by Geraldine Bedell | The Guardian | June 15, 2003
While the world waits for the Middle East's road map to unfold, Ariel Sharon is busy creating his own solution to the West Bank problem - 360km of 8m-high concrete and electrified barbed wire. The Israelis call it 'a separation fence', to the Palestinians it's just the latest cynical attempt to prise them from their homelands. Geraldine Bedell meets the farmers and settlers who now live with their backs to the wall.
Butterflies drift over the tall flowering grasses beside paths that crisscross an ancient rocky hillside. Your feet crush thyme and lemon balm as you walk through orchards of mango, pomegranates, figs, walnuts, peaches, oranges, lemons and the little apricot-coloured fruits the Palestinians call askadinya, which translates as 'the sweetest life'.
And then breaking in on the birdsong comes the drone of bulldozers. Climbing towards the poor but picturesque hilltop village of Jayyous, it is possible to see this machinery at work, carving a motorway-sized scar through the orchards, leaving behind a bald patch up to 100m wide as far as the eye can see. The diggers have uprooted orange plantations, overturned greenhouses and pushed aside 500-year-old olive trees to create the foundations of a great wall that the Israeli government intends to build all down the side of the West Bank, where it abuts Israel. (That, at least, was the original proposal. In practice, the wall is being built some way in from the old border.) The government doesn't like its structure being referred to as a wall, pointing out that only in places along its length (360km) will it be made of 10m-high concrete. Officials translate the Hebrew name for it, kav ha tefer as 'the seam zone'. As this phrase is meaningless in English, it is more commonly referred to by Israelis as 'the separation fence'. In some places, including here at Jayyous, it will indeed be more like a fence, but with wide ditches and embankments, electrified barbed wire, detection devices and watchtowers manned by armed patrols. But whether of low-tech concrete or armed emplacements, the effect will be the same - try to get past it and you'll be shot.
In a recent interview on Australian television, the Israeli military historian Martin Creveld claimed the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem was to build 'a wall between us and the other side, so tall that even the birds cannot fly over it... so as to avoid any friction for a long, long time in the future... And then, of course, if anyone tries to get over the wall, we will kill them.' The Palestinians, equally, are in no doubt of the consequences if they try to cross. 'Even after the wall, there will be a 2km buffer zone,' says Dawfeek Salim, a Jayyous farmer. 'Nobody will be allowed to put a foot in it. If we do, they will shoot us. They shoot already if we get too close.'
This prospect is unfortunate for the Jayyous farmers, because their houses are on one side of the wall and their orchards, fresh water and greenhouses are on the other. The people of Jayyous thought they owned this land. They planted and irrigated it. Of the 500 families in the village, 300 are reliant on agriculture and even those who have other jobs - teachers, police officers - depend on family produce to supplement their income. When Abdul Hafez left university 18 years ago, he couldn't get work using his science degree, so he saved and bought a greenhouse. He takes me inside to look at his 32,000 tomato plants. The business has been good to him: 'It supports 20 members of my family. It sent my brother to college.' But this is the looking glass world of the West Bank where you can own something and yet have no rights over it. One day armoured Israeli jeeps arrived with a digger and imposed a curfew on the villagers. Concrete posts started appearing in the ground. A couple of months later, Abdul Hafez and the other farmers found notices pinned to trees. They were confiscation orders, naming the pieces of land that were to be seized for the wall.
Six roads led from the village into the valley. The army closed five of them, leaving only the longest way round. Dawfeek Salim lost land to the construction, but, much worse, his remaining six hectares became unreachable. The one useable road left him with no option but to cross an Israeli-owned quarry. 'I asked the manager how I should get across and he laughed and said, "Get a helicopter."
Dawfeek Salim can see his land from the village - he points it out to me, on a cliff, hanging over the quarry. 'I planted 500 saplings with my bare hands. I carried water up to them on the back of a mule. I spent 30 years taking care of them. Now it's as if my trees are on an island; I can see them, but I can't reach them.' Another piece of paper tacked to trees offered the villagers a meeting with the Israeli civil administration officer. Compensation was mentioned, but the land here is not only their livelihood, but their identity, culture, history, leisure... 'What can compensate you for your life?' The villagers applied to the Israeli High Court to stop the confiscation orders, but the case was dismissed on the grounds that civil courts can't adjudicate on military matters. Anyway, the bulldozers had already started.
