Fencing the Last Sky: Excavating Palestine after Israel's "Separation Wall"

VOL. 33


No. 2
P. 5
Fencing the Last Sky: Excavating Palestine after Israel's "Separation Wall"

By a slip road where Israel’s Route 55 disentangles itself from the last conurbations of metropolitan Tel Aviv, banks over Highway 6, and then slides across the Green Line towards the Barqan and Ariel settlement blocs, stands a road sign of the future. Pointing east, one vector names the looming high rises of Kefar Saba, Israel. The other, motioning westward into the hills of the West Bank, is blank, as if indicating empty space. Spray paint has been applied, the word “Qalqilya” all but erased. And so, it would appear, has the place. Where the Israeli commuter might once have spotted a town of 37,000, there is only a quick blur of concrete enfolding Route 55 as it climbs into the newly smoothed vistas of “Judea and Samaria.” A military checkpoint on the return lane is the sole reminder that here was once an international armistice line. Beyond its concrete backdrop float rooftops of alien villages, their names and locations no longer important; the eyes on Route 55 are fixed on different horizons. Borders have been drawn on some people here; for others they have been erased. 

Since construction began in June 2002, Israel’s “Separation Fence” [1] has transformed the political geography of the West Bank’s northwestern face in a 150 km dress rehearsal for the most far-reaching reordering of the Palestinian landscape undertaken since 1967. [2] According to designs, the full scope of which was revealed in March 2003, another 490 km of fence will be built over the next two years, encysting major Palestinian population concentrations and any future Palestinian state in cantons comprising roughly half the West Bank, [3] while consolidating Israeli control over the remainder. To this end the fence will shear off and render unto Israeli settlements vast tracts of arable land while severing Palestinian access to water, roads, and livelihoods. Some 395,000 Palestinians, the majority of them in East Jerusalem, will find themselves on the “Israeli” side, and it is widely feared that many may be forced to migrate into their newly adumbrated homelands. Some have already. Yet the fence would also effect a different kind of “transfer,” increasingly blotting out and containing the occupied population as residual curiosa in an Israeli landscape stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. The Israeli government formally asserts that the project is a temporary security measure; candid asides to the domestic press, cleaved hillsides, and a $1.5 million per km price tag [4] tell otherwise.

An Idea Becomes Concrete

That Israel’s “Separation Fence” has slid straight through the West Bank owes much to a parallel realignment of Israel’s political landscape, presided over by Ariel Sharon and adroitly engineered, first by co-opting a popular idea reared by the Israeli Center-Left, and then by implementing it according to his own territorial vision. In so doing, he outflanked his right-wing challengers as well as the vague threat of international interference in Israel’s affairs embodied by the Bush administration’s road map to peace. For, on a U.S. plan filled with waymarkers but bereft of goalposts, the fence inscribes its own final map.

The “Separation Fence” draws on concepts that had long floated in military circles and enjoyed a precedent in the fence that has sealed the Gaza Strip since the eruption of the first intifada in 1987. [5] Yitzhak Rabin had won his premiership in 1992 on the slogan “Us Here, Them There”—in fact the philosophical underpinning of the Oslo accords. After the second Palestinian uprising broke out in September 2000, senior Labor party figures like Haim Ramon persuaded Prime Minister Ehud Barak to make the fence issue his own; in promoting the idea through aphorisms like “good fences make good neighbors,” Barak purposefully struck similar chords with a public shaken by Palestinian suicide bombings. Military figures and analysts who had by then come to dominate the Israeli media helped meanwhile to “engineer” public support for the idea. [6] In November 2000, Barak accordingly approved the construction in the West Bank of “a barrier to prevent the passage of motor vehicles” that initially was to stretch from Jenin in the north to the Latrun salient in the south. [7]

Barak’s plans were embryonic, however, and did not have much time to proceed. There were daunting practical considerations involved in a public construction project estimated at some $1.6 billion, and counting. [8] Most significantly, there was fierce opposition from Israeli settlement groups. Erasing the Green Line had been the main aim of their movement, and they feared that a barrier, by interpellating for the first time a physical boundary between Israel and the occupied territories, would isolate them spatially, symbolically, and eventually politically. Barak did not relish a fight with a constituency that he had accommodated as much as any of the Israeli premiers who preceded him and to whom he was known to be genuinely sympathetic. As at Camp David in 2000, he chose to sit on the fence, figuratively and literally. [9]

Instead of launching a new superstructure, the IDF’s counterinsurgency therefore tightened the existing internal closure of the West Bank, based on the system of checkpoints and roadblocks that had curtailed Palestinian movement from the early years of Oslo. These had been supplemented since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada by hundreds of barbed wire fences, earth mounds, trenches, and concrete barriers erected around Palestinian villages and towns, cutting nearly every access road in the West Bank. [10] Starting from October 2000, former Palestinian roads suddenly led nowhere, others were incorporated into the exclusive grid of settler bypass roads superimposed on the West Bank during Oslo. The policy, crowned by a rush of settler hilltop seizures during Barak’s last months in power, [11] increasingly laid bare the Oslo reality of two separate worlds in one land. Yet as the Israeli public grew ever more frustrated with continuing Palestinian attacks inside Israel, despite and because of the brutality of IDF tactics, Barak lost his premiership to Ariel Sharon in 2001, and Shimon Peres led what remained of Labor into a coalition government with the Likud. 

Even more closely attuned to the settlers than Barak, Sharon initially balked at the idea of a fence, acceding only under pressure from his coalition partners, who on this issue could still tap massive public support. In July 2001, his joint security cabinet approved an expanded version of Barak’s plan, [12] but Sharon’s enduring misgivings meant that delays followed. He used this time to explore the project’s feasibility and to solicit input from his core settler constituency. By now it was becoming apparent that the Right’s opposition to the massively popular fence project risked alienating Israel’s political mainstream. [13] Moreover, since most of the settlements in the northwestern region covered by the first phase were concentrated along the Green Line, they could be enfolded into Israel by a fence routed west of them. Such arguments reconciled the settlers to this segment of the project. And gradually, as its path veered eastward, the appeal of the fence concept broadened.

In what was a sign of things to come, its path was continually modified eastward. In April 2002, the security cabinet decided to erect barriers around the Tulkarm, Jenin, and Jerusalem areas. Land expropriation began, but was then halted and the path rerouted. In June, approval was finally given in principle for phase A, which included a segment running roughly parallel to the Green Line from the village of Salem in the northern Jenin district to Elqana south of Qalqilya, as well as a 22-km segment around occupied East Jerusalem. In January 2003, the cabinet endorsed phase B stretching 45 km along the northern border of Jenin governorate, from the Salem checkpoint east to the village of Faqqua. [14] 

Sharon’s adoption of the fence concept proved opportune. With early elections called for January 2003, it undercut the already weak challenge of Labor candidate Amram Mitzna by exploiting blurred Israeli distinctions between security needs and territorial prerogatives. Mitzna had made the fence a key issue in his campaign, accusing Sharon of foot-dragging and vowing to speed up its construction. But with Sharon already well on board, Mitzna had nothing more broadly appealing to offer. His vague promises to take Israel in new political directions had already been undermined by a public mood that fellow Laborite Barak vigorously stoked after Camp David, where Palestinian refusal to agree to Israeli annexation of West Bank settlement clusters was marketed as a rejection of peace. After Labor had sold Israelis on the notion that they could have both security and land, Sharon ran with the fence on this understanding. Mitzna could not catch up.

Where Sharon ran was eastwards and to the Right, and thus toward Israel’s new political center, which now included the ultranationalist parties represented in his post-January 2003 government and the settlement councils to which they were attuned. These had already been appeased by being given a large say in the routing of the fence. What finally brought them on board was the sense of threat generated by the specter of the comprehensive “settlement freeze” called for by the U.S. road map, drafts of which had been circulating since October 2002, and which was now being pushed as the Bush administration sought international support for its looming war against Iraq. Sharon realized that Israel would ultimately have to appear to fall in line with the plan, however diluted its acceptance might be by numerous and secret reservations. By showing how the fence would enable Israel to delimit any Palestinian “state” that might emerge from the plan while giving the settlements room to expand, he was able to overcome what resistance remained. Accordingly, the settler’s umbrella organization, YESHA, “took a position contrary to that of the majority of residents of the ideological settlements, and ceased opposing the fence.” [15] The settlement councils’ proposed amendments for its subsequent phases were meanwhile being forwarded directly via the army to Sharon or his adviser on settler affairs, Uzi Keren. [16]

The upshot was evident in plans for phases C and D of the fence, released in March 2003. These represented a dramatic departure from the earlier phases; whereas phases A and B had hovered within 6 kms of the Green Line, phase C cut halfway into the West Bank to include on the “Israeli” side the Keddumim and Ariel settlements, while phase D lopped off large parts of the Bethlehem and Hebron governorates. At the same time, army sources revealed that an eastern fence would run parallel to the Jordan River, severing the fertile Jordan Valley from what remained of the West Bank. The timing of the disclosures, coming in the run-up to the official release of the road map, was not coincidental: it constituted a message of comfort to the settlers and a telling indication that Israel’s map, not the United States’, would continue to rule reality in the West Bank. By now, in fact, the two maps were not even viewed as incompatible; military officials blithely informed Ha’Aretz that “Sharon wants to use the two fences to outline the temporary borders of a Palestinian state according to Bush's road map.” [17] Thin assurances that the fence was a temporary measure were meanwhile being discredited in private and public asides by senior officials like Netzach Mashiach, head of the defense ministry’s  Seam Fence Authority, the body responsible for the project. [18] The “temporary” claim was further belied by the fence’s high cost and the unofficial Hebrew title of its blueprints, Tikkun Gvulot, literally meaning “Correction of Borders.” [19]

Such corrections had already been foreshadowed by Sharon’s statements to date. At a December 2002 strategic think tank conference in Herzliya, he famously argued that Israel would need to give up nearly half of the West Bank in order to consolidate its demographic control over the remainder. His May 2003 speech to the Knesset reaffirmed that Israel could not keep “3 to 5 million Palestinians under occupation forever” and argued that it must therefore surrender some settlements, “painful” as it may be. The comments were widely cited in the international media as evidence of a new moderation, yet as the fence makes clear, they herald not a withdrawal from the land but the consolidation of Israel’s hold over it.  That 91 to 99 percent of all settlers were to remain on the “Israeli” side under the approved plans illustrates how hollow was the rhetoric of “painful” concessions.

