crumbled, but he doesn't need a history book to tell him what that moment must have been like.

Glancing at the separation barrier that prevents him from moving freely to find a job on the other side, he told us, " I wish it would fall as well, because this wall is destroying our life."

I believe many people who live in this region, on both sides of the barrier, hope it will crumble one day. And when it does, I hope I am there to witness history.