At Jayyous, the wall dives 6km inside the 1967 Green Line that notionally separates the West Bank from Israel. This looks to the Palestinians like a seizure of territory wider than some parts of the Gaza Strip. In the process, some 860 hectares of cultivated land in the area will be corralled on the Israeli side. 'This is the most fertile land in the West Bank,' says Abdul Latif, a Jayyous hydrologist. 'This village sits on the Western aquifer, which already supplies 25 per cent of Israel's water. There are seven wells here and soon they will all be on the other side of the wall. As it is, we have had to divide the community into three and each receives water for only two hours every three days.'
Sharief Omar owns 20 hectares, all acquired since 1967 when he came to the West Bank as a refugee. 'The Israelis told us they want this wall for security. If that's the case, I told them, I would be happy to pay half to build it on the Green Line. The truth is, they want the land without the people. The army officer sat under that olive tree there and explained to me about our common ancestor Abraham/Ibrahim, and how his wife Sarah, who was their mother but not ours, went to heaven, and that meant they were entitled to the land. When the wall is built, 100 per cent of my resources will be behind it. I've planted 150 new citrus trees since they started building the wall, to prove to the other farmers that we don't have to yield.' He takes me into a hut in one of his orchards to show me a collection of tents: he and the other farmers will camp on their land if necessary, challenging the Israelis to remove them forcibly. He has secretly installed a cooker in the hut and is rigging up a shower. Ironically, he has only just finished building a fine home in the village. 'I walked to Jayyous carrying my wife on my back and two bags and it has taken me 36 years to get such a house.' He and his wife will move into the hut for as long as it takes.
The Israeli government insists farmers will be able to reach their land once the wall is built. Nezah Mashiah, 'project manager for the seam zone in the Ministry of Defence', says: 'We are making 32 agricultural gates in the 250km of the obstacle which is currently under construction. There will be daily use, according to agreements.' But, he adds, ominously, 'not just anybody will be allowed to enter. If they do, the gates will be closed.'
The Palestinians point out that no protocols governing the use of the gates have been published and say privately that whenever else they apply for permits, they are asked to become informers.
To get some impression of what life might be like when there is a gate, you only need travel 10 miles up the road to the town of Qalquilya. A section of wall already rears up among the cabbages and potatoes in the market gardens on the edge of the town: 8m of solid ribbed concrete, stretching up out of a shoulder-high embankment. The wall shuts out the world beyond, creating an eerie silence and an absence of landscape. Eventually, it will encircle the town, but already, there is only one gate in and out of Qalquilya. Moving to and from the town is a draining process of waiting in the sunshine while papers are taken away and thought about. You can't take a car from one side to the other. When you finally get through, you have to trudge through a no-man's-land to pick up a bus or taxi. And that's just Westerners. Khalid Shanti, secretary of the Palestinian Farmers' Union, claims the gate had been shut entirely to Palestinians for the three days prior to my visit. Even on good days, it closes between 3 and 4pm, although in summer it is light until 8pm. 'People are frequently handcuffed and left to stand in the sun for hours,' says Khalid Shanti. 'It is humiliation, collective punishment.' (He is aware, when he says this, that collective punishment is outlawed by the Geneva Convention).
Until the start of the current round of violence (the second intifada, in September 2000), 85,000 Israelis and Palestinians used to pour into Qalquilya every week to visit the shops and markets. Goods were cheaper than in Israel. No one comes any more, partly out of fear, partly because it's so hard to get in or out. And now the wall threatens to cut the town off from 80 per cent of its agricultural land and 19 of its wells.
I find Assd Alla working at his plant nursery hard up against the wall. The soil is rich and red here: the cabbages grow huge, the young trees sturdy. He recalls coming one afternoon after college a few months ago to find bulldozers ripping through the rows of askadinyas. 'They have already seized two-thirds of my land and they plan to take the rest for their buffer zone. We have not been offered compensation and we would never take it. That is what they are waiting for - the moment when we sell to them.'
Before the construction started, half of Qalquilya's income came from agriculture. Now, 4,000 people - 10 per cent of the population - have left. An additional 2,200 heads of household have gone to find work elsewhere, leaving their families behind. 'Agriculture was the spinal cord of this town,' says Khalid Shanti. 'We don't know what the future will be. Qalquilya has become like a big, open-air jail.'
Unemployment is now 69 per cent. With its bottleneck entrance so often corked, the town is coming close to economic strangulation. More than 600 businesses have closed and many residents have been unable to pay their municipal taxes, with the result that the Qalquilya municipality owes approximately 3.5m shekels (£490,000) to the Israeli Electric Company, which is threatening to cut off the city's supply. 'It feels like a concentration camp,' Kahlid Shanti says, knowing the sensitivity for Israelis of the comparison - 'with the difference, of course, that there, people were waiting for death. Here it is migration. They are just waiting for us to leave.'