From the perspective of the Likud party, which had hitherto opposed relinquishing Israeli control over any part of the West Bank, acceptance of the fence marked a historic turnaround. Sharon shared the same territorial vision, but understood sooner than his party that it was irreconcilable with Palestinian demographics; the Labor party had long said as much. The fence it bequeathed to Sharon allowed him to reconcile party differences that had narrowed considerably since Oslo, during which Labor premiers from Rabin to Barak built myriad facts on Palestinian ground. With the help of a fence routed by such facts and his own vision, Sharon was now in a position to secure the essence of the Right’s territorial ambition, retaining direct control over more than 50 percent of the West Bank and, by corralling the Palestinians into virtual reservations, effective control over the rest. In so doing, he has found himself heading a new national consensus.

If most parties along Israel’s political spectrum can identify with the map now drawn by the fence it is because it closely follows one that for over thirty years has served as a referent for Israeli debates about the West Bank—that of the Allon Plan. Formulated soon after the 1967 war, it called for Israel to retain permanent control over the Jordan Valley, a strip of territory running along the Dead Sea, and a wide swath enfolding the Jerusalem region and bisecting the West Bank; what remained would be left either to Jordan or the Palestinians. A 1977 version of the plan also included a strip running the entire western length of the Green Line. Sharon certainly has kept his Allon notes: as Ariel mayor Ron Nahman told Yedi’ot Aharonot, "the map of the fence, the sketch of which you see here, is the same map I saw during every visit Arik made here since 1978. He told me he has been thinking about it since 1973." [20] Today, there is something in it for most Israelis: for the coastal middle class, a concrete mark of the security they hope separation will bring, and for the settlers, a very generous compromise. Settler leaders make no secret of their accomplishment, boasting that “We’ve moved the Green Line.” [21] Meanwhile, what remains on the other side of the fence will never be a state in any real sense of the word. There are, however, other terms to describe it.

Welcome to the Bantustan

Since maps to other people’s geography began descending on his village, the mukhtar of Dayr al-Ghusun has learned much about movable borders. It was in late summer 2002 that notices first began appearing on tree branches and boulders in the village’s olive groves announcing that the Israeli army was requisitioning its land. Villagers were informed that they had seven days to lodge protests, supported by title deeds and attested land surveys, with the IDF at the District Coordinating office. A military curfew confined them in their homes for much of the period. Israeli surveyors and bulldozers arrived shortly thereafter, followed by new, modified maps “always taking more land”—2,900 dunams in all. [22] As of July 2003, the structure here is complete. Fairly typical of the fence, it covers an area 30 to 100 m wide and comprises two parallel electrified fences flanked on the outside by deep trenches and enclosing between them a patrol road for army jeeps and a sand “trace” path to show signs of attempted infiltration. Hidden surveillance cameras and in some places remote-controlled machine guns [23] complete the structure. Where the barrier separates Palestinians from Israeli or settlement infrastructure, it becomes a multi-story concrete wall with sniper towers. Unlike the Israeli government, the structure brooks no illusions of impermanence, and neither do the soldiers who patrol it. “What are you doing in Israel?” is now a habitual admonishment to farmers trapped on the wrong side.  Behind the wall, Dayr al-Ghusun is destitute and isolated, with increasingly limited access to a quarter of its land and cut off from markets in the formerly bustling commercial border villages of Nazlat Issa and Baq’a al-Sharqiya trapped on the Israeli side of the fence. When plans for the construction of additional “depth barriers” on the Palestinian side are implemented, the village will also lose access to public services and markets in nearby Tulkarm.

The map of this future Palestine has emerged only gradually and is still evolving. The Israeli Defense Ministry has never published its full blueprints, only area sections marking land requisitions dropped on Palestinian doorsteps as construction proceeds. Yet on the basis of official descriptions, first in March 2003 and then following successive cabinet approvals of the fence’s constituent phases, a comprehensive map can be pieced together. Technically, it could be completed within two years. [24] In concrete detail as well as concept, it entails not separation but enclosure, hemming in three main Palestinian cantons centered, respectively, on Nablus and Jenin (delineated to the north and west by segments A, B and C); Ramallah and Salfit (carved out by phase C); and Bethlehem and Hebron (closed in by phase D). The Jordan Valley phase (phase E), the only one whose path has yet to be formally decided, will complete the cantons’ encirclement to the east, leaving Jericho as an additional mini-enclave. Most starkly, Palestinian East Jerusalem, once the political, economic, and cultural center of the West Bank, is entirely swallowed by a subsection of phase A, its constituent neighborhoods and villages being absorbed as isolated urban ghettos within Israeli Greater Jerusalem.

The picture is further fractured by a variety of additional fence subcomponents, some officially approved but not yet implemented, others still pending. Settler councils are currently lobbying for nine extensions to the wall’s main path, five of them along phases already approved. Particularly noteworthy are efforts by the Shilo and Eli councils to extend phase E’s western Jordan Valley path so as to enfold them, thus all but linking it up with the easternmost tip of the phase C segment that enfolds the Ariel and Keddumim settlements. If approved, this extension would leave only a 1 km passage between the Nablus and Ramallah cantons, further cut by settler Road 505. Elsewhere, the Israeli cabinet in November 2003 approved the creation of additional smaller Palestinian enclaves in “Israeli” territory between the Ramallah and Bethlehem/Hebron cantons, encircling them in a “double fence.”

To these can be added three de facto enclaves created by the fence’s looping path around Hable and Ras Atirah and again around Azun-Atme near Qalqilya; the third enclave hems in the villages of Dayr Balut, Rafat, and al-Zawiya in the Salfit governorate. There are also a number of smaller enclaves isolated behind the fence on the “Israeli” side, west of Bethlehem. An additional barrier being built along the Green Line itself will isolate the Tulkarm district villages of Nazlat Issa, Baq’a al-Sharqiya, and Nazlat al-Nar, already stranded on the “Israeli” side of the fence by phase A, from their Palestinian-Israeli neighbors. Lastly, the Israeli army indicated in mid-2002 that a number of so-called depth barriers will separate the city of Tulkarm as well as the Jenin district villages of Rummana, Taybe, Anin, and al-Sa’ida, which phase A had placed on the “Palestinian” side, from the rest of the West Bank.

Within this maze of enclosures and exclusions, the Palestinians stand to retain between 48 and 53 percent of the West Bank, depending on the outcome of settler lobbying for additional fence extensions. [25] Some 395,000 Palestinians will be isolated outside the “cantons,” including 225,000 in occupied East Jerusalem.[26] Moreover, between 595,000 and 717,000—a third of the West Bank population—stand to lose access to their cultivated lands. [27] This is to allow Israel to annex de facto 129 out of an estimated 160 existing settlements in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, incorporating all but 25,000 of some 400,000 settlers.   Furthermore, if pending extensions are approved, only nine smaller settlements, totaling about 4,000 residents, would fall outside the “Israeli” areas. These figures may not be final, however. As the array of ongoing adjustments to its path illustrate, the fence is a dynamic project. Thus, while settler commentators tout their historic compromise in relinquishing half of “Judea and Samaria,” [28] as they themselves know, there is always space for more fence.

