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Israel’s separation barrier: legitimate in theory, malicious in practice

The theory is security, but the practice is to separate Israelis in the same city, based on ethnicity
Illustrative: A security fence around a Jewish settlement in the West Bank (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative: A security fence around a Jewish settlement in the West Bank (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“The Apartheid Wall,” “The Security Fence,” “The Border Wall.” All of these words and more have been used to describe the barrier that separates parts of Israel Proper from the Occupied West Bank. Interestingly enough, how one titles the structure is often a key indicator of how they view the conflict overall.

Anti-Israel activists will typically refer to it as The Apartheid Wall, focusing on the different realities faced by Israelis inside Israel Proper compared to those of the Palestinians living on the other side of the barrier in the West Bank. On the other hand, Israel advocates typically refer to it as The Security Fence, focusing on the defensive purposes of the structure, and underscoring that the vast majority of the structure is not a wall at all, but rather, barbed wire fencing. Some Israel advocates (and even some Israeli diplomats/peace negotiators) refer to it as The Border Wall, noting its purpose in dividing boundaries between a sovereign state and a hostile non-sovereign entity that may one day come to be autonomous in its own right.

I, however, will be using the term “Separation Barrier” throughout this article as it’s more politically neutral and more importantly, it addresses the central themes that I’ll be focusing on throughout this piece.

As of now, The Separation Barrier is mostly complete, with 460 kilometers (about 65% of the planned barrier) already constructed. Another 53 kilometers (about 7.5%) are currently under construction, and construction has yet to be started on some 200 kilometers which have been agreed to but have yet to be officially green lighted in terms of the actual development. While, as previously stated, the majority of the Separation Barrier is composed of metal or barbed wire fencing, large nine meter high concrete slabs form a very thick and durable wall around urban areas like Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Before I talk about some of the many problems that challenge the validity of the Separation Barrier’s existence in its current form, I would like to point out some important realities that prompted its construction in order to provide some necessary context. The Separation Barrier was built fairly recently in 2003, after Israeli civilians had suffered enormous casualties as a result of Palestinian suicide bombings and other brutal terror attacks during the height of the bloody Second Intifada. Death and carnage were the norm for Israelis during the first few years of the 2000s, with buses, restaurants and clubs being mercilessly blown up and with rampant stabbings and sniper attacks tearing Israeli families apart in both Israel Proper and the West Bank.

When I was in Israel this past summer, one of my rabbis recounted to me that for two years he would have to drive to work in Jerusalem and back home to Gush Etzion (a settlement bloc) wearing a bullet proof vest for fear of being killed by Palestinian snipers who would fire indiscriminately at Israeli vehicles. This is a harsh reality that really spoke to me about the dangers of being Israeli during that time period and the fear that would grip you from when you woke up until you went to bed that night.

Israel absolutely has the right to use defensive means to protect its citizens from very real threats and the reality is that the Separation Barrier has been immensely helpful in preventing Palestinian terrorists from inflicting casualties on innocent Israeli civilians, with the Israeli Foreign Ministry stating that the construction of the Separation Barrier has resulted in a near 90% decrease of successful terror attacks from the West Bank. This is something that should be celebrated by anyone who genuinely supports peace; the less needless death, the better.

Before I go in depth about the issues surrounding the Separation Barrier, it’s important to note that even if a Palestinian State was miraculously established tomorrow, the Separation Barrier (or at least some variation thereof) would remain intact as a security measure. This is practically non-negotiable so every demand by activists to dismantle the wall “Berlin circa 1989 style”, is simply unrealistic and illustrates a lack of understanding of the conflict in tangible terms. The concept of a physical barrier providing Israelis security along a clear, distinguishable and mutually agreed upon border should not be a controversial topic.

Now, moving on to the issue at hand…

If the Separation Barrier went completely around the Green Line (making adjustments for East Jerusalem accordingly based on temporary Israeli annexation), it would be almost entirely legitimate and this article would end here…but unfortunately that’s not the case.

Israel’s Separation Barrier doesn’t straddle the Green Line at all. Oh no, quite the contrary. It snakes in and out of the West Bank, winding around various Israeli settlements as it goes, most notably, the Ariel Bloc, which is 20 kilometers deep inside the West Bank. By wrapping around Ariel, the Separation Barrier cuts off Palestinian cities like Tulkarm and Qalqiliyah, essentially separating these two areas with thick slabs of concrete to benefit the settler population in Ariel. Indeed, the Separation Barrier is so arbitrarily placed throughout the West Bank that it cuts off numerous Palestinian communities from one another and even runs through specific neighborhoods, essentially cutting villages in half based on the desires of the Israeli security establishment, who took Israel’s needs into account without any regard for the Palestinians.

The construction was so shoddy, in fact, that in 2003, when it was first being established, Israeli security forces demolished 178 Palestinian shops and even a few homes that were straddling the Green Line in order to build the Separation Barrier. I mean, God forbid Israel would have to construct parts of the Separation Barrier inside Israel Proper and lose one square kilometer of land for THEIR security. It’s obviously much better to deprive hundreds of innocent Palestinians of their livelihood and displace families who foolishly thought they could live along the Green Line undisturbed. Silly me.

