All right. Let’s be serious, let’s think about this.
Please, please: consider the state of affairs, consider the desperation, consider the depth of the despair. A country has reached a point at which 84 percent of its people are in favor of building a wall along its borders.
Have you ever known anything of which 84 percent of people were in favor? And yet there it is, over four fifths of a nation—can you imagine that figure?—saying something completely bizarre. The Berlin Wall was built to keep people in. This one, they say, is being built to keep people out.
You might call this an extraordinary state of affairs. Hardly a normal state of affairs. And that’s the word you hear all the time in the Middle East. “Normal.” The Palestinians ask, “When will we have a normal life?” And so do the Israelis. Indeed, the Israeli state was founded in 1948 with the principal ambition of being normal, of being a normal place like any other. The Palestinians call the foundation of the Israeli state the nakbeh: the disaster. And now sixty years later Israel believes itself, in the frequently expressed view of the majority, in need of a wall.
Except, of course, they don’t call it a wall. They call it a fence.
It’s one of those things, there seem to be so many, don’t there?—I’m thinking of abortion, or armed revolt—where the words you use—pro-life/pro-choice, terrorist/freedom fighter—tell the world which way you think. Words become flags, they announce which side you’re on. In this case, literally. The Israelis call it the gader ha’harfrada, which in Hebrew means “separation fence.” The Palestinians don’t call it that. Not at all. They call it jidar al-fasl al-‘unsuri, which in Arabic means “racial segregation wall.”
OK, let’s go coolly into this, shall we? If I use one word or the other, forgive me, it does not imply I am partisan. I have acquaintances on both sides of the fence and on both sides of the wall. “I hate the wall,” say my Israeli friends. “I regret it.” “I’m ashamed of the wall.” “I drive for miles so that I don’t have to see it. But it works. 80 percent of terrorist attacks against Israel have stopped. Have been stopped. Am I not meant to be pleased about that?”
Very well. I shall seek to describe the history of the wall.
On June 1, 2001, nine months into the second intifada, a Palestinian suicide bomber named Saeed Hotari crossed into Israel from the West Bank, and exploded himself at the entrance to the Dolphinarium discotheque on the beach in Tel Aviv, killing twenty-one civilians, most of them high school students. A further 132 people were injured. In response to the massacre, a grassroots movement grew up all over Israel calling itself Fence for Life. They argued, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had argued ten years earlier, that the only way of protecting the country from infiltration by terrorists was by sealing itself off from the Palestinian territories, by removing the points of friction between the two communities. But separation would not be a purely military tactic. No, before he was murdered by a fellow Israeli, Rabin had been arguing something much more radical. “We have to decide on separation as a philosophy.”
There it is. Not just a wall. A wall would be a fact. But this wall is a philosophy, what one observer has called “a political code for shutting up shop.”
Construction began in 2002. The original plan was that the fence should stretch a full 486 miles, the entire length of Israel’s eastern border. The current estimate for its completion is some-time around the end of 2010. Varying in width between 30 and 150 meters, this $2 billion combination of trenches, electronic fences, ditches, watchtowers, concrete slabs, checkpoints, patrol roads, and razor coil is priced at around $2 million per kilometer. Some seventy-five acres of greenhouses and twenty-three miles of irrigation pipes have already been destroyed on the Palestinian side. More than 3,700 acres of Palestinian land have been confiscated, some of it so that the wall may run yards away from Palestinian hamlets and villages. Already, 102,000 trees have been cut down to clear its path.
It is, says an Israeli friend, an acknowledgment of failure. “History has not followed the course we might have wished.” Another way of putting it, later the same evening, after a few drinks in one of the big beachside hotels that are beginning to make the Bauhaus quarter of Tel Aviv look like Florida: “You do have to ask yourself: I’m not sure Ben-Gurion would be thrilled.”
From the start the exact route has been controversial. The most obvious path for it to have followed would have been along the international border, established in 1949 between Israel and Jordan, and known to all parties as the Green Line. But in fact, 85 percent of its intended route is inside the West Bank. The fence snakes and coils, departing eastward from the Green Line in places by just two hundred meters, but in other places by as much as twenty-two kilometers where it goes inland to collect up and protect Israeli settlements established far inside the occupied territory. Sometimes it takes in fertile Palestinian agricultural land and water wells, leaving Palestinian farmers without access to their own fields. Some 140,200 Israeli settlers will be living between the fence and the Green Line. 93,000 Palestinians will be caught on the wrong side of the wall.