Even if such extensions do not materialize, the fence augurs a further unraveling of the economic and social fabric of Palestinian life in the West Bank. Bleak evidence is already at hand along its completed segments A and B in the northwestern West Bank and around East Jerusalem, where Palestinian access to land, water, family support networks, markets, and health and education providers has been severely curtailed. Already, some 210,000 Palestinians in the Qalqilya, Jenin, Tulkarm, and Salfit governorates directly suffer its consequences, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. [29] Hardest hit are 15 villages and hamlets on the “Israeli” side, isolated not only from their agricultural lands but from nearby Palestinian communities both in the West Bank and across the Green Line. [30]

Overall, in the predominantly rural region covered by phases A and B, the fence has separated farmers from some 121,455 dunams of agricultural land—not including 14,680 dunams on which the fence is built and the some 102,000 olive and fruit trees uprooted to make way for its path. [31] Local irrigation networks and water storage facilities have also been destroyed in this process, compounding the woes of farmers cut off from a large proportion of their irrigation wells. [32] Under what it terms a “Fabric of Life” policy, the Israeli army claims that it is making efforts to minimize the fence’s impact on Palestinian lives, inter alia by allowing access through some 47 gates placed at irregular intervals along its path. In practice, however, such access is increasingly limited; the gates open at irregular times for very short periods, passage has been subject to the caprices of Israeli soldiers, and even when farmers obtain permission to pass they have been prevented from taking their agricultural equipment with them. [33]

Such restrictions carry stark economic, social, and political implications. Though agriculture accounted for only 10 to 15 percent of Palestinian economic output before the intifada, it has become an important local subsistence buffer following the economy's collapse, particularly for the estimated 70 percent of the households in areas covered by phase A. [34] (These same areas also accounted for some 45 percent of West Bank agricultural production.) [35] Accordingly, the fence cuts one of the last remaining legs from under the Palestinian economy, both aggravating local humanitarian vulnerabilities and eroding national economic viability. The longer-term development of Palestinian agriculture, already constrained by regional water shortages, will be further undermined by the fence's Jordan Valley phase, which would combine with phases A and C to alienate the vast majority of high-potential agricultural land in the West Bank, leaving its interior with mostly low value-added olive cultivation. Since the high-yield alternative is both labor and water intensive and requires capital investment, growing obstacles to access and the accompanying uncertainties will serve to put out of use large tracts of cultivated Palestinian land. [36]

This is also likely the point. Technically, the Israeli state has not yet formally confiscated land either for the fence itself or for its adjoining areas but has “temporarily requisitioned” it through a process that does not require payment of compensation and can be extended every five years. By that time, however, such land will almost certainly be “unused” and therefore subject to expropriation under an 1858 Ottoman law whereby land that has been “out of use” for three years reverts to the “sovereign.” It is this law that Israel has systematically manipulated since 1967 to expropriate Palestinian land, which, once seized, has then been made available for settlement construction. In this sense, the “Fabric of Life” policy promises little more than the incorporation of Palestinian land into an Israeli fabric.

Writ large, this spatial reshuffle guts the primary administrative linkages of the West Bank, deforms the municipal space of almost all its main cities, and alienates much of the existing infrastructure linking its main population centers. Qalqilya governorate will be shredded into a patchwork and isolated from its urban heart, the Salfit governorate will all but disappear; the Ramallah region will be compacted into less than half its present size; the Bethlehem governorate will suffer a similar fate and may in addition be subdivided into three smaller enclaves if a proposal to include within the fence the Tekoa and Asfar settlement bloc is adopted; a third of the Hebron region will disappear, with the remainder likely pinched into four quarters by fence indents around the Adura and Kiryat Arba settlements. Since many of the fence’s deeper indentations impinge upon the main Palestinian urban centers, excepting only Nablus and Jenin,—it will ghettoize and deform much of the West Bank’s municipal space, and alienate much of its linking infrastructure. Most seriously, by enfolding all of East Jerusalem it will put out of use the nexus of the Palestinian road network in the West Bank, including the main north-south trunkroad, Highway 60. When the Jordan Valley segment of the fence is complete, Palestinians in both the northern and southern cantons will also lose access to it as well, and be forced to fall back on sideroads.

The impact on Jerusalem is the starkest and of greatest significance to Palestinian national aspirations. Over 90 percent of the post-1967 Palestinian Jerusalem district will be swallowed by the fence and absorbed into Israel, representing some 40 percent of the urban population of the West Bank. This includes 225,000 Palestinians within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and 55,000 suburbanites stranded in walled enclosures on the Israeli side of the fence’s envelope, most notably in the villages of Bir Nabala, al-Jib, Bayt Hanina, al-Jadeira, Qalandia, al-Ram, Hizma, Anata, and Shu`fat camp. These villages will be cut off not only from East Jerusalem but also metropolitan subcenters like Ramallah and Bethlehem, as well as their northern and southern West Bank hinterlands. Like East Jerusalem, they will also be separated from the city’s immediate eastern suburbs of Abu Dis, Azariyya, Shaykh Sa’ad, and Sawahira, which, like Kafr Aqab on its northern municipal limits, will be attached to the larger Palestinian cantons. In total, some 100,000 Palestinians will thus be excised from Jerusalem’s urban fabric, some inside the fence’s Jerusalem envelope, some outside it, including in the latter category an estimated 15,000 Jerusalem ID holders living in Kafr Aqab and Qalandia. [37] These suburbs will need to rely on public health and education facilities in more distant subcenters, many of which are already overstretched and unable to meet local demand. Meanwhile, tight enclosures around the suburbs trapped on the Israeli side of the Jerusalem subfence make their outlying lands easy prey for settlements like Givat Ze’ev and the Ma’ale Adumim bloc.

Indeed, across the West Bank, the fence opens Israel’s scramble for land. While settlement built-up areas currently comprise only 1.7 percent of the West Bank, the fence, in taking in area 30 times larger than this figure, furnishes ample room for expansion. [38] Indeed, an examination of its path shows that it often closes off territory 5 to 6 times larger than that of specific settlements—a discrepancy difficult to justify on security grounds. [39] The reason can be read in settlement blueprints traced with uncanny accuracy by its path, which among Palestinians are already an open secret. When in early spring 2002 the mukhtar of Daba, just south of Qalqilya, went to the local Israeli army office to complain about the “requisition” of the hamlet’s olive groves, plans for a new settlement straddling the very same lands and those of neighboring Hable were already pinned to its walls. With other such requisitions, nearby Alfe Menashe and Zufim will also find themselves with vastly enlarged land reserves tailored to longstanding urban master plans. The list goes on: according to satellite images, new construction is currently underway in more than 60 locations around the West Bank, mostly centered on Jerusalem and the Barqan-Ariel bloc. [40] 

Crucially, the pace of construction coupled with the concomitant paralysis of the “peace process” makes debates over the temporary versus permanent nature of the fence irrelevant. Israeli commentators rightly note that it can be torn down, though the cost of doing so once the 660 km plus structure is complete would not be inconsiderable. [41] Yet such arguments miss the point, and often deliberately so. As early as 2001, Sharon tellingly augured that Israel and a Palestinian entity might become embroiled in a ten-year standoff on Israeli-drawn “temporary borders.” Through a politics embodied by the fence, he has since made such timelines increasingly plausible—time enough for new and more permanent facts to swell and set inside the fence’s mold, and to harden into incontrovertibility. YESHA spokespeople may indeed mean it when they claim that their main goal is now “preserving the settlement status quo, i.e., the existence of the settlements,” but their status quo has built-in expectations of a bigger future. [42]

To these the fence has given added flight. With access to newly consolidated land reserves and safely incorporated into Israel’s metropolitan cores by a network of bypass roads and highways, many settlements, once marginal on the national real estate market (despite heavy government subsidies) and made even less appealing by the intifada, are poised for consolidation, expansion, and gentrification. The mayor of Ariel, until recently considered a sleepy backwater fit for poorer immigrants, talks eagerly of designs to make his “city” into one of Israel’s largest, [43] a fulcrum for hopes by YESHA and the World Zionist Organization to more than double the settler population in the West Bank by 2015, to 1 million. [44] 

The bulk of this increase would realistically have to be drawn from Israel’s middle class. Such gentrification would have significant implications for the country’s political landscape. As Israel’s political center increasingly vests itself in the West Bank, the prospects of any coalition platform built around a withdrawal from this territory grow slimmer. The mounting contradictions of this scrambled terrain are already evident: during the last general elections, the far-left Meretz party operated a campaign office in upscale Ma’ale Adumim, which, like Gilo, Givat Ze’ev, and Pisgat Ze’ev, is no longer regarded as a settlement by most Israelis. [45] By pitting increasingly rare liberal consciences against affordable designer lifestyles on the colonial frontier, the fence thus tips the political scales even further against a solution even remotely based on the West Bank’s 1967 borders.

The Ideo-Logic of Separation

Despite its brutality and naked territorial ambition, the fence has brooked little debate in the Israeli media mainstream. Three months after its full outline was made public, Ha’Aretz could report that about 80 percent of Israeli-Jewish respondents, when asked whether "in principle, do you support or oppose the building of a fence separating Israel and the Palestinians?” replied that they were very or fairly supportive. [46] The wording of the question is telling. The public debate has largely remained—and indeed been deliberately fixed—at the level of an abstract idea: the principle of separation. Not where the fence is drawn, its effects, or indeed whether, at what cost, and by what criteria it provides security. Such questions have been deferred to the country’s military technocracy and to settler lobbyists enjoying privileged access to its inner sancta. Their success in obfuscating such questions illustrates the former’s hold on Israeli public discourse and its tightening relationship with the latter.

