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The Politics of the Trail: Reflexive Mountain Biking along the Frontier of Jerusalem

The Politics of the Trail: Reflexive Mountain Biking along the Frontier of Jerusalem

by Oded Lowenheim


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Each day, as Oded Löwenheim commutes by mountain bike along dirt trails and wadis in the hills of Jerusalem to Hebrew University, he feels a strong emotional connection to his surroundings. But for him this connection also generates, paradoxically, feelings and emotions of confusion and estrangement.

In The Politics of the Trail, Löwenheim confronts this tension by focusing on his encounters with three places along the trail: the separation fence between Israel and the Palestinians; the ruins of the Palestinian village Qalunya, demolished in 1948; and the trail connecting the largest 9/11 memorial site outside of the U.S. with a top-secret nuclear-proof bunker for the Israeli cabinet. He shares the stories of the people he meets along the way and considers how his own subjectivity is shaped by the landscape and culture of conflict. Moreover, he deconstructs, challenges, and resists the concepts and institutions that constitute such a culture and invites conversation about the idea of conflict as a culture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472072125
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 03/28/2014
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Oded Löwenheim is Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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The Politics of the Trail

Reflexive Mountain Biking Along The Frontier of Jerusalem

By Oded Löwenheim

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12028-4



Two Rides along the Separation Fence

February 2006: First Ride to the Fence


These words are printed in Hebrew, Arabic and English (in this order) on a plastic orange-colored sign. The sign carries the logos of the IDF (a Star of David within which a branch of olive interlaces a short, gladiatorlike sword), and the IDF's central command (a profile of a roaring lion) in its upper right and upper left corners, respectively. It is attached to a 2.5-meter-high, wire steel fence gate, and is wobbling and creaking in the wind. The gate stands half open on an asphalt road, which splits from Mevasseret Zion's northernmost street — Har Canaan [Mount Canaan] street. The road itself has no street name. It leads to the town's water tower, a 40-meter-high, naked concrete standing "finger," which overlooks Har Canaan Street and is the tallest (in meters) and highest (in elevation) structure in Mevasseret. My bicycle odometer indicates that I have ridden 417 meters from my apartment building to here.

I came today to this highest point in the town to observe and examine the space between Mevasseret and Mt. Scopus, to locate the trails that descend from Mevasseret to the Arazim Valley (Cedar Valley). I know that there should be a trail here — the local newspaper talked about a trail called the "Interlopers' Path" (in Hebrew, Shvil Ha-Shabachim), which goes around here, connecting Mevasseret and the Palestinian village that I can see from my home but have forgotten its name. The newspaper article mentioned that thanks to the separation fence, dozens of Palestinian interlopers who used the path every day — and thus "gave" it its name — disappeared from Mevasseret's streets. I am looking for that path, to see whether it is "ridable" and whether it connects to other trails on the northern edge of Mevasseret that might flow into the Arazim Valley.

Indeed, to my east, on the slope that falls down to the Reches Halilim neighborhood, I can see a narrow path that parallels the perimeter of the neighborhood. But the path disappears in the shrubbery and thistles below my line of sight; the gradient here is too steep for me to follow the route of the trail. A barbed wire fence, which frames the half-open gate, prevents me from approaching farther on the slope toward the east. While I prefer to ride on dirt paths, in order to avoid cars, I realize that with all this barbed wire, it will be quicker to go down through the streets of the town.

I turn my attention back to the half-open gate and the orange-colored sign. I stand on the ground, with the bicycle between my legs, and hesitate about whether to go through. I stare, somewhat puzzled, at the sign and listen to the creaking sounds. Another notice, a yellow signpost that stands by the gate, with the no-entry red and white symbol painted on it, says, "NO ENTRANCE EXCEPT SECURITY VEHICLES."