The idea of walling the Palestinians out of Israel has been around for a long while. Amiram Goldblum, professor of theoretical chemistry at the Hebrew University, claims to have raised it this time round, in an article in the liberal Ha'aretz newspaper in October 2000. Professor Goldblum is on the left in Israeli politics, and an activist in an organisation called Peace Now. For him, the wall was both a defensive proposition and a means of iterating a border.
Goldblum 'wouldn't object to the wall absorbing [into Israel] those [Jewish] settlements that are close to the Green Line, where there are perhaps 100,000 non-ideological settlers.' This, for him, would have the advantage that 'the head of the settlers could then no longer claim to speak for 200,000 people. It would diminish their political legitimacy, and they are the greatest stumbling block to peace.' For Goldblum, at bottom, the wall was a way of containing the settlements. 'It is unlikely that peace will come soon. There will be more terrorism, which suits Sharon, and so more settlements. The wall is a signal: "Don't go there."'
There is only one problem with this analysis: the wall ducks and dives well inside the Green Line, even on its original route published in September 2002. But in March of this year, when the world's attention was on Iraq, a revised map was revealed - new loops of wall would be added, taking in land up to 20 miles inside the West Bank. A week later, more plans were issued, for a second wall up the other side of the West Bank, which would effectively seal the Palestinians into a reservation, or rather, reservations, for the two or three blocs of territory left would not be contiguous.
Ar'iel is one of the settlements included in Israel by the revised, March version. With its red roofs and pristine streets, Ar'iel resembles Seaside, the town in The Truman Show, for its controlled immaculacy and pervasive air of unreality. On a hilltop surrounded by olive trees, cypresses and dirt-poor Palestinian villages, I find myself standing in a shopping precinct that reminds me of Harlow. A woman who will only give her name as Miriam, who came to Israel from Toronto seven years ago, is less worried by the Palestinians than by a sense of not-belonging. 'We have a constant fight to feel part of the State of Israel. Always we feel that we are the outsiders. They still haven't given us a train. The wall will include us.'
There is remarkably little enthusiasm for the wall from a security point of view, given how heavily the Israeli government emphasises its defensive role. (Sharon's spokesman Ra'anan Gissin told me: 'Like Bush after 9/11, either we meet the terrorists on our doorstep, or take the fight to them. It is clear it is very inconvenient for them, but that is the price they are required to pay for continuing the campaign. Without the fence, it is easy for them to get through. With the fence, they have to go around, and we can wait for them.')
Joseph Levene owns an electrical shop in Ar'iel and a construction business in which he once employed Palestinians. 'I have been in Israel 30 years and there was some kind of relationship. I knew many Arabs, visited their villages, drank coffee in their houses. They drank coffee in mine. It is not necessary to love one another. But we do have to find a way to coexist.' He thinks the fence might help at the margins, 'but it is not a solution'.
Whatever their views on its defensive capabilities, the people of Ar'iel know that what they are really getting is a border: a fait accompli that will make it much harder to force them out whenever the final status negotiations over the future of the West Bank eventually take place. 'We are always thinking that we might be asked to leave,' says Arin Madar, a 16-year-old in a white T-shirt and floaty skirt, who is smoking with her friends in the shade of a tree. 'Where would I go? I was born in Ar'iel. The Arabs used to call this the Mountain of Death because nothing grew on it. We came here with a lot of technology and made it beautiful. There are always winners in war. People died to get this land. Now we want the Green Line to go around Ar'iel. There are some politicians who don't want that, who say it's the place of the Palestinians.'
The fact that the wall is a de facto border also preoccupies Daniella Weiss, mayor of Kedumim, a settlement to the North of Ar'iel. Where Ar'iel is secular and pluralistic, Kedumim is religious and ideological. The settlers call the area not the West Bank, but Judea and Samaria. 'We came to the birthplace of the Jewish nation to build, to bring new Jewish life,' Weiss says, 'and we are very much against the idea that some parts of the land of Israel are inside the wall and some outside.'
But if the whole place is Israel, what happens to the Palestinians who live there? 'We live, they live. It is perfectly possible if the Arabs stop their terrorist activities. All this talk of a Palestinian state gives them the ambition to have the whole of the West Bank, even at the expense of driving Jewish communities out.'