The virtual absence of debate rests on a sense of prerogative that cuts across Israel’s political spectrum, from Left-Center to Right.  Efforts by some members of the Israeli Center-Left to disavow the fence’s less marketable side effects therefore belie the extent to which they have paved its ground. Labor party member Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was defense minister in Sharon’s first coalition government and hence the man in charge of the fence project, has been the most prominent edifier of the Left’s protestations. According to him, "The basic idea was to follow the Green Line. . . . It is a security fence. It is not diplomatic. It is not political.” [47] While this language was initially meant to assuage both international and settler concerns about the fence, it soon also became a tale of innocence lost. Sharon had “politicized” and “hijacked” a perfectly sound concept, runs the complaint of political commentators like Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Political Analysis and an executive member of the Coalition for Peace and Security, a largely bipartisan and self-professedly dovish lobbying group that had helped engineer public support for the fence. Yet as noted earlier, Sharon’s achievement was precisely that unlike his Labor challenger Mitzna, he had taken politics out of the fence and made it a consensus. And this consenus has been built on a sensibility excavated by both Left and Right. Ehud Barak’s post–Camp David aphorisms about good fences making good neighbors mined the same vein as Rabin’s 1992 election slogan “Us Here, Them There.” Yet both only followed the lead of Rehevam Ze’evi, the founder of Israel’s Moledet (Transfer) party, who eight years earlier had campaigned on the slogan “Us Here, Them There, and Peace in Israel.” “If there is disagreement, it is only about where is there?” [48] Ze’evi concluded. 

Working out the devil in this fence detail was not a matter for the public, however, but for the military authorities. This suited Sharon well. “If the security community says move the fence here or there, the public is not going to get involved in it,” vouchsafes Alpher knowingly. While the settler lobby could get Sharon and Uzi Keren to intercede with army planners, the Israeli public at large had only sporadic insight into the project. There was in any case little reason for them to be concerned; most strongly supported the idea of the fence, few felt any sympathy for the Palestinians, and even Sharon’s opposition maintained that it was a temporary security measure. Authority stamped on this kind of public consensus wrote both its own check and rules. Though among the more expensive public projects in Israel’s history, the fence has suffered no feasibility studies, cost-benefit analyses, or indeed any other kind of analysis. “What kind of baffles me is that there are no criteria for what would constitute success, and no contingency plans for failure,” notes public policy analyst Ya’acov Garb at the Florsheimer Institute for Policy Studies in Jerusalem. “It has swept the discourse landscape.” [49] 

Swept away, too, were questions about its putatively strict security considerations. The fence’s long and circuitous detours run flat against military preferences for straight salients that can be easily patrolled; military planners have grumbled as much to the press and contributed their own thoughts about the added costs. "It would be cheaper to give each resident of Keddumim a villa in the center of Israel than to build this fence," noted one army source to Yedi’ot Aharonot. [50] While the motif of Palestinian suicide bombers walking effortlessly across empty fields into Israel’s coastal heartland was ceaselessly evoked to promote the fence, an Israeli State Comptroller’s report released in July 2002, a month after phase A was approved, established that most bombers had in fact passed through checkpoints, “where they underwent faulty and even shoddy checks.” And that the IDF knew it. [51] The comptroller’s report was cited by B’Tselem, which went on to note that more than six months after it had been issued, the defense establishment still had done nothing to rectify these security problems. In suggesting its own interpretation of the true rationale for the barrier, B’Tselem quotes Sharon: “The idea [to build the barrier] is populist and intended to serve political objectives.” [52]

Despite such critiques, and sometimes trenchant on-the-ground reporting by Yedi’ot Aharonot and Ha’Aretz, Israeli opposition to the fence remains extremely limited—and belated. Though it is now firmly on the map of the radical and marginal Left, as late as spring 2003, when phase A was nearing completion, many of its members dismissed it as “unfeasible.” [53] While the fence was still hovering within a few kilometers of the Green Line, many also liked to see its silver lining, arguing that at least it would for the first time delineate a border between Israel and the West Bank. On the Center-Left, Meretz’s main complaint in the early stages of Sharon’s tenure was that the fence was not being built quickly enough;[54] Barak called it “the central, most costly—in blood—failure of this [Sharon] government.” [55] Sometimes the Center-Left speeded the fence in more damaging directions. With the assessment that "it would be a mistake to have territorial contiguity between Qalqilya and Hable," Labor party member, fence booster, and then the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee Haim Ramon endorsed a petition by Israeli communities on either side of the Green Line to fence in the stretch of Route 55 connecting the Palestinian city with its neighboring village, thereby allowing the settlement of Alfe Menashe to be seamlessly incorporated into Israel and turning the Palestinian communities into ghettos. [56] 

Ramon’s fluid sense of prerogative was widely shared. While the self-professedly dovish Coalition for Peace and Security hoped, according to Alpher, that the fence would “marginalize isolated settlements,” those close to the Green Line and “settlement blocs” were not to be targeted. Tellingly, the coalition itself never tendered specific maps for its fence, only principles. Alpher is vague about how places like Ariel could be accommodated and concedes that “a Labor government would also have been subject to lobbying from the settlers.” [57] Barak himself forthrightly states in an article in Yedi’ot Aharonot that his vision of the fence would “include the settlements blocs and Ariel. . . .” [58] Indeed, what he did on the ground in the West Bank illustrates just how receptive was the Left to such lobbying; his Camp David parameters show just how close, in the end, was its final vision to that of Sharon.

What this ideo-logic meanwhile offers Palestinians is a thinly veiled Bantustan rhetoric, complete, inter alia, with its own economic lexicon. While covering—if mostly cursorily—the fence’s erosion of Palestinian livelihoods, Israeli newspapers have also developed an interest in its putative perks, detailing the petty trade and taxi business that flourishes in once commercially marginal communities sited close to its gates or straddling the only remaining thoroughfares along its northwestern path. This, imputes the press, is the mark of a new self-reliance. [59] In an imagination coasting on recycled Afrikaner glosses, separation will supposedly allow the natives to take charge of their own future. The reality is that like the myriad mini-markets sprouting around Israeli checkpoints, such upflows are like the arcing masts of a sinking ship that rise to prominence only because everything they are attached to is going down. With little land, water, or access to markets of any kind, rudimentary macroeconomics would be hard put to suggest what the Palestinians would have left to self rely on. Yet this discourse has found purchase, and not only in Israel. The Rand Corporation, a prominent U.S. research institute, profers the following assessment in the liberal and widely read Atlantic Monthly: “[T]he wall will further weaken the already severely damaged Palestinian economy in the short run, since entry into Israel will be more difficult. As Palestinians are forced to turn elsewhere for jobs and income, however, the impetus for a more self-reliant and robust Palestinian economy could emerge.” [60] Rand at least answers the question of where is “there”? “There” is “elsewhere,” and in most senses this means Nowhere.

Fences and the Fantasies of Erasure

As Rehevam Ze’evi’s concept of separation remains a euphemism for transfer, many Palestinians fear that this is the brute subtext of the “Separation Fence.” Indeed, a striking feature of its map is the manner in which it elides its Palestinian inhabitants. What will become of the 170,000 people, not including those residing in Israeli-“annexed” East Jerusalem, who will ultimately find themselves enfolded on the “Israeli” side of the fence? Palestinians have drawn their own conclusions, supported by the short but nasty experience of those already living in its shadow, and by statements by some of its most prominent Israeli backers. Yet beyond physical displacement, the fence also effects a different kind of transfer; the visual and spatial erasure of the occupied population in an unvarigated colonial dreamscape.

Israeli demographer Arnon Sofer has most sharply articulated such reveries. A vocal advocate of transfer and the redrawing of Israel’s borders along demographic lines, Sofer credits himself with the political turnaround that Ariel Sharon made public at the 2002 Herzliya conference.[61] Yet Sofer has only given voice to an atmosphere that since the eruption of the al-Aqsa intifada has allowed transfer to rise from election campaign subtext to mainstream political vocabulary in Israel, supported by 46 percent of its Jewish citizens.[62] This is the kind of atmosphere in which, to paraphrase Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, everyone knows what is the problem and what has to be done.[63] Fence campaigners on both the Left and Right have exploited this understanding. The Coalition for Peace and Security, for example, earlier sought to win public support for the fence by highlighting that 100,000 Palestinians putatively reside in Israel as “illegal returnees”—a figure which Alpher says “then came to our attention.” [64]

Palestinians fear that such preoccupations are now paving the way for a demographic housecleaning in the West Bank. Those already living along the fence’s completed sections have good grounds for such fears. To the indignities and hardships already suffered, the Israeli army has added an inauspicious formal sign of intent. On 2 October 2003, Military Order No. 378 came into effect declaring all occupied West Bank land between the "security" wall and Israel's 1967 border a "closed" zone. According to the army, "No person will enter . . . and no one will remain there." The exceptions are "Israelis," defined as Israeli citizens, Israeli residents, and “anyone entitled to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.” Palestinians, meanwhile, will be required to obtain permits to live in their houses, farm their land, and to travel to their own hospitals, schools, and markets. Those whose lands are inside the closed zone but who reside outside it will also be required to apply for permits to farm their land, [65] but there are no guarantees that such permits will be granted or that Palestinian land titles will be honored. [66] A trail of new house demolition orders and bulldozed shops and greenhouses along phase A suggests just how little they may be worth.

