Peacemaking Across Barriers

Walls. We hear about walls too often today. They create division, conflict, and controversy. So why is there a wall dividing the West Bank and the State of Israel?

The debated answers to this question are as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. Some argue that the wall was built under the guise of a security barrier as a way for the Israeli government to claim land beyond the 1967 Green Line border. Others argue that the simple truth is that the wall was built because Israeli civilians were dying in Palestinian terror attacks. I wish that wasn’t a valid answer. I wish that violent death were not an explanation for the intruding slabs of grey concrete that cut through beautiful, holy Jerusalem. A Jerusalem that’s supposed to be shared by the world, by all those who hold it sacred in their hearts, and by all those who call it home.

I cannot claim to know what the Israeli leadership was thinking when the wall was conceived. But let’s get some facts straight. The planned – not yet completed – barrier is approximately 440 miles long, separating the West Bank from the State of Israel. Of those 440 planned miles, 90 percent are formed by a fence system, and 10 percent are formed by a concrete wall (about 44 miles once completed). In some areas, the barrier deviates beyond the 1967 Green Line. For accuracy, I refer to the entire system as a barrier.

When the Israeli government announced construction of the barrier in 2002, the country was facing a wave of Palestinian attacks that killed over 1,000 Israelis and terrorized the entire population, known as the Second Intifada (violent uprising). Israelis were desperate for anything that might quickly save lives, and building a physical barrier seemed to be a logical answer.

I cannot accept the explanation that the barrier is an agent of apartheid. Apartheid is a system of segregation or discrimination on the grounds of race. No matter what explanation you prefer for the barrier, its purpose is not to divide races. Approximately 20 percent of Israeli citizens (who live west of the barrier) are Arab. The barrier does not change the status of Israeli Arabs or affect the rights guaranteed to them under the law. Yes, there is racism within Israeli society, and there’s no excuse for that. But only some Israelis are racist, just as only some Palestinians commit violent acts. The Jewish People have survived in exile for millennia because of their effort to live peacefully and righteously amongst neighbors who are different from them. To claim Israel is an apartheid state is to racially define and exacerbate a conflict that is not racial in origin. The conflict is and always has been, at its core, driven by competing claims to the same land.

Those who perpetuate the image of Israel as an apartheid state are political entrepreneurs, using borders and racial differences to mobilize unrest and hatred. Jews and Palestinians are not naturally inclined to hate each other. Hatred is something that is learned. To eliminate hatred, we must change the way we work and communicate with each other. Shared dialogue and mutual respect is the crucial first step in resolving this conflict.

The barrier is a short-term remedy to Israeli security concerns. The only long-term solution to Israeli security concerns is peace with a sovereign Palestinian neighboring state, and many Israelis recognize that. The barrier may hinder peace by maintaining division between Israeli and Palestinian societies. But Israelis will not be able to fully commit to peace efforts when their security feels threatened, a situation that is made worse by political instability on all of Israel’s borders. Yet amidst this regional instability, there are Israelis and Palestinians committed to establishing strong working relationships.

Many grassroots organizations in Israel/Palestine are building a foundation for peace. Their Israeli and Palestinian members include parents of deceased combatants and civilian victims, environmentalists, businesspeople, technical innovators, playwrights and actors, musicians, doctors, and aid workers. They include wealthy and poor, young and old, but they are all united by their vision for a peaceful future. We must encourage these brave attempts to reconcile differences instead of promoting division. Palestinian peace activist Ali Abu Awwad has said, “I think that dialogue is the secure place for arguments. Not exactly for agreements. But if we don’t [have] dialogue with the people that we disagree with, how can we reach any solution?” Despite disagreements, it is a mutual embrace of humanity, respect, and dignity that will tear down walls.




About the Author
Josh Zoland studies International Relations and Comparative Politics at Tufts University. He seeks creative solutions to the world's problems.
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