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The Wall, 10 years on: The great Israeli project

It might be the biggest, most expensive and most influential construction project in Israel’s history. To mark the 10th anniversary of its inception, I will be publishing in coming days a series of stories about the separation wall and its history, arguments in favor and against its construction, its effects and side effects and an analysis of its possible implications on regional politics in years to come. Chapter one – the Israeli story of the wall.

The Wall: 10 years on (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Project photography: Oren Ziv / Activestills

Looking at it from here, for just one minute, the whole project of the wall appears to be nothing more than an absurdity. I’m standing at the furthest, deepest part of this massive barrier, in the settlement of Ariel. Located about 20 kilometers east of the green line, less than thirty to the Jordan River, it is the very heart of the West Bank. In front of me I see some olive groves, behind them – the “separation fence” with its electric detection, cameras and barbed wire, and on the other side is the Palestinian village of Marda, the residents of which own these trees. So far, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.

However, a short walk to either direction leads to an abrupt end to the fence. In one direction it reaches a nearby road, and simply doesn’t continue on the other side, as it does elsewhere. Instead, there is a small area near the road with turned earth, suggesting that construction was planned here but was stopped. Oren, the photographer, tells me he was at a demonstration here against the planned route of the fence five years ago, and that nothing has changed on the terrain since. He takes some pictures, and I think of several other places along the route where the fence or wall simply comes to an end, enabling dozens, hundreds or thousands of Palestinians to cross it on a daily basis. Some are caught by patrols. Others aren’t. Looking at it from here, for just one minute, the whole project of the wall appears to be nothing more than an absurdity.

Twice the length of the green line, more than a fifth not yet built

On April 14, 2002 then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that a separation fence would be built in the West Bank (a matter of terminology: The barrier is part fence, part wall. I will be using the two terms interchangeably). It was the height of the second intifada, which started with mass demonstrations that were murderously repressed by the IDF, and continued with a series of deadly suicide attacks against citizens inside Israel. After the 2002 attack on a Passover dinner in a Netanya hotel, Israel launched operation Defensive Shield, during which some 500 Palestinians were killed, and mass destruction caused to houses and infrastructure across the West Bank. At that point, no planned route or budget existed for Sharon’s fence, announced during the operation. But the project, which was to become probably the largest in Israeli history, was born.

Ten years have passed, and much has changed. The route of the wall was drawn, altered and changed time and time again by both the government and the Supreme Court. Construction went ahead, come to a halt, was restarted and frozen once more – due to political debates on its route, international pressure regarding the annexation of Palestinian lands and lack of funds. Here are a few figures to help get an idea what this project is all about:

The entire route of the wall – between 680-709 kilometers (the first is a Ministry of Defense figure, the second B’Tselem’s). This is more than twice the length of the Green Line, Israel’s recognized border with the West Bank  (320 kms).

The fence in the Tul Karrem area (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

The fence in the Tul Karm area (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Portions already built- 525 kms

Portions inside Palestinian territory – 85 percent

Palestinian lands currently on the Israeli side of the wall – 8.5 percent

Palestinian lands in on the Israeli side in earlier plans – 17 percent

8-meter-high concrete wall comprises 10 percent of the barrier

2-meter-high electronic fence – 90 percent

Total cost so far – over NIS 10 billion ($2.6 billion)

Cost of maintenance per year – NIS 1 billion ($260 million)

Scheduled end of construction – unknown. Most construction has been stopped.

Between security and annexation

The idea to build a separation fence or wall in the West Bank was raised several times in the past, but it was not before Sharon’s green light that the concept took shape. “Ehud Barak and others talked about a fence that would serve as a border, and would thus require some kind of a withdrawal and dismantlement of settlements, but this was clearly not an option at a time when suicide bombers were exploding in buses on a regular basis,” says Ilan Tsi’on. In 2001 Tsi’on co- founded “A Fence for Life,” a movement that demanded that the government set up a fence as quickly as possible, one which would not serve as a political border but rather as a security measure. “The point was for construction to start immediately, wherever the government chose, as long as it was between the mass concentrations of Palestinian and Israeli populations. In April 2002, they finally listened.”

The beginning of construction also brought forth the beginning of the struggle against the route of the wall. While Palestinian and international demands that the fence be built on the Green Line will be discussed in subsequent chapters, the main divisions in Israeli society were surrounding just how much West Bank land the route should grab. Settlers were split between those who opposed the fence altogether, fearing that all parts left outside of it would ultimately be handed over to Palestinians, and those who supported a fence deep inside Palestinian land, increasing chances of annexation, and guaranteeing challenges to the peace process. “Of course the fence would also have political implications”, says Tsi’on. “If it was built unilaterally on the Green Line, we would never be offered peace by the Palestinians, who would have felt they had already won. The more land you keep between the fence and the Green Line – the more you can negotiate later.”