Israeli army statements imply that this is just the beginning of a widening no-holds-barred policy, clearing ever more space around the space that has already been cleared. Along with the new military order came an announcement that within 50 meters on either side of the wall, “Israeli troops will be allowed to open fire before the completion of the procedure for arresting suspects, which includes warning shots.” [67] The implications of the accompanying message—“the same engagement rules used in the Gaza Strip would apply in the West Bank" [68]—can already be read across the bulldozed wastelands of Rafah, Khan Yunis, and Mawasi. [69] Local army commanders have long hinted darkly about the introduction of such kill zones along the fence; some have already been erected around settlement perimeters, and proposals for the broadening of this policy are currently pending. [70] For Palestinians seeking to till their land, and for a few score international activists dogging the fence’s construction crews, the new rules of separation mark a further narrowing of the space in which to resist—and live.

There is evidence that some Palestinians have already read the writing on this wall. Thousands have reportedly left Qalqilya since the completion of the wall that now completely surrounds it, accelerating an outflux well underway since the second year of the intifada when the local economy began drying up (unemployment there now exceeds 80 percent) and which has since emptied the city of 15 to 20 percent of its pre-intifada population of 37,000. Palestinian activists and NGO workers also report migration from the villages and hamlets stranded in the fenced in pockets south of Qalqilya and in the northern sections of Tulkarm governorate. [71] Those moving first are often families with property in nearby villages; in other words, people who have somewhere else to go. Qalqilya exemplifies this phenomenon: well into the first year of the intifada it still attracted workers and merchants from towns and villages as far away as Hebron who came to share in the thriving trade across the Green Line. It is these migrants who have left, moving back into the impoverished heart of the West Bank, or down the road along Route 55. [72] In this sense, the fence forces a reversal of Palestinian urban development, a push back in time and means.

After such dislocations, transfer is likely to be a gradual process, speeded most in small and particularly isolated communities. However, there are many indications that the Israeli authorities are willing to speed things up. In places like Numan village, stranded between Bethlehem and the settlement of Har Homa, housing ministry representatives have already read the new rules to the 250 inhabitants: their community is slated for conversion into an uninhabited “green area.” [73] Unlike their neighbors in occupied East Jerusalem, Numan’s inhabitants were never granted Israeli IDs after 1967 and are accordingly considered illegal residents. Their precarious position is not unique. Phase D of the fence, when linked to its Jordan Valley extension, will sever thousands of Bedouin from the Hebron markets crucial to their livestock economy, encouraging them to migrate permanently to the Palestinian enclaves. [74] It is perhaps not an accident that this prospect coincides with recent Israeli plans to transfer nearby Israeli Negev Bedouin into six new urban reservations masquerading as development towns, thus opening the entire desert to exclusively Jewish development. [75] 

Many of the Palestinian who will find themselves on the wrong side of the fence will not be any better off under Military Order No. 378. By in effect turning “a right to reside in one’s own home and with one’s family into a revocable privilege allotted on a case by case basis,” the order drives home the precariousness of their status under Israeli law. [76] For over thirty years, Israeli authorities have systematically denied construction permits to Palestinians in the West Bank. Since they had little choice but to build anyway, much of their inhabited landscape is accordingly “illegal” and can therefore be erased. The names of slipping communities are mounting: Numan, Wadi Kana, Akkabe, Ras al-Tira. As in 1948 and 1967, thousands of Palestinians are waking to realize that lives and homes built over decades were but dreams, now giving way to someone else’s reality.

Though some 1.8 million Palestinians will remain on the “Palestinian” side of the fence, their reality, too, will be increasingly subsumed by the colonial imagination. As the fence consolidates the transformation of the West Bank into an Israeli landscape, it also empties the meaning of a Palestinian presence in their land. Already, the liberal Ha’Aretz can describe the vistas of the Trans-Samaria highway as follows: “There are no signs to indicate the transition from the sovereign state to the other place, nothing to point to the existence of the Green Line, no warning about the dangers lurking along the road, which passes close to Palestinian villages. Walls have been built to hide the oppressive presence of the villages.” [77] In this is heard the inner voice of the fence; among the things that fences and walls do is to erase an oppressive presence—that of the other place, with its other people. In this sense it does not matter if the inhabitants of encircled Palestinian towns, village ghettos, and encysted hinterlands migrate or not; they will not cloud the horizon, they will not be seen; a virtual transfer will have been effected.

Unlike their fading Arab backdrop, the settlements that fill the fjord-like indents of the fence are real, with pressing needs to commute and travel, accommodated by Oslo-paved bypass highways linked to formerly Palestinian roads, and since secured by checkpoints and barriers. Increasingly denied access to their own transport infrastructure, Palestinians have meanwhile had to fall back on tortuously winding side roads skirting the main settlement blocs, multiplying the distance and time required for travel. What was once a 10 km eastward jaunt from the villages of Bidya, Sarta, and Bani Hassan to the city of Salfit, whose hinterlands are from there visible to the naked eye, now necessitates a looping 80 km journey westward to circumnavigate Shomron settlement, north and then south to negotiate Keddumim, and then east to skirt Ariel. [78]  The road these villagers used to travel was once the main artery linking Qalqilya governorate to Salfit and the heart of the West Bank. On Israeli maps it is now Route 505, linking the settlements of Barqan and Ariel to Israel’s extended coastal metropolis.

A less arduous but equally confounding alternative is the possible construction of tunnels and bridges connecting Palestinian enclaves. The Israeli army has reportedly already suggested the latter to the mayor of Qalqilya so as to allow the city to be linked to Hable village. [79] Indeed, as early as the Oslo years, Israeli officials mulled plans for a giant causeway connecting the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, which foundered both on its prohibitive cost and the idea that Palestinians would be allowed to travel above Israelis. As Israeli architect Eyal Weizman notes about such colonial imaginaries, they “managed to crash the three dimensional space into six dimensions—three Jewish and three Arab.” [80]

Not all dimensions are made equal, however. In addition to pushing Palestinians off and under ground, there is little indication that any tunnels would in the foreseeable future be more accommodating than the gates of the fence. Israeli officials have already all but voided the Qalqilya-Hable proposal by insisting that any passage would have to be guarded, and that it would be permanently blocked if any “terrorists” were found to use it. Most importantly, by shearing off Palestinian lands and livelihoods, the fence vitiates the social and economic basis of travel as anything but a shuffle between one poverty and another. Why would Hable go to Qalqilya if it has nothing to sell, and Qalqilya no money to buy? Such humanitarian glosses as tunnels may thus serve mainly as vents for the gradual emptying of smaller village ghettos into larger urban enclosures, where petty trade and social services are at least more readily available.  Like those of their Palestinian-Israeli kin who after 1948 were elided legally by the Israeli appellation Present Absentees, West Bankers remaining on what is left beyond tomorrow’s Israel may indeed be enfolded in discursive contortions like Contiguous Enclaves and Subterranean Flyovers. Yet, even if such terms pad a rhetoric of statehood, it would only be to underscore that though they are there, they are not. 

PA into the Breach

Even to a Palestinian leadership that since the outbreak of the intifada has elevated being-there-but-not-really-being-there into political strategy, the fence poses an undeniable challenge.[81] Indeed, erstwhile premier Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazin) made the fence a key talking point with U.S. diplomats and the international media following the June 2003 consecration of the road map at Aqaba, and carried the message on his White House visit the following month. To Israeli media commentators like Ze’ev Schiff, this smelled of a plan, both confirming the fence’s necessity and reinvesting the muddled marketing themes of its boosters. The PA, he argued, “opposes any fence and wants a porous border between Israel and the territories” to “allow terrorists to pass,” along with “tens of thousands of Palestinians, Jordanians, and other Arabs” who “could come into Israel and settle without permission.” [82] But Schiff fantasizes. The PA has not made plans, any plans.

Though diplomats and the international media absorbed the PA’s publicity push of summer 2003, few noted that it came a full year after the fence began unfolding. During that time, the PA barely ventured a comment either at home or abroad, even as Qalqilya and a third of the West Bank’s northwestern borders disappeared; its main preoccupation had been to eke out the terms of its own survival and renewed American engagement in the peace process in the face of unprecedented international and Israeli pressure on its leadership. Meanwhile there was neither much interest in rocking the boat of public diplomacy, nor a felt need to. With the wall’s first segments closely following the Green Line, some in the PA’s inner circle were content to treat it with indifference or even—not unlike parts of the Israeli Left—cautious optimism, hazarding that it would for the first time divorce the settlements from Israel. Then came the rude awakening of phases C and D.  And as it now scrambles to catch up with its implications, the political and institutional space that it has vacated looms ever larger.

Those living along the fence’s first phase felt the PA’s absence most keenly and drew embittered conclusions. “There is a lot of suspicion about it, and I can see why, because the PA didn’t say much,” [83] notes Nasser Faqih of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC), a development organization spearheading the Palestinian campaign against the fence. As the destruction wrought by phase A mounted in the fall of 2002, PARC and members of the Palestinian Council (PC) brought farmers from the villages of Jayyus, Qalqilya, Izbat Salman, and Falamiya to address the PA during a PC session. According to Faqih, the farmers accused the PA of being either stupid or party to the deal. PA denials of involvement and protestations of powerlessness did not mollify them. As the farmers noted, PA officials had not even made an effort to visit the affected areas.[84]

What did instead absorb the PA’s energies that fall and winter was the road map, to which it has pinned its political fortunes, and the internal PA reshuffling on which it was conditioned. Amidst this official paralysis it was left to Palestinian civil society to articulate a response to the fence. In this, the lead was taken by the Palestinian Environmental NGO’s Network (PENGON), an association of some twenty-five organizations, including PARC, whose largely rural constituencies were most affected by the first phase. The group promoted local awareness, sponsored an international public relations campaign, targeted assistance to farmers, and mobilized local protests along the fence’s path. Yet its achievements have been limited, betraying the fractured interests and limited capabilities of its members. One problem had been the campaign’s early rural and environmental emphasis, which, while responding to its core constituencies, did not reflect the fence’s looming national implications and thus drew only a local village-based response.

