COMEDIAN and activist Mark Thomas is back in Sheffield next week describing his experience, Walking the Wall, in which he spent nine weeks last year traversing the entire length - 750 kilometres - of the Israeli Settlement Barrier between Israel and Palestine.
The man whose previous exploits include changing the law on tax, secretly filming torturers, stinging arms dealers with school children, exposing abuses of civil liberties and corporate skulduggery, reckons the walk was the most exciting thing he has ever done – and certainly the most exhausting.
“You get by on nervous energy,” he says. “Every single day something would happen that was amazing, shocking and confounding your expectations. It’s not normal to go rambling in what is really a war zone.”
Work on construction of the barrier began in 2003 in the hopes of controlling Palestinian terrorism and suicide bombings have decreased by 90% since its installation. But, says Thomas, the wall’s influence is far greater than what it represents physically.
“We spent time with both sides which was very important to understand why the wall went up,” says Thomas. “I can understand why Israel felt they had had enough and wanted to stop it. But there is more to it than that.”
A military structure overseen by watchtowers with signs warning of “imminent death” and patrolled by the Israeli Army Police looks dramatic, says Thomas, “but paradoxically it doesn’t work”.
There is the demographic consequence. “Israel, ironically given its history, is obsessed with the ethnicity of the state. But the wall is self-defeating. The mistake is to think that security is a solution to the problem.”
There are 300,000 Palestinians living within its area who can only get out through checkpoints with permission. The number of Palestinians working within Israel has risen by up to 80% and some queue up at 2am just to get a place in the queue when the checkpoints open at 6am. Thomas likens their treatment to cattle. He and his crew didn’t have to suffer these indignities but crossing back and forth provided some of the hairier moments of the journey.
”We got detained quite a lot and you soon see that these Israeli soldiers are just young kids who are absolutely terrified,” he reports. “We got stoned by Palestinians who thought we were settlers and we were followed by a pack of dogs. There were all sorts of adventures.
“At the same time we had a great laugh doing this and I was also surprised by how beautiful the landscape could be. It was brilliant rambling.”
The project cost Thomas £50,000 (“everyone got paid the proper rates – guides, translators, where we stayed”) which he hopes to recoup with a documentary film next year and a book coming out in the spring, as well as the live tour
But there are the things that came out of it that cannot really be expressed in any media. “Palestinian hospitality is fantastic. Early one morning we sat on the top of a hill and these lads came along and asked what we were doing,” he recalls. “When and we explained t. They went away and the next thing their mum appeared with home-made fresh bread and yoghurt and cheese. And as we washed it down with drank black tea I thought I will never experience anything like this again. It was an inconsequential little thing but that moment is something to be treasured forever.”
lMark Thomas’s Extreme Rambling: Walking the Wall is at the Memorial Hall on Wednesday and Thursday next week