In fact, the Separation Barrier winds so much into the West Bank that, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, through its construction, Israel has de facto annexed 9.4% of the West Bank, which is now walled off into Israel Proper. Despite the existence of roughly 25,000 Palestinians who find themselves cut off from the West Bank and are now part of de facto “Israel” as a result of the Separation Barrier’s location, they have not been given Israeli citizenship – unlike the settlers that live amongst them in the neighboring Israeli settlements on the same side of the barrier. In fact, for the scores of Palestinians living between the Green Line and the inside of the Separation Barrier, they have to continuously apply for Permanent Residency Permits in order to continue living in the homes that their families have always lived in (many of these families for generations). In contrast, Israeli citizens or non-Israeli Jews are allowed to enter and stay in these areas freely, even if they have no previous ownership or personal connection to those areas.

It gets even worse when you look at how the Separation Barrier has affected Jerusalem. While Prime Minister Netanyahu likes to wax poetic in international forums about the United-Undivided-Eternal-Capital-of-the-Jewish-People Jerusalem (the more adjectives the better), he neglects to mention that the Separation Barrier goes through parts of East Jerusalem. How can a city be “undivided” if there’s literally a nine meter high concrete wall dividing parts of it?

To be more specific, the Separation Barrier cuts off quite a few Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem (notably Kfar Aqab and Al-Sawahira), cutting off Arab ISRAELIS from proper municipal services.

When the Separation Barrier winds through the Occupied Territories, that’s bad, but when it winds through Jerusalem, an area that Israel officially annexed and as a result, has given citizenship and permanent resident status to its inhabitants, this is a HUGE problem! According to Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, there are some 140,000 Palestinian permanent residents (and some citizens) of Israel that live on the other side of the Separation Barrier in East Jerusalem. It goes without saying that that’s 140,000 too many.

It’s at this point that it should dawn on you that the Separation Barrier is literally separating Israelis from other Israelis in the same city….based on ethnicity. This is not an accident. The Separation Barrier isn’t a straight line, it intentionally envelopes Jewish East Jerusalem neighborhoods like Pisgat Ze’ev and Gilo, while cutting off undesired Arab neighborhoods in that same city! That means that there are Arab citizens and permanent residents of Israel who live in East Jerusalem whose lives are astronomically different (and more difficult) than the Jewish citizens of East Jerusalem who live one neighborhood over on the other side of the wall. Why aren’t the Arab residents of East Jerusalem entitled to the same security and protection that their Jewish neighbors are entitled to if they’re all Israeli? Israel doesn’t get to just annex territory and then arbitrarily deny people residing in that territory of proper municipal services based on ethnicity. Well, evidently they do get to do that…but they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

It becomes quite clear that, despite what the Israel advocates like to claim, this isn’t only a matter of security but one of separation, where the Jewish residents of East Jerusalem are deemed more important than the gentiles. Or worse, that the Arabs (Israel’s “beloved minority”) are actually not wanted because they’re “security threats” that must be blockaded out of their own country with a thick concrete wall. I’ll save the apologists from having to juggle these poison apples by simply calling a spade a spade: this is legalized racism.

The final aspect of the Separation Barrier that I’d like to address is the issue of Rachel’s Tomb. When Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the Six Day War in 1967, Rachel’s Tomb (a site that’s holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike), was not within Jerusalem’s newly drawn boundaries, rather, it was in Bethlehem – where it’s been for ages (ironically enough, Rachel’s Tomb is even said to be located in Bethlehem in The Bible as well). However, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to construct the Separation Barrier, he saw an unprecedented opportunity and built it around Rachel’s Tomb, de facto annexing it as part of Jerusalem and sealing it off to the Palestinian Christians and Muslims living in Bethlehem by ensuring that it could only be accessed through Israel. So here’s the kicker, Rachel’s Tomb, (which was NEVER part of annexed Jerusalem), is now more part of Jerusalem than the Arab neighborhoods of Kfar Aqab and Al-Sawahira (that WERE annexed to Jerusalem) thanks to the location of the Separation Barrier!

So just to be clear, Israel used their security interests as a justification to: unilaterally annex 9.4% (and counting) of the West Bank, steal a holy site by miraculously declaring it as part of a city whose boundaries they had already defined without said holy site, and rid themselves of the responsibility of having to take care of over 140,000 of their Arab citizens and permanent residents by putting them on the other side of the wall and essentially “ceding” that territory to nobody (since they’re technically still responsible for the territory but because it’s on the other side of the wall they no longer view it as part of Israel in practice).

And so it becomes clear that while the primary objective of the Separation Barrier is indeed security, that goal has been largely overshadowed by its more malicious secondary objective: separating as many Jewish Israelis from as many Arabs as possible while unilaterally grabbing as much land that Israel can get away with by creating facts on the ground to lead up to a larger future annexation – with or without a peace deal. Theodore Herzl is rolling in his grave.

About the Author
Michael Aarenau lives in Montreal, Quebec. He has a Bachelor's of Public Affairs and Policy Management from Carleton University and is currently pursuing a law degree at McGill University. Michael is passionate about human rights, international affairs and justice. For cheeky insights in 280 characters or less, follow him on twitter @MAarenau
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