The campaign has since broadened in keeping with periodic Israeli releases of updated plans for the fence. Yet betraying both the extent to which Palestinian society has demobilized and depoliticized during the intifada, and the success of Israel’s counterinsurgency, the results remain slim. As Faqih acknowledges, “They have not managed to halt it, slow it down, or redirect it. You make a demonstration one day, they will shoot tear gas and impose a curfew, and the next week everything will be completed.”[85] What remains for his organization, like most others, is to pick up the pieces. “We do relief work. It’s mostly reactive. We think we have done the best we could, but in reality we have not done anything . . . the NGOs cannot be the leadership for an issue like this. The real leadership has to be political and national. It has to do with national integrity and sovereignty.” [86]

If lack of leadership has undermined local mobilization against the fence, the consequences are also most evident locally, in the atomization and isolation of affected communities. Lacking official PA support and unaided by a national press coverage, which lagged conspicuously in 2002, many have only recently begun to realize that they would even be affected. Well after plans for phases C and D had been released in spring 2003, one international volunteer working in soon-to-be encircled villages remarked that,  “Even people who live close by don’t know much about it: when we talked about it in the village, they asked, ‘which wall’?” [87] The same volunteer also relates how, prior to the publication of phases C and D, his organization had helped organize demonstrations against the fence in the Salfit governorate in cooperation with local representatives of the Palestinian People’s Party. When they approached more significant players, however, the response was cold. “We wanted to work with the local mayors. We approached the Fatah people, but they showed very little interest and did not attend. We heard that the mayors were told not to demonstrate against it. And most of the mayors were Fatah.” [88] Shortly thereafter, when the PA had come around publicly to the problem, the same local officials returned, asking for information and assistance.

A number of explanations for PA passivity may be tendered, none of them flattering. Confusion and disorganization played a role, but the PA and its core of senior Fatah members also showed clear reluctance to stir the political waters at this time, even on pressing national issues. Israeli settlement expansion, which never figured largely on its agenda even during Oslo, was one such neglected issue. As a former PA adviser observed, “The rationale is that in order to move things forward you have to create a good political climate, which means you cannot take a real stand on Israeli settlement politics while political momentum is building around Abu Mazin.” [89] 

At the PA, the tone has since changed, spurred by the March 2003 disclosure of the much-expanded phases C and D and by expressions of U.S. concern about the fence.  But even though it has now become an “issue,” the PA has yet to help organize a response to the fence on the ground, beyond vague exhortations to civil disobedience unsupported by official guidance. The PA’s only counter strategy, insofar as it can be described as such, has been to rely on, and indeed be guided by, U.S. initiative. Another dispirited adviser sums up the problem. “I don’t think they get it. They’ve never gotten it. They are living in their bubbles about permanent status negotiations and getting back on the peace track. Every single aspect of the wall we had to fight for. It was when they realized that the Americans are looking at it that they started caring.” [90] While an assistant to Abu Mazin could therefore acknowledge by the summer of 2003 a “qualitative change in settlement policy,” [91] there was no evidence of a qualitative change in Palestinian leadership.

Reservation Management

The PA’s paralysis has been most starkly evidenced in its reliance on American intervention, hinged on the road map’s calls for a “viable” and “contiguous” Palestinian state.  By late autumn 2003, however, it was clear how flexible such terms are—if necessary, infinitely so. As initial U.S. concern shaded into resignation and tacit acquiescence in Israeli demands, its intervention has accordingly been limited to tweaking or delaying parts of the fence’s path. Meanwhile the European Union (EU), which underwrote much of the Oslo process, remains handicapped by its deference to U.S. leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian issue and appears resigned to flexing only its humanitarianism. Yet though PA officials may bemoan the dissipation of Washington’s putative resolve, they should not be surprised. Bush’s special Mideast envoy and road map monitor John Wolf has long made clear to them that the fence falls not under his Settlement file, but under one called Quality of Life. [92] And this is what the fence, it seems, will be about.

Things did start out more brightly.  Following Palestinian briefings in the West Bank with U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in June 2003, the latter bluntly informed the Israeli government and media that “the American administration sees the fence as an attempt to establish a political border and therefore finds difficulty with the fence.”  President Bush’s comments following Abu Mazin’s subsequent White House visit seemed to reflect the same concerns. Yet the light dimmed quickly. After Rice’s visit, Sharon was at pains to clear up “any misunderstandings” with the United States over the fence, and with the help of the U.S.-Israeli lobbying group AIPAC and the approach of American presidential elections, the misunderstanding was papered over. Subsequent comments by Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell focused on the need to soften to the extent possible the humanitarian impact of the fence. [93]

Most indicative of this backtracking was the Bush administration’s changing interpretation of the road map. Whereas the need for the comprehensive settlement freeze it called for has if anything grown more urgent with the extension of the fence, the United States has increasingly come around to the view that the freeze, rather than being a “parallel” Israeli obligation, should be conditioned on Palestinian good behavior and that its scope can be negotiated. [94] Not negotiated with the Palestinians, however: when PA representatives asked U.S. officials if they could have some input in what constituted the freeze, the response was curt. “It doesn’t concern you: we will discuss it with the Israelis.” [95] To a large degree this reflected a longstanding American appreciation of Israel’s domestic “constraints” and a correspondingly scant regard for those of the Palestinians. The massive popular Israeli support marshaled behind the fence had already impressed local Foreign Service officials, and within a frame of reference that takes Israeli public opinion as a fact on the ground, only so much can be done.

There were differences, some of them public, but too often these were only to showcase American even-handedness and did not go beyond rhetoric. The United States pushed against phase C of the fence, yet the concessions wrought were meager: an Israeli commitment to delay construction on parts of the segment not adjacent to actual settlements, but not to alter its path. With Israel’s public coffers running dry and the country’s labor unions pushing for pay rises through crippling strikes, Sharon may not have minded. Yet he confidently stood his ground even in the face of American threats to deduct the cost of the fence’s “more controversial” sections from the loan guarantees annually extended to Israel. His confidence was well founded. Only $289.5 million, covering new settlement and fence construction, were eventually deducted from $9 billion in guarantees extended in August 2003, translating into additional annual interest payments of a mere $3 million [96]—insignificant in light of the vast sums pouring into the project. Israeli officials appreciated the mildness of the rebuke, which they saw as proving “again the closeness of the relationship and the mechanism of close dialogue.” [97]  In other words, the U.S. and Israel agreed to disagree—and to let Israel decide.  For lack of any hard intervention by the road map’s other sponsors, most notably the EU, the fence designs accordingly became bolder. This was most vividly illustrated by updated plans disclosed in early November 2003, which would expand the fence’s Greater Jerusalem envelope and isolate the entire southeastern section of the Ramallah governorate in a “double fence” enclosure.

The road map may by then have been put on life support. Yet even if it were resuscitated it would not leave the Palestinians much to cling to. The PA’s sole purchase on the Bush administration, and thus also on the road map’s international backers, is the document’s stated aim to “enhance maximum territorial contiguity” of a Palestinian state; indeed, both the United States and the EU continue soothingly to reiterate these terms of reference. But developments have illustrated how far they can be bent to political expediency. As one commentator notes, “the words ‘enhance’ and ‘maximum’ fall short of restoring the full territorial contiguity which the Palestinians had even before Oslo; the extent to which it is to be restored, reading from the road map, apparently depends on what is standing in the way of that objective, which is the contiguity taken by Israel from the Palestinians and self-apportioned by the settlement–domain of Area C.” [98] With tunnels to fill the gaps, the circle can be squared, however, allowing “Palestinians to enjoy a ‘maximum’ contiguity embedded in the framework of cantonized fragmentation.” [99]

In fact, against the backdrop of the fence, the road map and the entire set of presumptions and reference parameters that it inherited from the Oslo accords lose any semblance of coherence, other than as political anesthetic. The negotiations that were to lead to a Palestinian state have already been made redundant since the “temporary” state envisioned in that document now appears to mark the end of the road. The import of any Israeli settlement freeze is gutted by the fact that it may be deferred until a time of Israel’s choosing, as well as by the likelihood that its scope will be diluted in keeping with domestic Israeli considerations, much as similar “freezes” were during Oslo.  Meanwhile, resumed Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and PA governance reforms reduce to little more than reservation management. To John Wolf’s admonishments that the PA “take control” in Qalqilya, its exasperated mayor answered frankly,  “I don’t want the PA to be here, to be seen to police the wall.” [100]

Yet reservation management is already the name of the game. Insofar as the international community has mobilized on the issue, it has been on humanitarian terms. A panoply of international agencies including the World Bank has already undertaken studies of its social and economic impact. Funding has already begun, albeit very slowly, to be channeled to affected communities. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is meanwhile regularly monitoring the wall’s progress. Yet their prevailing emphasis on issues of humanitarian access depoliticizes the problem, much like the IDF’s Fabric of Life policy. Donors are themselves well aware of such ironies, having become acutely sensitive to the fact that they are carrying the cost of Israel’s dominion over the Palestinian territories, and in so doing relieving Israel of its responsibility under international law to care for the occupied population. 