Shaul Arieli touring the wall (Photo: curtsy of Shaul Arieli)

Shaul Arieli touring the wall (Photo: courtesy of Shaul Arieli)

The current official route is more or less the one authorized by the Ehud Olmert government in April 2006, and it corresponds almost exactly with Olmert’s own expectations of a future border as presented in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. “The Israeli government knowingly chose to plan the route in such a way that was in contrast to security needs,” accuses Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli, a member of the Council for Peace and Security. “It chose to risk the lives of civilians and soldiers alike, aspiring to reach other goals, mainly those of the settlements, and this is something mostly unknown to the public even though it is a harsh truth already recognized by the High Court. It was right-wing political pressure, among others by then Minister of Finance Benjamin Netanyahu, which left openings in the fence, which allowed for suicide attackers and illegal workers to pass through to this day.”

According to Arieli, who is the co-author of the most important book published about the wall in Israel (“Khoma U’Mekhdal” – “The Wall of Folly”), tensions between rightist annexation plans on one hand, and limitations imposed by the Americans and the High Court on the other, are the reason for the failure to complete construction. Both the Bush and the Obama administrations were strongly opposed to the route of the wall around the Ariel, Qedumim and Mishor Adomim “fingers” (deep extensions into Palestinian territory), while settlers resist what they consider an insufficient route in Gush Etzion (a whole map of the route can be found here – PDF).

Recently, the state promised the High Court, in response to Palestinian petitions, that construction in all of these areas will be stopped until further notice. This is why the fence I saw in Ariel leads nowhere. Arieli: “The heads of the settlement movement realized that the High Court won’t approve an annexing fence in these areas, so they and the government decided to neglect the safety of Israeli citizens, leaving several opening in the fence, and all for political reasons.”

The Ariel and Qeddumin "fingers" streching east (Map: B'Tselem)

The Ariel and Qeddumin “fingers” streching east (Map: B’Tselem)

Despite of repeated requests from +972, the Ministry of Defense refused to allow an interview on the wall with any official, and chose to ignore most questions sent to it by e-mail.

The transparent wall

Back to Ariel: on that day of touring the wall, one in several that will be described further in this series, I crossed the barrier several times in different locations, sometimes not even noticing I had done so. While most Israelis think the wall has been completed, and that Israelis cannot cross it, Israel keeps maintaining control on both sides of the wall, and citizens can go through it freely, and so can all Jews, as potential citizens. To us – it is transparent. For Palestinians – a disaster. This is a crucial difference, a fact of the unique regime in the West Bank, the details of which shall be presented in chapters to come.


Next chapter: Wall and Peace

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    1. Jack

      What Israel build on THEIR side of their border is up to them. However they should realize 3. things. In fact if they just built the wall on their borders they could have won alot on the PR front. Now they blew it with building it on someone others land.

      1. Building obstacles between people, wont make arabs nor world in general more sympathic to Israel. All divisions, hatred, injustice, racism is long overdue. Let alone building a state for one group of people does not belong to the 21th century. So the wall will not benefit Israel one iota.

      2. The wall is illegal.
      “International Court of Justice finds Israeli barrier in Palestinian territory is illegal”

      Israel should realize that they are engaging in a criminal act. And wont benefit them legally.

      3. The correct word according to the Icj conclusion is “wall” not the israeli euphemism “fence”.

      Reply to Comment
      • Tony

        we have already have seen your ‘symphathy’ for ages. We do not need your ‘symphathy’.
        All this is OUR land.

        Reply to Comment
        • Jan

          @Tony – No matter how many times it is repeated this is NOT your land. No one in the international community recognizes the West Bank as your land. Yes, you have stolen portions of the land. Yes, you have built the settlements in a way to steal even more land. Yes, you have built the apartheid wall in a manner to grab more land.
          Some day the world will reckon with you and tell you to get the hell out of the West Bank or face consequences. That day cannot come too soon.

          Reply to Comment
          • Carlos Andres Muniz

            The israelites need to be left alone. The palenstineans have more than nough land so leave the Holy Land for the Israeli’s!

            Reply to Comment
    2. caden

      Since the wall has gone up suicide bombings have tailed off to pretty much none.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Yonatan

      Since the wall has gone up, the price of hummus has risen dramatically.

