Barrier: The Seam of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
By Isabel Kershner
The dogs bark and the caravan passes, goes the Arab proverb - but how the hounds have been barking! Everyone from foreign judges to local anarchists has weighed in on the security fence being built in and along the West Bank.
Land of Israel partisans have blasted the barrier as a ghetto for Jews, while Palestinian opponents have another catchy name for it: the Apartheid Wall.
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Most recently, a British group calling itself Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine declared an "economic boycott of Israel's construction industry in protest at the building of Israeli settlements and the separation barrier in the Occupied Territories." Yet the thick line of concrete, electronic sensors and barbed wire continues to thwart the critics.
In Barrier: The Seam of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,
Isabel Kershner explains why the controversial security fence went up in the first place; why it zigzags the way it does, and what are the human costs of this massive project. More, Kershner, the Middle East editor for the biweekly Jerusalem Report
(and a former colleague of mine), tackles the subject with finesse and balance.
When completed, the security fence will run some 600 kilometers and cost billions of shekels. Much of the barrier is a system of barbed wire, military patrol roads, an anti-vehicular ditch, sand tracking paths, video cameras and electronic sensors; another five or six percent is concrete wall. And yet despite its magnitude, Ariel Sharon has never really supported the project.
The true father of security fence was Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan, who headed the National Security Council first under Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then Sharon. Dayan presented his barrier plan in June 2001 as a way of preventing Palestinian suicide bombers, who had killed hundreds, from getting into Israel proper.
"It was clear we couldn't fight terror only on the offensive. We lacked the intelligence and other means," Kershner quotes him as saying. "We needed defense as well."
However, whatever its military merits, the fence spelled political trouble for the right-wing prime minister. Sharon had been an old ally of the Gush Emunim, establishing 64 settlements during his four years as agriculture minister in 1977-1981; what would the fence mean for his West Bank settlers or Land of Israel ideology? Forfeiting the call, Sharon let Dayan's plan collect dust for almost a year.
Then, in March 2002, 17 suicide bombers struck and public clamor for a security fence reached a fevered pitch that not even the Bulldozer could ignore. In June, the cabinet approved the first third of the route, but apparently out of sheer stubbornness, Sharon had insisted "that the fence should run east of Baqa al-Sharqiya, seven kilometers inside the West Bank" - a costly decision that would later be reversed.
Indeed, the route of the fence has been warped and its construction slowed, by foreign and domestic pressure. For instance, Ron Nahman, the mayor of Ariel, lobbied to have the settlement-city included within the fence, but the Americans nixed the idea (as they did with the proposed Jordan Valley fence), forcing the government to leave a seven-kilometer gap in the barrier.
By contrast, the West Bank city of Kalkilya is practically surrounded in order to accommodate the nearby settlement of Alfei Menashe.
Kershner details the how the meandering fence affects Palestinian quality of life, how it has appropriated land, strangled Kalkilya and cut off farmers from their fields. She tells the reader how nearly 10,000 Palestinians are stuck in Seam Zones, slivers of land lodged between the fence and the Green Line, and live their lives according to permits and the good graces of the Israel Defense Forces.
Kershner covers it all. Yet while foreign correspondents in Israel force events according to all-too-predictable scripts (bad settler versus good Palestinian, the tragic cycle of violence, etc.), Kershner, a local, delivers nuanced reporting.
She can acknowledge the depressing pall the barrier's concrete sections cast over Palestinians and still note that the gray slabs, only 45 centimeters wide, minimize "the need to demolish buildings in the urban barrier's path." She also has a fine eye for irony. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, she tells the reader, complains that Palestinians living in the Seam Zone shared by Alfei Menashe have become virtual serfs of the settlement. By contrast, the Likud mayor of Alfei Menashe insists they are doing fine.
Which side is right? Perversely, both.
Some of the Palestinians earn good wages in Israel while others are indeed building homes for settlers (though still making double what they would get elsewhere in the West Bank). One village in the Seam Zone gets a paved road and promises of electricity, while another is handed demolition orders because it is built on agricultural land.
"I want a blue [Israeli] ID," Kershner quotes one villager as saying. "Nobody has told us we'd get one, but that's what I'd like."
This leads to the most brutal irony of all. Everyone debates the route of the barrier: The Palestinian Authority complains that it is a thinly disguised land grab, while liberals like Brig.-Gen. (res.) Baruch Spiegel point out that it cuts off most West Bank settlements from Israel proper - as if the average Palestinian cared.
The villagers of Kaffin, Bil'in and elsewhere do not want a barrier, any barrier, even one neatly traced on the Green Line, because it closes the door to Israel and forces them to face the grim reality that is Palestine.
"As far as many Palestinians are concerned," Kershner concludes, "if it is the choice between an independent state or free movement, open borders, the sunset, and the sea, they would sooner pass on the state."