Given their narrow mandate, however, how much they can do remains unclear. Donor commitments to the Palestinian territories have already broken records during the intifada, doubling to $929 million in 2001, and increasing to $1.1 billion in 2002, corresponding to more than a quarter of Palestinian national income, estimated at $3.8 billion in 2002. [101] They will have to rise even further to offset the impact of the fence, and donor fatigue may well set in. But PARC’s Nasser Faqih is not worried. “I expect that when the wall is complete, we will have a lot of funding. When the oppression increases the funding increases also, to numb the people. There is a very strong correlation.” [102]  Though the international community may thus care for some Palestinians, it is far less clear who will care about them. PA representatives have already gotten their answer from John Wolf, who on a field visit to the Qalqilya area confronted them with America’s hard truth—“You have to make your case to the Israelis.” And, to an invitation to visit the wall itself, Wolf encapsulated what is increasingly America’s perspective on the project. “It’s OK, I saw it from the other side.” [103]

After the Last Sky

At the onset of the Oslo process, Shimon Peres was reportedly once criticized by his right-wing opposition for the autonomous territory his government was ceding to the Palestinians. His response was to ask incredulously whether his challengers expected the Palestinians to live suspended between earth and sky, like the figures in a Marc Chagall painting. Nearly ten years later, Israeli differences on this point have narrowed, and Palestinians confront a future that increasingly resembles an abstract dreamscape. In it float fading national aspirations and stark political choices. 

Some of these the fence has only crystallized. For an uprising that has so far failed to articulate coherent goals and means, the fence marks a watershed, if not a terminus. “Armed struggle” as practiced in the enclaves of Gaza may yet come to the West Bank, but its results will probably not be more substantial. A new “demilitarized” resistance would, according to some international and domestic voices, offer an alternative. Yet civil disobedience presumes that those disobeying are embedded in the society they wish to change; within three years Palestinians will not be able to count on most Israelis even noticing their existence. And as their space to resist shrinks further under the weight of Israel’s counterinsurgency, international interest grows increasingly jaded. When 5,000 soldiers and 15 bulldozers razed the commercial district of Nazlat Issa in August 2003 in order to make way for the fence, it went virtually unnoted by the international media amid the concomitant collapse of a road mapped cease-fire.

Ultimately, in the absence of a national leadership capable of mobilizing, organizing, and articulating coherent terms and goals, debates over the modalities of Palestinian resistance will likely remain empty. What those goals should be, however, is a question that the fence has raised with new urgency. If it were to package a two-state solution, the map that it draws would mean not the fulfillment but the evisceration of most of what Palestinians have fought for over the past half century. Such a sovereignty would be a grave, for whose corpse Israel is no longer responsible. The alternative is a long struggle for a one-state solution for which Palestinians on either side of the Green Line are currently not prepared politically, or otherwise. 

It is not inconceivable meanwhile that within a politics of steadily diminished expectations a perpetually impermanent, cantonized lifescape will endure. Its horizons, however, are empty. “The saddest thing is that I’ll never be able to see the sun set again,” concludes a despondent farmer in the shadow of Qalqilya’s wall.[104] The only response is a distant rumble of traffic—Israeli settlers, a few furtive Palestinian farmers’ pickups, and occasionally a white armored jeep ferrying diplomats and donor officials come to look at the wall. If Palestinians could plant their own sign here, it might say “Don’t Blink.” On Route 55, a concrete future is on the move.


Peter Lagerquist is a writer and researcher based in Israel and Palestine. He would like to thank Jan de Jong for contributing maps, calculations, and an encyclopedic knowledge of Palestinian terrain to this article. 

1. “Separation Fence” (or sometimes “Security Fence”) is the term generally used by the Israeli government and media; it has been adopted here for ease of reference. As this article will make clear, however, the Israeli nomenclature is deliberately misleading insofar as the barrier complex’s primary effect is less to separate or secure than to enclose and expropriate. The oft-used term “Wall,” while entirely descriptive where it abuts on Palestinian communities and Israeli infrastructure, as well as in urban areas, is not strictly accurate for much of the structure, which often does comprise fence, albeit fortified by ditches, embankments, patrol roads, and so on.

2. This does not include 22 km around Jerusalem, also approved as part of the fence’s first phase.

3. The exact figure is still undetermined and subject to additional projected amendments. See “Welcome to the Bantustan” below.

4. This figure is an approximate average for the fence’s cost to date.

5. B’Tselem, Behind The Barrier: Human Rights Violations as a Result of Israel’s Separation Barrier (Jerusalem: B’Tselem, April 2003), p. 4.

6. Yossi Alpher, “Chronicle of a Good Idea Gone Sour,” Bitterlemons.org, 11 August 2003, online at http://www.bitterlemons.org/previous/bl110803ed30.html#is1. On the role of its securitocracy in Israel’s public discourse, see Ilan Pappé, “Donning the Uniform: The Military and Media in Israel,” Middle East Report 223 (Summer 2002), pp. 46–51.

7. B’Tselem, Behind the Barrier, p. 4.

8. Nehemia Strasler, “The Bottom Line: It’s All a Matter of Price,” Ha’Aretz, 31 October 2003.

9. For a postmortem of Barak’s politics and attitudes to the settlement movement, see Tanya Reinhardt, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002).

10. There are currently 398 roadblocks and 160 manned checkpoints in the West Bank alone, according to the PLO Negotiations Support Unit/Palestinian Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation.

11. On closure and the fragmentation of Palestinian space during Oslo and the initfada, see Amira Hass, “Israel’s Closure Policy: An Ineffective strategy of Containment and Repression,” JPS 31, no. 3 (Spring 2002), p. 19. On new settlement activity, see Geoffrey Aronson, ed., “Settlement Monitor,” JPS 32, no. 2 (Winter 2003), p. 143.

12. B’Tselem, Behind the Barrier, p. 4.

13. Yisrael Harel, “Fence of Paradoxes,” Bitterlemons.org, 11 August 2003, online at http://www.bitterlemons.org/previous/bl110803ed30.html#is2.

14. Ibid., 6.

15. Ibid.

16. Meron Rappaport, “Fences and Facts: A Wall in the Heart,” Yedi’ot Aharonot, 23 May 2003.

17. Ha’Aretz, 24 March 2003.

18. Rappaport, “Fences and Facts.”

19. PALDIS, “Israel’s Final Push: The Fence Is the Road Map,” in Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network (PENGON), Stop the Wall in Palestine: Facts, Testimonies, Analysis and Call to Action (Jerusalem: Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network, June 2003), p. 142.

20. Rappaport, “Fences and Facts.”

21. Ibid.

22. Interview, village leader, 17 February 2003.

23. So far the use of remote-controlled machine guns is limited to sections of the fence in the northern Jenin governorate.

24. In late fall 2003, Uzi Dayan’s Security Fence for Israel movement circulated a petition to Knesset MPs that would compel the government to complete construction within one year. Aluf Benn, “Is Sharon Fulfilling His Own Vision?” Ha’Aretz, 24 October 2003.

25. According to the article’s calculation, Palestinian land lost on the western side of the fence, (i.e., not including the Jordan Valley, but including the “ghetto enclaves,” other than those explicitly excepted as noted above) as well as “double fenced” areas, amounts to 17.5 percent of the West Bank. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimate is 14.5 percent.

26. Palestinian population estimates are based on extrapolations from a 1997 Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics census, factoring in 3 percent annual population growth. Estimates for the number of Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem are based on Israeli government records of Palestinian Jerusalem ID holders, and are subject to considerable uncertainty. As noted, in part because a large number of Palestinians with such IDs reside outside the municipal boundaries of Israeli Jerusalem. Source: Jan de Jong.

27. Calculation by Jan de Jong, based on the 1997 PCBS census.

28. Yisrael, “Fence of Paradoxes.”

29. B’Tselem, Behind the Barrier, p. 3.

30. World Bank, “The Impact of Israel’s Separation Barrier on Affected West Bank Communities,” Report of the Mission to the Humanitarian and Emergency Policy Group (HEPG) of the Local Aid Coordination Committee (LACC), (World Bank, 4 May 2003), pp. 42, 43.

31. PENGON, “The Wall’s ‘First Phase’ and Its Implications,” in Stop the Wall in Palestine, pp. 27, 28.

32. World Bank, “The Impact of Israel’s Separation Barrier,” p. 14.

33. For one of numerous testimonies, see Gideon Levy, “Gate No. 542,” Ha’Aretz, 9 August 2003.

34. Ibid., 39.

35. World Bank, “The Impact of Israel’s Separation Barrier,” p. 10. 

36. Ibid., 14–15, 47–62.

37. Ibid., 63.

38. B’Tselem, Land Grab: Israel’s Settlement Policy in the West Bank (Jerusalem: B’Tselem, 2002), p 116.

39. Under international law, an occupying power has the right to take temporary measures to protect its troops (though concomitant infringements on the rights of the local population must be minimized), but it does not have the right to safeguard a civilian settler population which, again under international law, is illegally implanted in the territories occupied. For a legal commentary, see Amnesty International, “Israel Must Immediately Stop Construction of Wall,” Press Release, AI Index, MDE 15/099/2003, 7 November 2003, and on the requisition of land for the fence, World Bank, “The Impact of Israel’s Separation Barrier,” pp. 16–18, and World Bank, “The Impact of Israel’s Separation Barrier: Update 2,” pp. 21–24.