      Reply to Comment
    4. aristeides

      Caden – since your arguments are apparently all based on logical fallacy, I’ll point out that the name for this one is “Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc.”

      Reply to Comment
    5. Sorry, Aristeides, Islamic Jihad admitted that the fence makes terror attacks more difficult and forced them to change tactics: http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/html/ct_250308e.htm

      Or do you have an alternative reason why the attacks just tailed off so quickly? A sudden upturn of terrorist morality?

      It is most telling that Matar, purportedly speaking about the fence from the Israeli perspective, omits that small fact as well.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Haggai Matar

      Regarding suicide attacks: first, even if the wall does prevent them (and it most likely does, to a cetain effect), this does not explain the current route of the wall, which is longer and harder to defend. second, the question of the efficiancy of the wall is not discussed here as it is planned to be in the concluding chapter in the series. So hold on to your seats 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    7. Joseph

      thoughtful, informative piece… looking forward to the rest

      Reply to Comment
    8. XYZ

      It was the suicide bombings, orchestrated by Arafat, the Palestinian’s chosen leader, and supported by a large majority of the Palestinian population that led to the wall be constructed. If the Palestinians and their fan club don’t like it, well, they only have themselves to blame.

      Reply to Comment
    9. XYZ

      I don’t think it has been proven that the wall is a major factor in preventing suicide bombings. More likely it is the forward defense conducted by the IDF in the Palestinian territories, that was renewed as a result of Operation Homat Magen 10 years ago that really makes the difference. However, hysterical Israel leaders saying “we have to do something” (similar to the Iron Dome panacea) that led to it being constructed. Still, as I said above, without the suicide bombings, it never would have been built.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Haggai Matar

      XYZ – OK, I think this was clearly stated in the story already. But what about the route of the wall, which goes inside Palestinian land and not on the green line?

      Reply to Comment
    11. caden

      Haggai, not having been in the military I don’t think that you can make a judgment about the ease of defending the wall. Neither can I but I’m not doing that.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Haggai Matar

      I never worked in the World Bank either, but I can still try and make a judgement of the global economy. As you’ll see in the last chapter, I’m not the only one saying that defending a long and twisting fence is harder than a short and straight one. If it helps any I can tip you off: some of the people saying this spent most of their lives in the army.

      Reply to Comment
    13. aristeides

      If Israelis didn’t like the suicide attacks, they had only themselves to blame for appropriating Palestinian land and expelling half the population.

      It’s typical of Zionist thinking that the chain of causes always ends somewhere but with themselves.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Jack

      You miss the problem (see first post). The problem isnt really the wall itself, its the fact that its partially being built on palestinian land and are illegal.

      Reply to Comment
    15. caden

      Aristedes, kameraden, so what your saying is that the Jews who got eviscerated in these attacks had it coming.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Jack

      No thats the argumentation of Israel. According to Israel the palestinians are to blame for voting Hamas to power and therefore use collective punishment against gazans. With that logic israelis are to be blamed and held accountable for voting pro-occupation governments in Israel to power.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Rodrigo

      Haggai, the route is politically motivated, the construction of the fence itself is security motivated. At the same time the argument that the major settlements should have been left out of the barrier is problematic on both grounds.

      Jack, it is not Palestinian land. As you are aware there is no Palestinian state and never was one, nor are its future borders defined.

      The ICJ ruled that building the wall in land that according to them is ruled by the Geneva convention is illegal because it is not in the interests of the occupied population. The court did not rule that it was illegal because the land belongs collectively to the Palestinians.

      Your other arguments are even more naive. The wall has already benefited Israel. It has made suicide attacks more difficult but equally importantly it was something that Israel was able to work on while suffering through the second intifada and created a potential new future border on a map. And of course it helps Israel’s negotiating position in the same way that settlements do so. The Palestinian negotiating position already takes Israel’s retention of the major settlement blocs for granted. If not already, then within a certain amount of time it will also be inconceivable that Israel would surrender areas east of the wall.

      Aresteides, Occupation does not equal the land belongs to the Palestinians. This is a logical fallacy often made by the supporters of Palestinians. Another flaw is to use a double standard, accusing Israel of violating international law while considering Palestinian violations (rocket attacks, suicide bombings) to be legitimate. You are aware that both rocket attacks and suicide bombings which target civilians are illegal under international law, right?