For that reason the fence is seen by its opponents not as what it claims to be—a security measure—but more as a land grab, the delineation of a de facto claim, an attempt, like the steady expansion of the Israeli-controlled parts of Jerusalem, to do what is known as “change the facts on the ground.” At the outset of the campaign, supporters of Fence for Life insisted that the wall should be a barrier, not a border. It was not to be used as a bargaining tactic in any future negotiation for a final status agreement. But even Israelis have found this intention hard to credit. Before he left office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted that had he survived in the job he would have sought to set Israeli permanent borders by 2010—and that the border “would run along or close to the barrier.”
Even the most ardent supporters of the fence admit that it is, like the blockade of Gaza, a source of huge inconvenience to Palestinians. But they argue, in the words of one defender, that “the deaths of Israelis caused by terror are permanent and irreversible, whereas the hardships faced by the Palestinians are temporary and reversible.” The International Court of Justice in The Hague had a different view. On July 9, 2004, it ruled 14–1 that
the construction of a wall being built by Israel, the occupying power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory…[is] contrary to international law. Israel is under an obligation…to cease forthwith the works of construction,…to dismantle forthwith the structures therein situated,…to make reparation for all the damage caused by the construction of the wall….
Professor Sari Nusseibeh of Al-Quds University puts it most pithily:
It’s like sticking someone in a cage and then when he starts screaming, as any normal person would, using his violent temper as justification for putting him in the cage in the first place. The wall is the perfect crime because it creates the violence it was ostensibly built to prevent.
To give you an idea what it’s like, one morning I’m setting out from Ramallah. Ramallah houses the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank—as opposed to Hamas, which was elected to govern Gaza in 2006. Ramallah is a government town, and like all government towns—like Washington, D.C., like Canberra—a bit bland, a bit boring. Today I’m setting out with a couple of friends: one is from London, the other, to whom the car belongs, along with the crucial license plate, is Palestinian. The evening before, in a suburb of Jerusalem, I’ve been taking tea with an Israeli intellectual who outlines what he regards as the defining paradox of Israel: to the world it seems powerful and aggressive, yet to itself it seems weak and frail.
Israel, he says, has no real confidence in its own survival. “Israelis have a very fragile sense of the future,” he says.
It’s incredible but the country itself still feels provisional. Of what other state can this be said? I notice when I am in Britain that you plan for 2038, you say there will be this railway or that airport. But no Israeli plans so far ahead without feeling a pang in his heart which asks whether we shall be here at all. We look so strong from the outside, we have such a large army, so many nuclear weapons, we’re so certain in our expansion, and yet from the inside it doesn’t feel like that. We feel our being is not guaranteed. You might say we have imported from the Diaspora the Jewish disease—a sense of rootlessness, an ability to adapt and make do, but not to settle. After sixty years, Israel is not yet a home.
I’m thinking of his words next day—secure but insecure, strong but uncertain—as the three of us come to a roadblock on a road that runs inside the Palestinian part of the West Bank, not far from Jerusalem. It’s a dusty spot, featureless, in the middle of nowhere—or would be featureless if it weren’t for the series of high concrete slabs on our left-hand side. The wall. Although the road doesn’t run through the wall, we are forced to stop. We join a long line of cars which we are told has been here for fifteen minutes. The drivers have turned their engines off, and they sit on the roofs or the hoods, smoking cigarettes and talking. Yes, this is what happens every day. A daily event. For those who go back and forth between towns in the West Bank more than once daily, a more-than-once daily event. The soldiers are letting only one side go through at a time. So we sit for a further twenty minutes, cars coming at us from the opposite direction, and then very slowly, insolently, the Israelis, carrying machine guns, move to our side of the road, and for no reason, begin to let us through.
I say “for no reason” but probably there is a reason. And nobody imagines it has anything to do with security—since the road doesn’t go to Israel itself, and no one shows any interest in the cars themselves. After all, the road stretches empty in either direction, and the checkpoint is not short-staffed. Why, then, are Israeli soldiers wasting time by holding back one line of traffic which they could perfectly well let through, while they permit the flow of another? Why are they doing this? The answer seems clear. They are doing it because they can. To those waiting in line the implicit message is: “If we choose to delay you, we shall. We have the right to delay you. We have the right to render your life meaningless.”