My gaze wanders beyond the half-open, half-closed gate. I see the asphalt road continuing and an olive grove on its eastern side. I also see the Palestinian village farther up the road. "Is this the separation fence?" I wonder. "No," I think, "the barbed wire fence here is too rusty and old, and the separation fence was erected just a year or two ago. It couldn't have worn down that much. Besides, it is so easy to cut this fence. This must be some 'service' road leading to the fence itself. But why is the gate open? Someone might slip in, nonetheless ..."

It is noon. A clear winter day, the air is sharp and visibility is excellent. No one else is here, at the top of the hill. It is quite eerie here, even though I am only a few dozen meters from Har Canaan Street and the daily, mundane suburban normalcy of Mevasseret. Shall I continue my ride or shall I obey the yellow sign, refrain from entering this "military zone"? Is there really a mortal danger lurking here or is this just the usual "disclaimer"? Do I enter "the territories" if I pass in the gate? What will happen if someone comes and closes and locks the gate behind me? I will be locked behind the fence ... I look worryingly around me.

But I don't see any Palestinian interlopers close by. Nor any soldiers. From the Palestinian village, perhaps one kilometer as the crow flies, I hear the muezzin calling for the noon prayer. "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest), chants/calls the muezzin four times, summoning the people to the mosque. The hills echo the muezzin's call. This echoing makes me watchful and uneasy, somewhat reinforcing the feeling that this is indeed a "military zone" and the sign is not just a disclaimer. As the muezzin's call eventually ends and the echo subsides and fades away, the silence returns. I then hear children's laughter from the village. It is probably recess time at the village school. Somehow, the cheerful sounds of the children reassure me, and I mount the saddle of the bike and start pedaling through the gate. I decide to go just a bit farther, where I can still keep eye contact with the gate, and see what lies ahead. I ignore the orange and yellow signs and pass through the gate.

The bike is rolling softly over the paved road, which starts to gently decline. I look over my shoulder and can still see the gate. To the east of me, the olive grove continues, while to the west, all kinds of construction debris and waste (brick and concrete fragments, old and rusting pipes, electric cables, and an assortment of scrap metals) are randomly thrown at the side of the road. Who threw all this here? I feel in a liminal space. The grove looks attended, though — the soil is plowed and harrowed. The grove surely belongs to someone from the Palestinian village. I look nervously at the olive trees. If the grove is cultivated, I think discontentedly, someone might be there. Where am I — beyond the fence already? As I think this, I suddenly hear a dry branch cracking, and something is leaping and running away between the olive trees. My heart starts beating fast; blood drains from my skin, and my muscles become tense. My gaze sharply turns to examine the grove, and my fingers, almost automatically, squeeze the brake levers of the bike. I stop abruptly and quickly look around me, searching for a person's figure or shape — a Shabach (interloper) perhaps. I curse my impulsiveness — I should have stayed behind the gate. Then I see among the trees that it was just a deer. He was probably resting among the olive trees when I suddenly arrived and startled him. The deer gallops farther into the grove, disappearing from sight. I relax a bit and look behind me — the gate is not seen anymore, hidden by a curve of the road. Just a few more meters, I promise myself, somewhat enjoying the sense of danger and adventure (only a few seconds ago I was sure I was in "mortal danger," but now I am reassured and think I am in some game ...).

I begin riding again, and a few seconds afterward, as the road starts to descend more sharply, I reach what I now realize is the real separation fence. My initial reaction is a sigh of relief. Tension drains from my body. I understand that the area I just crossed was simply a corridor to the fence itself and that I am still on the "right" side of the fence. I take a close look at what is ahead of me. Before me, there is another steel wire gate, but this one is closed and locked with a heavy padlock. Long and high stacks of barbed wire edge the gate's framework from the sides and from above. On the other side of the gate, a two-lane patrol asphalt road runs from east to west. The road is then paralleled by a lighter fence, but with various electronic devices hooked to it — electric cables, short antennas, and sensors. A similar gate to the one I'm standing before now is fixed on that fence. A dirt road leads to that gate. "The interlopers' trail," I realize. Beyond that fence, I see another stack of high barbed wire and a meter-high steel railing, and behind the railing and throughout its entire length, a wide ditch is dug. This complex of fences and barriers stretches to the east and west as far as the eye can see.