      Reply to Comment
    18. Matt

      The Palestinians and their apologists can always come up with excuses for violence against Israel. Israel has come up with a great way to prevent terror attacks and should be commended for it. The inconvenience of the Palestinians is a shame, really, but preferable to dead Israelis.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Jack

      Yes its occupied palestinian territory (belongs to PA authority if we are going to be correct). This, according to UN resolutions, international law, NGOs, ICJ.

      The ICJ ruled that the wall is illegal part because 1. it is on palestinian land 2. Its not a security wall but a way to grab more palestinian land by incorporating jewish settlers.

      You seems to fail to understand that the wall itself is NOT the problem. The problem is thats its built for political purposes on palestinian territory.

      Reply to Comment
    20. excellent piece, waiting for the next!

      Reply to Comment
    21. aristeides

      Caden, O inexhaustible fount of ignorance, that’s “kamerad.” “Kameraden” is the plural.

      And yes, when you steal from a person and that person comes to take back what belongs to him, the thief has only himself to blame for what happens. That’s the bottom line of Zionism.

      Reply to Comment
    22. aristeides

      Rodrigo – the land doesn’t belong to the Palestinians collectively because of the occupation. The land belongs to the Palestinians because it belongs to them, individually.

      Even if Israel annexed the territory, the land would still belong to the Palestinians, individually. Sovereignty and property are entirely separate matters.

      What is illegal is Israel moving its own citizens onto the occupied territory and expropriating the property of the Palestinians to turn it over to the Israeli citizens illegally on the land. In short, what is illegal is the settlers.

      Reply to Comment
    23. caden

      Not the intellectual that you are aristedes. I bow to your brilliance and your slashing rhetorical wit. But your still a scumbag

      Reply to Comment
    24. Rodrigo

      Jack, The court ruled the wall illegal because it is built in what the court considers occupied territory while it disregarded Israeli security considerations. That’s it. The land most certainly does not belong collectively to the PA or the Palestinians according to binding international law and certainly not according to the ICJ. The court ruling that the West Bank is occupied assigns no ownership or sovereignty. You are simply wrong here.

      Aristeides, there is certainly land that individually belongs to individual Palestinians. The West Bank contains that land and also land owned by Jews and that owned by no one – state land. I agree sovereignty and property are entirely separate matters and it seems that you agree that the Palestinians have never had, nor currently have sovereignty or collective ownership over the West Bank.

      Much of the land on which the settlements are built is state land, not expropriated individual Palestinian property. As for the settlements being illegal under most international law, that part is certainly true, though it doesn’t change the fact that Israel has a valid claim over areas of the West Bank regardless of the legal status of the settlements since the West Bank has no legal owner.

      Reply to Comment
    25. Jack

      “while it disregarded Israeli security considerations.”
      It didnt “disregard” it just didnt buy the security argument which no one should do. One just have to check aerial pictures to see how politically motivated this wall is. Something ICJ also made clear, they say for example:

      “. Moreover, it is apparent … that the wall’s sinuous route has been traced in such a way as to include within that area the great majority of the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian ”

      You have obviously not read the report. The ICJ makes clear that the Westbank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is palestinian occupied territory. The ICJ conclude for example.

      “The construction of the wall being built by Israel, the occupying Power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law;”

      Reply to Comment
    26. phlegmatico

      It is not the job of the zionist project to save every possible Hebrew life. The job is to protect the existence of the Hebrew People.

      All borders everywhere, have ===only=== a political reason for existing.

      Reply to Comment
    27. Haggai,
      You’ve taken on the symbolic core of the occupation/conflict. Most don’t want it vented. Braver you are than I ever was.

      Reply to Comment
    28. aristeides

      Rodrigo – the proper function of an occupying power is to serve as a sort of trustee of the land and population until a permanent settlement is reached. NOT to appropriate it for itself. Since Jordan has ceded its claim on the West Bank, sovereignty over the territory belongs by right to the Palestinians.

      The myth of “state land” in Palestine is only a mask for appropriation, and it can’t legally apply to occupied territory. Since occupied territory doesn’t belong to the Israeli state, it can’t be Israeli state land.

      Most of this “state land” is only expropriated land under another name, which Israel has claimed using the most despicable tricks, such as fencing off Palestinian land, preventing access by its owners, then calling it “abandoned.” This is one of the uses of the wall project, which I assume Haggai will cover in due course.