Demography is against Weiss. According to the sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, there are currently about 5m Jews (and non-Arabs) in Israel-plus-the occupied territories and 4.5m Palestinians (both citizens of Israel and stateless). If all the Palestinians were absorbed into Israel it would soon begin to look a very different kind of place. Aaron Sofer, a geographer at the University of Haifa, has calculated that by 2020, about 15.1m people will live in the strip of land between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan, and Jews will be in a minority of 6.5m. If the borders were to remain the same, then even in Israel, Jews would be down from their current 81 per cent majority to a more precarious 65 per cent.
Weiss is unperturbed, believing 'the Zionist process will continue and get stronger'. More waves of immigration will stop the Jews from being 'swamped'. But Israel has already absorbed the 1m Jews from the former Soviet Union; and barring about 20,000 people in Iran, the Jews of the diaspora now live almost entirely in the UK, France and the USA - countries with stable liberal democracies and higher GDP per capita than Israel. They are not, most of them, clamouring to move.
Which is why, according to Ilan Pappe, professor of history at Haifa University: 'The Israeli consensus is to want as much of the land of Palestine with as few Palestinians as possible.' Already, Sharon has publicly declared that he would be satisfied with 60 per cent of the West Bank. Pappe thinks, 'He would be satisfied with 50 per cent... But what will actually be left for the Palestinians will be unworkable as a state. It won't be a coherent 2,500sqkm, but bits here and there - two, three, four cantons, with no connection between them. Sharon knows there is no reason at all why he shouldn't call these ghettoes a Palestinian state.'
The mayor of Bethlehem shows me letters of support for his fight against the partition of his city: from the British government, from the Archbishop of Canterbury and Kofi Annan. Much good they are doing. When the wall is finished, 400 Bethlehem residents will be cut off, along with factories, souvenir shops, restaurants, a mosque and a baby hospital. Stranded outside the city, they will need a permit to enter or leave their homes.
The story of overcrowding and economic peril will be repeated in other Palestinian cities, according to Jamal Juma, co-ordinator of the Palestinian Environmental Network: 'In 10 years, there will be no room to expand. Forced off the land, Palestinians will be clustered into already heavily populated urban areas; with no alternative sources of income, they will be a source of cheap labour for Israeli factories.' (There are already five industrial zones in the West Bank.) From the Israeli side, Pappe says: 'I don't think it's beyond reason to think that the government will create unbearable conditions for the Palestinians, even in the autonomous areas.'
The wall has been sold to the Israeli left on grounds that it gives the Palestinians a potential state, with those Jewish settlements that remain outside perhaps ending up as the 'painful concessions' of which Sharon has spoken. But according to Pappe: 'The constraints on Israeli behaviour are not moral or ethical, but technical. How much can be done without turning Israel into a pariah state? Without inciting European sanctions, or making life too difficult for the Americans?'
The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, preoccupied with the road map and its own internal politics, 'has neglected the wall,' according to Jamal Juma. Yet the wall is crucial to the road map. At the very least, it is an attempt to pre-empt negotiations with a land grab that establishes new borders (and what the road map calls 'facts on the ground' that must be heeded). Arguably it is more devious: an attempt to undermine negotiations altogether - because what Palestinian Authority could sign up to the fragmented 'state' the wall will create?
Jeff Halper, professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University, is unsure whether the expense (around £1m a mile) will mean the eastern section is ever attempted, but believes that the wall will not only separate Israel from the Palestinians but, once and for all, from the region as a whole. Just as the Israelis sit in the European bloc at the United Nations, play in the European basketball league and sing in the Eurovision song contest, he argues, the wall is a 'final statement that Israel wants nothing to do with its neighbours, that it looks West, to Europe and beyond to the United States,' that it turns its back on the Middle East.
In Israel these days, you keep hearing the phrase 'Good fences make good neighbours', a quotation from a poem, Mending Wall, written by Robert Frost in 1915. You hear variations, too: the PLO has published a pamphlet called 'Bad fences make bad neighbours'; the mayor of Bethlehem told me, 'I don't believe good fences make good neighbours; I believe good neighbours make good fences.' What nobody ever remembers is how the poem continues:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
Whatever you call it - wall, fence, separation barrier, seam zone - this vast project is leading the country towards more suicide bombings, more military repression, more obstacles to peace talks and more time for settler occupation. But who is being walled in here, exactly, and who out? Israeli society exists in a state of permanent existential crisis - people talk and behave as if they are living under a siege as long as their history. You might argue that that's the real problem. A 10m wall with searchlights and sharpshooters cannot possibly help.