Image: A Palestinian youth rides his bicycle next to Israel’s “apartheid wall” on the outskirts of Jerusalem. (Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Al Akhbar English)
The current violence in Israel and Palestine has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the separation barrier, the concrete wall/barbed wire fence that Israel began erecting inside Palestine 13 years ago during the second intifada to provide security. The wall is as high as 25 feet in some places, and travels for hundreds of miles inside Palestine, mostly east of the Green Line, grabbing territory that was supposed to go to a Palestinian state under the Oslo accords.
Most of the Palestinian attacks have taken place on the Israeli side of the separation barrier. Last week, for instance, several Israelis and an American were attacked inside the Gush Etzion settlement in the occupied West Bank, but on the Israeli side of the wall, while several other attacks by Palestinians have taken place in East Jerusalem, also inside the wall.
And though attacks have also taken place in Hebron, on the Palestinian side of the wall, those attacks demonstrate the intermingling of the Jewish settlers and Palestinians inside the occupied territories.
Israel characterized the wall as a security fence and separation barrier. But hundred of thousands of East Jerusalem and West Bank Palestinians live on the free side, the “Israel side” of the fence– not to mention the million-plus Palestinians living inside Israel. Jerusalem City Councilman Aryeh King says that since the creation of the wall, 80,000 Palestinians who live on the wrong side of the wall have moved to the west side of it, mostly into Jerusalem, so they could have greater freedom of movement. Human beings would naturally move to escape cages and checkpoints, King said. And several East Jerusalem Palestinians have been among the attackers.
As for the West Bank, the wall was designed so as to enclose large Jewish population centers on the West Bank. So it goes around the Gush Etzion settlement, where several attacks have taken place.
It is certainly likely that the wall has stopped other Palestinians from undertaking attacks they might have if they could have gotten to Jewish communities; the list of attacks doesn’t include events near the concrete wall itself. But all barriers in the West Bank are porous. For instance, it costs about 40 shekels ($10) to cross the wall at Abu Dis– Palestinians can pay a middle man, use his ladder, and catch a shared taxi waiting on the other end.
One lesson of the violence is that the wall didn’t provide security during the relative lull in violence from 2005-2015. It was Palestinian officials and armed groups that chose to stop attacks against Israelis in the wake of the Sharm El Sheikh Summit Conference in 2005 that closed the Second Intifada. There Palestinian leaders pledged an end to armed resistance. It was through this negotiated process that violence against Israelis came to a screeching halt. In this renewed wave, there is no formal leadership. Individuals, often teenagers who are motivated by the humiliating experience of occupation in areas neighboring settlements, are acting haphazardly, alone or with a close cousin. While the wall may be a blunt physical barrier, it can’t be given credit for the ten year lull. Politics did that.
Another lesson is that the wall was always more of a landgrab than a security wall: intended to take as much land as possible in the West Bank with as few Palestinians on that land. That’s one reason folks call it the apartheid wall. “A major aim in planning the route was de facto annexation of part of the West Bank,” B’Tselem writes.
The failure of the wall also demonstrates that separation doesn’t work. The two populations live in geographically-distinct communities by and large but these communities are intermingled– neighborhoods and settlements are right on top of one another. Whatever political solution is worked out in Israel and Palestine ultimately, it will never separate these populations entirely and both populations will have to feel enfranchised under the resulting government(s). It’s a lesson Germany discovered a long time ago: walls that enclose one people and deny them freedom don’t work.