40. PALDIS, “Israel’s Final Push,” p. 152.

41. Yossi Alpher, interview, 15 October 2003.

42. Yisrael, “Fence of Paradoxes.”

43. Interview by Jan de Jong, 18 September 2003.

44. Interview, name withheld, 21 November 2003. There are credible accounts of such plans, with accompanying maps of territorial distribution. However, the sources cannot be identified in this article.

45. Though polls showing that “a majority of Israelis” support withdrawal from the settlements are widely cited in the Israeli and Western media, they largely fail to specify what the respondents consider as “settlements,” glossing a perception gap conspicuous in their coverage of Palestinian attacks on Gilo settlement in the beginning of the intifada.

46. Tamar Steinmetz and Ephraim Ya’ar, “The July Peace Index: Support for the Fence, and for the Hudna,” Ha’Aretz, 5 August 2003.

47. Gideon Alon, “Peres Threatens to Walk Out as Cabinet Approves Fence Plan,” Ha’Aretz, 24 June 2002.

48. Robert Blecher, “Living on the Edge: The Threat of ‘Transfer’ in Israel and Palestine,” Middle East Report 225 (Winter 2002), p. 24.

49. Interview, 1 June 2003. On the lack of scrutiny into the fence, see Zvi Zrahiya, “Goldberg: This Is No Way to Build a Fence,” Ha’Aretz, 11 November 2003.

50. Rappaport, “Fences and Facts.”

51. Quoted in B’Tselem, Behind the Barrier, p. 26.

52. Ibid., 27.

53. Sergio Yahni, Alternative Information Center, interview, June 2003.

54. Meretz MK Ran Cohen first proposed a commission of inquiry set up in 2002 to look into the delays in the fence’s construction. See Zrahiya, “Goldberg.”

55. Yedi’ot Aharonot, 29 August 2003, reprinted in JPS 33, no. 1 (Fall 2003), p. 85.

56. Rappaport, “Fences and Facts.”

57. Interview, Yossi Alpher.

58. Yedi’ot Aharonot article is reprinted in JPS 33, no. 1 (Fall 2003), pp. 84–87.

59. See Daniel Ben Simon, “One Man's Fence Is Another Man's Prison,” Ha’Aretz, 24 March 2003. In the same vein, Hebrew University professor Shlomo Avineri argues that separation “would remove the reliance on Israel and give the Palestinians responsibility: ‘I want to force Arafat to be President of Palestine. When someone is given authority over people, s/he usually behaves more responsibly.’” Quoted in Gershon Baskin and Sharon Rosenberg, “The New Walls and Fences: Consequences for Israel and Palestine,” Centre for European Policy Studies. Working Paper no. 9 (June 2003), p. 15.

60. Rand Corporation, “Headlines over the Horizon,” Atlantic Monthly (July/August 2003).

61. Lily Galili, “A Jewish Demographic State,” Ha’Aretz, 28 June 2002.

62. According to a 2002 poll by Tel Aviv University cited in Blecher, “Living on the Edge,” p. 23, 46 percent of Israeli Jews support the transfer of Palestinians in the territories, 31 percent support that of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and 60 percent support “encouraging” the latter to leave.

63. Ilan Pappé, “The ’48 Nakba and the Zionist Quest for Its Completion,” SOAS Lecture, 16 September 2002. Reprinted in Between the Lines 2 (October 2002), pp. 24–28.

64. Interview, Yossi Alpher.

65. For a full English translation of IDF Military Order No. 378, see http://www.reliefweb.int/hic-opt/feat/trans1003.htm.

66. PLO NSU, “New Israeli Military Order de facto Expands Israel's Border,” 14 October 2003.

67. Ibid. 

68. Agence France-Presse (AFP), 3 October 2003. On current implementation and enforcement of IDF open-fire regulations, see inter alia B’Tselem information sheets, “Trigger Happy: Unjustified Shooting and Violation of the Open-Fire Regulations during the al-Aqsa Intifada,” (Jerusalem: B’Tselem, March 2002); “Lethal Curfew: The Use of Live Ammunition to Enforce Curfew,” (October 2000); and “Illusions of Restraint: Human Rights Violations during the Events in the Occupied Territories: 29 September–2 December 2000,” (December 2000).

69. On 10 October, some 40 Israeli tanks entered Rafah city on Gaza’s southern border and after intense fighting razed 120 houses, “clearing out an entire land area of Palestinian civilians,” and rendering at least 1,200 people homeless. OCHA, “OCHA Update 1 September–15 October 2003” available at www.reliefweb.int/hic-opt.

70. Foundation for Middle East Peace, “Settlements Expand Security Perimeter,” in Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories 13, no. 2 (March–April 2003). Available at http://www.fmep.org/reports/2003/v13n2.html; Amos Harel, et al., “Defense Seeking NIS 200 m. More to Protect Settlements,” Ha’Aretz, 5 November 2003.

71. Gideon Levy and interview with Nasser Faqih, PARC, 28 May 2003.

72. World Bank, “The Impact of Israel’s Separation Barrier,” p. 43.

73. Marius Schattner, “Palestinian ‘Nowhere Village’ to Be Sucked into Oblivion by Israel Barrier,” Agence France-Presse, 19 August 2003.

74. There are few reliable statistics on the number of Bedouin who will be affected by the fence. A total of 45,000 are estimated to live in the West Bank, concentrated in the southern stretches of the Jordan Valley. LAW, “Palestinian Bedouins: Past, Present and Future,” (2000). Available at http://www.lawsociety.org/Reports/reports/2000/bedouin.html.
75. Jonathan Cook, “Bedouin in the Negev Face New ‘Transfer,’” Middle East Report Online, 10 May 2003. Available at http://www.merip.org/mero/mero051003.html. See also Oren Yiftachel, “The Shrinking Space of Citizenship: Ethnocratic Politics in Israel,” Middle East Report 223 (Summer 2002) available at http://www.merip.org/mer/mer223/223_yiftachel.html.

76. OCHA.

77. Daniel Ben Simon, “On the Map, Thanks to the Road,” Ha’Aretz, 24 May 2003.

78. PALDIS, “Israel’s Final Push,” p 151.

79. PLO Negotiations Support Unit.

80. Eyal Weizman, “The Politics of Verticality,” Open Democracy, 2 September 2002. Available at www.opendemocracy.com.

81. For an appraisal of the PA’s response to the intifada, see Graham Usher, “Facing Defeat: The Intifada Two Years On,” JPS 32, no. 2 (Winter 2003), pp. 21–40.

82. “A Fence on the Defensive,” Ha’Aretz, 25 July 2003. Schiff is in fact critical of the fence’s more dramatic departures but while his close connections to the Israeli security establishment often makes him a worthwhile window on its thinking, it also renders him a ready vehicle for its public relations agendas.

83. Interview, 14 May 2003.

84. Ibid.

85. Ibid.

86. Ibid.

87. Interview, name withheld, 10 May 2003.

88. Ibid.

89. Interview, name withheld, 5 May 2003.

90. Interview, name withheld, 10 May 2003.

91. Interview, name withheld, 20 May 2003.

92. Interview, Jarat Chopra, legal consultant to the PLO Negotiations Support Unit, 8 August 2003.

93. Harel, “Defense Seeking NIS 200 m.”

94. On how a freeze does not need to be a freeze, see Department of State spokesperson Richard Boucher, daily press briefing, Washington, D.C., 31 July 2003, in Foundation for Middle East Peace, Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories September–October 2003. Available at http://www.fmep.org/reports/2003/v13n3.html.

95. Interview, PA advisor, name withheld, 10 May 2003.

96. Glenn Kessler, “U.S. Uses Loan to Punish Israel for West Bank Construction,” Washington Post, 26 November 2003.

97. See, for instance, Nathan Guttman, et al., “Israel Shrugs Off Powell Hint U.S. Is Weighing Response to Fence,” Ha’Aretz, 5 October 2003, and “U.S. to Trim Israeli Loan Package over Settlements, Fence,” Ha’Aretz, 26 November 2003.

98. PALDIS, “Israel’s Final Push,” pp. 150, 151. Area C is that part of the West Bank left under full Israeli control under the terms of the Oslo accords, composing some 60 percent of the West Bank.

99. Ibid.

100. As related in an interview, PA advisor, name withheld, 10 May 2003.

101. World Bank, “West Bank and Gaza Update: World Bank Report on Impact of Intifada,” (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, April–June 2003).

102. Interview, 14 May 2003.

103. Quoted by PA advisor, name withheld, interview, 10 May 2003.

104. Interview with Abu Omar, as recalled by PA advisor, name withheld, June 2003.