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Middle East

Very Long Division
The West Bank barrier—an answer from another age

Walls have a long pedigree in the Holy Land. Ancient Jericho was famous for its wall, and Jerusalem's Old City is still encircled by a stone structure whose foundation dates back centuries. Over time, it has helped stop, or at least slow, onrushing armies of Seljuks, Crusaders, and Mongols. From the centuries-old Great Wall of China to the short-lived Berlin Wall, barriers have long insulated tribes, cities, even civilizations, demarcating "us" on the inside from "them" on the outside.

By historic standards, the new West Bank wall is a little different. The Israeli government hopes it will keep "them"—in this case Palestinians, and specifically those bent on terrorism—at bay by encircling Palestinian towns and villages.

Roughly 300 feet (90 meters) wide in some stretches, the barrier includes mounds of razor wire and electronic fencing; a ditch to prevent vehicles from crashing through; a ribbon of sand to preserve the footprints of intruders; locked gates, which Israeli soldiers can open to provide limited passage; and a network of motion detectors and surveillance cameras. In a few areas, concrete partitions, not fencing, are being used to prevent Palestinian sniper attacks.

While only 87 miles (140 kilometers) of the barrier have been built—at an estimated cost of four million dollars a mile—it is already taking a toll by separating farmers from their fields. On a recent day in Zayta, Palestinians heading home from their olive groves waited two hours for an Israeli soldier to unlock a gate. Finally, one frustrated father led his family over the fence. In Turah al Gharbiyah, the wall cut off Nael Salah Zeid's house from his village and from basic utilities. "It's like living in a jail," he says, "but even prisoners have water and electricity. We don't."

Fearing for their own lives, roughly 80 percent of Israeli Jews support the fence. "I wasn't afraid five years ago," says Inbal Omer, 30, a mother of two in the settlement of Shaqed. But then the suicide bombings resumed. Relations with local Palestinians, once sweet, soured. And Inbal's best friend was killed in a terrorist attack. "There has to be a separation," she says. "The fence makes me more secure."

But it is the expansion of Israel's West Bank settlements, not security, that truly explains the cause—and course—of the wall, argues Anwar Al Darkazally, a lawyer for the Palestine Liberation Organization. By building a wall around Israeli settlements, he says, Israel is grabbing land inside the Green Line—the boundary between Israel and the West Bank (based on the 1949 armistice line between Israel and the then Jordanian-occupied West Bank). The wall, Darkazally adds, will isolate Palestinians; further choke their economy with more checkpoints, like one in Bartaa; restrict access to schools and hospitals; and destroy the West Bank's territorial continuity.

One potential consequence of the wall: It could fragment the Palestinians so much that it saps their aspirations for statehood. Even at this early stage of wall building, an estimated 30 percent of them say that, if they can't achieve independence, they want to be an integral part of Israel—a voting part. Because Palestinians are expected to outnumber Israelis in less than twenty years, that means the Jewish state could one day vanish in a hail not of bullets but of ballots.       

—Alan Mairson

Web Links

B'Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
This organization does research and reporting on the human rights situation in the occupied territories. It provides a report on the barrier and its effects.

Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS)
BAS is a nondenominational, educational organization that spreads information about archaeology in the biblical lands. This site has links to articles, digs, museums, and experts.

Foundation for Middle East Peace
This nonprofit organization works to promote peace in the region and educate Americans about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Frontline World
Robin Shulman, a Frontline Fellow, reports on the construction of the Israeli Seam Zone Project and how barriers, physical and cultural, separate Israelis and Palestinians.

Israeli Ministry of Defense: the Seam Zone
The Israeli government's official website on the Seam Zone Project explains the purpose and the route of the barrier.

Free World Map 


Armstrong, Karen. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.  Ballantine Books, 1997.

Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. Simon and Schuster, 2001.


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