My initial sense of relief is quick to disappear, though. There is something very threatening here. I feel a strong urge to leave. Even though I can see the fence's route from my bedroom's window, this is the first time I actually stand just in front of it and see how complex a system it is. I am reassured by the barrier's multilayered structure, and I am content with this separation, which stopped the terrible and traumatic suicide-bombing attacks. I understand that it would take a considerable effort to cut through this complex of fences and barbed wire, which is probably surveyed by electronic equipment. But the presence of the fence, while providing me with a sense of security, is, at the same time, also menacing and imposing. I feel that this is "Land's End," beyond which indeed "mortal danger" might lie. I hold the gate with one arm, wanting to remain seated in the bike's saddle so that I'll be able to dart away in case of trouble. A strong wind starts blowing, from the north. The locked gate is wobbling in the wind, just a little bit, but I shudder both from the sudden motion of what seemed just a moment ago a stable anchor and also from feeling how the fence transmits to my body the intense enmity that exists between Israelis and Palestinians.

As I look at this composite barrier, while holding on to the wobbling locked gate, I realize how similar this fence system is to the border between Israel and Lebanon. In a flash of a memory, I recall how, during my military service in the late 1980s, I managed to avoid being posted to that dreadful border only to be sent to serve ("serve who?") in the brigade headquarters in the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron. While the Lebanese border was fenced with a similar system of composite alarm and barbed fences with patrol roads between them, a sight that gave me the creeps on the single occasion I was there, the Hebron headquarters was a massive and thick, concrete, British-built Tegart fort from the time of the Mandate in Palestine, so different from the provisional, transient appearance of other military structures. Located in the middle of a hostile and fanatical Palestinian city, so we soldiers were told by our officers (the education officer even drew a large "instructive" placard, which included that information and the biblical story of Hebron and Abraham the patriarch, and hung it in the fort's foyer), the compound was nonetheless fenced and guarded very lightly, with many breaches in the rusty fence. I spent almost three years in that fort, but never in that time did any Palestinian infiltrate the compound. We were so carefree, assured in our power and superiority, that we walked outside the fort in the courtyard, even at night, without our personal rifles, which we often left in our rooms inside (unlocked). We felt so superior to the Palestinians then.

In 1997, five years after I was released from the army, the building was handed over to the Palestinian Authority, as part of the Oslo peace process. But in June 2002, while laying siege to Palestinian "wanted" militants who had barricaded themselves in there during the second Palestinian intifada, the IDF bombed and destroyed the fort in Hebron. Reading about the bombing operation while I was a postdoc fellow at the University of Toronto saddened me much. You might expect that as a "peacenik leftist" I would be pleased by the destruction of this symbol of violence, occupation, and foreign rule (British, Jordanian, Israeli, and, to some degree, Palestinian Authority too). But I was part of that place for almost three years. And when I say that I was part of that place, I do not simply mean that I had just been there, physically, doing my military duty. Indeed, I witnessed coercion and humiliation taking place within the fort's walls, seeing how the whole place functioned as an integrated machine of occupation and oppression. I did not see torture or brutal violence, only "moderate physical pressure" in interrogations of detained Palestinian "disturbers of the public order" at the police station, which was housed in the fort. I saw humiliation and disrespect for defendants' and their families' rights in trials of those Palestinian teenagers held in the military court in the fort (I often used to evade my military jobs and instead go watch these trials — partially enjoying the "show" and partially abhorring it). I saw officers reveling in staff preparations for military raids or routine patrols of "displaying presence" (a synonym — and indeed, a euphemism — for small-scale, daily harassment operations undertaken by the army in the streets of Hebron). And I led Palestinian collaborators, doomed to eventual death or social ostracism by their own people, to the offices of smug Shin Bet (Israel's General Security Service) officers who traded intelligence from these people for all kinds of material benefits or promises to avoid doing harm or "causing problems." I was appalled by this elaborate apparatus of occupation, but I was also fascinated by it, enthralled with the sense of power that my petty and meaningless military jobs invested me with (thankfully, I never personally injured or killed anyone). I felt I intimately knew the Tegart fort. It was not my "home," as I used every opportunity to take a leave and go to my real home, in Jerusalem. And I did not return to the Tegart fort after my release from the military. Nonetheless, the fort was in some sense dear to me.

