Another Brick in the Wall

Israel’s “security fence” will encourage more atrocities than it foils.

To the opening session of the hearing at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, convened to consider Israel’s “security fence,” Ariel Sharon’s government dispatched the charred hulk of a bus. The young man who blew it up—killing eight and maiming many others—was from Bethlehem, perhaps seven miles from Jerusalem’s Liberty Park, where the deed was done, which is a short walk from my house. Presumably, this bus is evidence for why the court should not be dignifying Palestinian complaints of a “land grab.” The fence, when complete, would foil just such atrocities. Besides, didn’t the concept of a barrier originate with dovish politicians who, having offered most of the land for peace and despairing of a Palestinian partner to end terror, argued instead for establishing a defensible border, even at the cost of moving Jewish settlements? Isn’t Sharon’s controversial route just a hard-liner’s version of this general idea, a holding action in advance of a settlement, after which the fence might be moved?

Palestinian officials, connecting the dots, insist that the fence does not so much wall them out as in, creating numerous enclaves running north-south, separated from Jerusalem and from one another. These are surrounded not only by fences but also by established Jewish settlements linked together by exclusive settler highways and bypass roads. All along their eastern border, the enclaves are hemmed in by the heights overlooking the Jordan Valley, where the final segments are planned. In all, about 16 percent of the West Bank has already been confiscated to build it. Follow Sharon’s route, and only about 43 percent of West Bank land will be left for a Palestinian state.

What is generally lost in this focus on territory is the economic life of the people on it. The real danger of the fence is the separation of hinterland towns from metropolitan centers, a rupture that denies both any prospect of economic viability. Kalkilya, a West Bank Arab town of about 40,000 residents near the Israeli border northeast of Tel-Aviv, is surrounded by a triangular barrier. About one-third of Kalkilya’s 1,800 businesses and shops have closed, and about 8,000 people have left. As their prospects become desperate, more Palestinian youth will turn to terror—which is why that charred bus could have been evidence against the fence instead of for it.

Jerusalem, the most disputed city, is also the most explosive. The Arab minority population has grown relative to the Jewish majority over the past several years, and the latter has become more Orthodox and hardened. The fence will reverse the trend toward equality in a binational city. About 100,000 of greater Jerusalem’s 250,000 Arab residents will be caught directly between Israeli Defense Forces checkpoints and other fences; at least 30,000 do not qualify for Israeli health insurance or travel documents, becoming stateless, and those who do qualify receive virtually no government services—it is common for them to fight their way through choked queues in front of government offices. The Old City, which can reasonably house about 18,000, is sleeping about 40,000. People fear they will not be allowed back into Jerusalem if they visit their homes in neighboring towns. Considering the Jewish people’s past, it would be rude to call these ghettoes. So let’s just call them walled-in, patrolled, increasingly impoverished enclaves for people with diminishing political rights and unlimited encouragement to leave. Yasir Barakat, among the most established merchants in the Old City, tells me he knows “nobody whose educated children are not planning to leave Jerusalem if they can.”

Anyway, the fence is hardly a holding action. Eight new settlements founded since March 2001 have been extended IDF protection, electricity, support for schools, and other services. Even if Sharon unilaterally evacuates Gaza, as he’s hinted he would, the fence assures most Jewish settlements a border behind which they can continue to grow and determine Israel’s political agenda by sheer inertia. Sharon’s fence is their continuing victory. Perhaps 350,000 Palestinians will be caught between fences and Israeli towns, becoming, in effect, candidates for emigration.

“The problem with the government’s logic,” says Middle East scholar Menachem Klein, “is that entrapped Palestinians will fight—they have nowhere to go.” Klein is a member of the Israeli delegation that negotiated the Geneva Initiative. He spent many hours in hotels with younger generation leaders of Fatah-Tansim, which is close to Arafat. “They know that, as in Jenin, gangs, not Palestinian Authority officials, will take over the streets.” A security fence on the Green Line, Israel’s international border of 1948, might have made sense, Klein insists. “But Sharon is playing on everyone’s fears for their security to consolidate the settlements. The wall is meant to make Palestinian Jerusalem unlivable—but this will make the whole of Jerusalem unlivable.”