      Reply to Comment
    29. Rodrigo

      Jack, Yes, it did disregard Israeli security considerations. The idea that Israel isn’t allowed to build a wall in the West Bank because it is not allowed to protect itself from the residents of the West Bank is laughable. The route here is irrelevant since the court rejected the basis for the wall. Also, what you seem to not understand is that calling the West Bank ‘Palestinian Occupied Territory’ is a descriptive term of the area of mandatory Palestine that isn’t a part of Israel, not an assignment of ownership or sovereignty. This is a fine trick that the Palestinian leadership has pulled over the past 40 years, but it has no actual basis in international law.

      Aresteides, the proper function of an occupying power is precisely that – to hold on to the land until a permanent settlement is reached. That function includes the right to undertake actions for the purposes of defense and administration, including building a wall. Also, Israel’s claim to the West Bank precedes the 1967 war, so the occupation of the territory in 1967 has little impact on the underlying claim.

      Jordan’s cession of the West Bank has no bearing on the matter since Jordan was never a legitimate owner of the territory. Please provide a list of countries that recognized Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank. That list is going to be rather short.

      State land is a reality that exists under Ottoman, British and Jordanian law as it applies to the West Bank. In addition to Jewish ownership of land in the West Bank this makes the claim that the Palestinians as individuals own the entirety of the West Bank simply unsustainable.

      Reply to Comment
    30. Jack

      ” The idea that Israel isn’t allowed to build a wall in the West Bank because it is not allowed to protect itself from the residents of the West Bank is laughable”

      Obviously you havent read the report. The report wouldnt have been made UNLESS Israel insisted to build the wall on palestinian land. Thats what the report criticize the fact that its 1. Politically built and 2. Built on occupied palestinian land. Thats a fact, if you dont accept that go ahead.

      “The route here is irrelevant since the court rejected the basis for the wall. ”

      The route is EXACTLY WHY the court even looked into this issue at all (remember its politically motivated and illegal).

      “‘Palestinian Occupied Territory’ is a descriptive term of the area of mandatory Palestine that isn’t a part of Israel, not an assignment of ownership or sovereignty.”

      It belongs to the palestinians (PA authority land). And of course its part of Israel since Israel being the occupying force and therefore have the obligation to support civilians living under their occupation. Israel havent done this, instead they have embarked on collective punishment also that illegal according to international law.

      Reply to Comment

      What suprises me the most is the ignorance of most Israelis towards what the Wall is concretly. This point is particularly relevant to understant its political use.

      The Wall offers to the public opinion an image of security, a sense of relief, of separation that was asked by popular mobilizations. Its building was decided according to political concerns (namely adding a new level of Israli facts on the ground in the West Bank in case of negociations + shaping a new device to control palestinian mobilities thus perpetuating the Occupation after the collapse of Oslo. Security is a cover : Sharon knew that only a reoccupation of the sanctuaries of suicide-bombers in Jenin, Nablus or Qalqiliya would break the attacks. He also understood that the need for a relief/separation wall was high in Israeli society and that he could build the wall wherever he wanted according to his political opinion regarding the West Bank.

      Indeed, Sharon admitted that the wall was a populist idea (Amit Ben-Aroya, “Sharon to Seam Area Police: The Separation Fence is a Populist Idea”, Ha’aretz. April 12, 2002).

      So thank you for these articles that describe concretly again and again this political tool.

      Reply to Comment
    32. Brian Hall

      My neighbor had a big dog. His dog kept crossing into my back yard and shitting on my lawn. I built a large fence and now the dog shits on his owners lawn – who now must clean his own dogs feces up. It’s pretty simple, regardless of how much political drama you attempt to load your argument up with: BEFORE I built my fence, the dog made a mess of my lawn (*I spoke to the owner – he didn’t care) AFTER I built my fence, my lawn regained its beauty (sans dog spots)! For YEARS the palestinians have waged a campaign of violence against the Jews AND their allies – America, France, Italy, etc. And for years we have reacted. Now that the Israelis have become proactive and built a (massive) barrier essentially nullifying further bombing attacks, the palestinians cry “foul”. Palestinians CONSTANTLY mutter about zionist this & that (the Lemon Tree WAS a good movie though) but if we reach back in time its clear that they have been JUST (if not more) as aggressive as the Israeli army. For example, remember the PFLP in 68′? Black September? Al Fatah? Yeah, you cats have LOTS of blood on your hands…lots and lots. So look in the mirror, then look out the window at THE WALL and ask yourself “who is REALLY to blame?” Stert cleaning up your OWN backyard then your neighbors will trust you! ~ peace

      Reply to Comment
    33. I’d like to know tons of cement and tons of CO2 produced in making it. (The other hideous stuff I know).

      Send me an email if you know those details.

      Reply to Comment
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