For I loved a woman, my commanding officer Yif'at (pseudonym), in that fort. Having a room of my own in what used to be the British officers' quarters (the Israeli officers were housed in a better, renovated part of the fort), I half secretly, half openly shared the room with her. Everybody knew about that, but no one said anything to the high-ranking officers. We spent many precious and sweet hours in that room, with Hebron's view seen from the window and the porch of my room on the third floor of the fort. How easy it would have been to sneak into the fort and kill us while we made love. Yet, no one ever even tried. Only stray "Palestinian" dogs crept into the compound to scavenge on the garbage of the fort's large kitchen. We both politically opposed the occupation (which we nonetheless were an integral part of), but we had no misgivings when we loved each other in the middle of an oppressed and occupied city, in the streets of which we could never stroll unarmed or sit in its cafés.

When the IDF destroyed the fort in 2002, I felt that something in me was destroyed too. I know that this might sound terrible, but this is how I felt and I cannot deny it. Love and passion, as well as the sense of power, might leave a nostalgic mark on one's heart even when occurring in the context of oppression, humiliation, and violence. It was a semiforbidden love (there were no strict rules then like in today's world with regard to superior-subordinate relations), which was intensified by the feeling of domination and "action" that the suppression of the first Palestinian intifada provided us. But it was also intense, genuine, and deep love. Looking now at the complex separation fence that spreads out before me, here at the very end of Mevasseret's last street, I realize that instead of the light, breached, fence of the Hebron brigade headquarters I am now surrounded by the "perimeter fence" of the Israeli-Lebanese border, that "Lebanon," that zone of chaos and danger, is here, on the brink of my home.

At the Lebanese border, the guarded and complex fence was breached many times. Over the years, people in the Israeli villages along that border were sometimes murdered in their beds, busses hijacked, farmers shot at, and soldiers killed in their posts and patrols. How can I live and raise my children here, in Mevasseret, when I see such a "Lebanese" fence so close to my home? Standing there with the bike, I feel deep hatred lurking behind that fence, such intense hatred and active will and daring to act on it that the "border" had to be fortified to this extent. As I watch over the other side, as I hold the gate in my hand, I paradoxically feel too close to the Palestinian enemy. Even though no one is on the other side, and even though I know that the territory behind this segment of the fence is controlled by Israel's military, I feel that it would be better to leave. I mount the bike and turn around, back to Mevasseret.


Excerpted from The Politics of the Trail by Oded Löwenheim. Copyright © 2014 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents


PROLOGUE Losing Traction in the Hills of Jerusalem,
INTRODUCTION Mountain Biking in the Frontier of Jerusalem: An Exploration of Externaal and Internal Landscapes of Conflict,
CHAPTER 1 Mortal Danger: Two Rides along the Separation Fence,
CHAPTER 2 A Fence behind a Fence behind a Fence: Riding after the Unknown Soldiers and Looking for a Breach in the Fence,
CHAPTER 3 Riding to Qalunya, Part I: Truing the Wheel of Time?,
CHAPTER 4 Riding to Qalunya, Part II: L'Hôte,
CHAPTER 5 The Last Ride (for the Meanwhile) in the Arazim Valley,
CONTRADICTIONS Some Concluding Thoughts about The Politics of the Trail,

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