Nowhere is the division and distrust between Israelis and Palestinians more concretely expressed than in the 455-mile security barrier Israel is building.
Construction of the network of razor wire, concrete walls, ditches, patrol paths, fences and observation posts began in June 2002 and is slated for completion this year. The barrier's route often juts and curves deeply into the occupied territories.
Barrier proponents argue that a peace settlement is impossible without a physical barricade to give Israelis a sense of security. Others, including the International Court of Justice in The Hague and Israel's Supreme Court, say the barrier violates basic Palestinian rights.
Moreover, Palestinians and some Israelis who oppose the wall contend that rather than being constructed purely for security reasons, Israelis are using it to seize Palestinian land. As currently planned, the barrier will put 157,800 acres or 11.2 percent of the West Bank on the barrier's Israeli side. And in Jerusalem, rather than separating Israelis and Palestinians, the barrier puts 220,000 Palestinians on the western, or Israeli, side.
“From a security point of view, it's problematic,” says Yehezkel Lein, of the Israeli human rights group B'tselem.
In addition, in the northern West Bank the barrier cuts Palestinian villages off from their farmlands, accessible now only through military gates. Thousands of the estimated 875,000 Palestinians who live near the barrier have been cut off from their schools, hospitals, fields and workplaces. Other cities are completely encircled by the barrier, apart from an entrance checkpoint maintained by the Israeli army.
Critics also charge that, ultimately, the barrier will be used to determine the parameters of any future Palestinian state. The barrier's planned route around Jerusalem “will dismember the West Bank into northern and southern cantons and seal Jerusalem off from the West Bank,” says Danny Seidemann, legal counsel for Ir Amim, an Israeli group devoted to political, economic and social issues in Jerusalem. “It is an attempt to dictate the ideal borders for a Palestinian state.”
But proponents of the wall say it is necessary for peace. Uzi Dayan, a former Israeli national security adviser who now heads the Security Fence for Israel movement, says there can be no Palestinian state at all without the barrier, which languished on the drawing boards until dozens of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel galvanized Israeli public opinion in favor of a barricade.
“Without the fence, we'll never be effective in fighting terrorism,” Dayan says. “Without effectively fighting terrorism, there will never be a two-state solution because you give a bunch of terrorists the key to disrupt it any time. If you want two states, you have to have a fence.”
Settlers and right-wing Israelis initially opposed the barrier, fearing it would become a de facto border. However, they eventually embraced the idea but lobbied for changes in its route. As construction has progressed, the number of suicide bombings has dropped.
On July 1, 2004, Israel's Supreme Court ordered the Ministry of Defense to stop barrier construction around some parts of Jerusalem and reroute other sections, declaring that the barrier acted as “a veritable chokehold, which will severely stifle daily life.” It ordered the army to find a balance between humanitarian and security considerations.
A week later, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the barrier was illegal because it was built on West Bank land. The U.N. General Assembly, which often opposes Israeli actions, soon followed with a resolution calling for the barrier's removal.
The Israeli government says the barrier is a reversible security measure. But Seidemann argues that simultaneous construction of Israeli settlements alongside the barrier in several areas will make the structure irreversible. Indeed, senior U.S. officials have said that Washington expects Israel to remove settlements on the eastern, Palestinian side of the barrier but would allow settlements on the Israeli side to remain.
“Dovetailed with settlement activity, [the barrier] threatens to create the critical mass of political fact that further undermines the feasibility of the two-state solution,” Seidemann said. He says U.S. silence on the issue — particularly on accelerated settlement construction around Jerusalem — can only lead to more violence.
Dayan dismisses Seidemann's objections. “People who oppose the fence, oppose it because it's a fence of definition,” he says. “I agree that it does hurt. But more than 200 people have been killed in Jerusalem in the last four years. It does disturb [Palestinian] daily routines, but a security fence does not kill people.”