Israeli Wall Bound to Become an Issue Again

JERUSALEM – Beneath the towering eight-meter concrete slabs, an army jeep patrols the Israeli side of the "security wall" that cuts through Palestinian territory, dividing the occupied West Bank from Israel.

Suddenly, a soccer ball flies over the wall and lands on the roof of the jeep. The soldiers kick it back. The ball comes flying back. The soldiers get on their mobile phones, and several more jeeps arrive. With women soldiers in the role of cheerleaders, a bizarre game kicks off against invisible players – presumably Palestinians on the other side of the wall.

This TV ad for an Israeli cell-phone company has become the talk of the country. For all the jolly impression, Israelis are mostly oblivious to the less-than-cheerful reality on the other side of the wall.

Israeli political cartoonist Amos Biderman draws starkly what his countrymen can’t see, choose not to see: in his cartoon, the ball kicked by the soldiers crashes over the wall into a large group of Palestinians – men, women, and children – lining up at a checkpoint behind barbed wires before being searched by Israeli soldiers, guns at the ready. Back on the Israeli side, the soccer-playing soldiers chant, "Everything’s cool."

"Israelis aren’t paying any price for the injustice of occupation," says columnist Gideon Levy, a vigorous critic of Israeli policy. "Life in Israel is just peachy. Cafes are bustling. Restaurants are packed. People are vacationing. Who wants to think about peace, negotiations, withdrawals – the ‘price’ we might have to pay. The summer of 2009 is wonderful. Why change anything?"

Israelis take the security wall for granted. Most believe it essential – and effective – in keeping bombers out of their cities and separating the Palestinians physically from them.

Not unexpectedly the Palestinians have a different read on the wall. Pure and simple, they want it demolished. According to a report in the Tel Aviv tabloid Ma’ariv, they have asked the U.S. to press Israel to tear it down, the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reportedly arguing that since the security situation in the West Bank has improved dramatically, Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians have abated.

These two different perceptions of the wall are the backdrop to a detailed report on the barrier compiled by security affairs expert Amos Har’el of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. He notes that seven years since construction work began, the project seems to have run aground. There is an effective freeze on completion of the controversial barrier, and only some 60 percent of the planned route has been completed, his report stresses.

The original route, designed under former prime minister Ariel Sharon, would have effectively annexed around a fifth of the West Bank. But, in the wake of petitions by Palestinians to the Israeli High Court and a 2004 ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague (an advisory opinion that declared the barrier "illegal" and demanded that Israel dismantle it), the Israeli government amended the route so that, when complete, it would include 8 percent of the West Bank.

In practice, Har’el reports that, if finished, the wall would include 4.5 percent of West Bank land that lies between the barrier and the 1967 West Bank-Israeli border.

That leaves tens of thousands of settlers in towns beyond the barrier. But when earlier this month the Israeli High Court was hearing a petition from a resident of the Palestinian village Sawarha protesting the route of the wall, Israeli security officials told the court that the work would not be resumed "for budgetary and other reasons." Court president Dorit Beinisch suspended the hearing, saying she had no intention of "dealing with virtual matters." It’s a description, says Har’el, "that seems apt for the entire separation fence."

But, though he quotes Israeli security officials as saying that, "despite the delays, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is determined to complete the security fence," Har’el intimates that the freeze may be protracted, and the 700-km barrier never actually finished.

The Ha’aretz report highlights the fact that giant gaps remain in the southern part of the fence including on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem. Also, because of opposition from the U.S., work has been halted on major sections which were to have penetrated deep into the West Bank where the route of the barrier was originally planned to go around big settlement blocs inside the West Bank. Israel has made no secret of the fact that it intends to annex these settlement blocs in the context of a future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Now, with the Obama administration backing away from the tacit commitment of former president George W. Bush to support this Israeli intention, there is very little prospect that Israel will in fact complete those sections of the barrier that were to have encompassed the big settlement blocs.

On the other hand, under the tutelage of U.S. Gen. Keith Dayton, the Palestinian Authority is gradually reestablishing its security clout in the West Bank, an essential condition for the internationally backed roadmap to peace being implemented.

That has in turn created a new atmosphere and a rare meeting of minds between Israelis and Palestinians about the improved security situation in Palestinian- controlled areas of the West Bank.

Still, it does not follow that Palestinians and Israelis have reached the same conclusion about the future of the wall.

Whether or not Barack Obama takes up the Palestinian plea for the wall to be brought down, it’s soon bound to become an issue again – less perhaps because of the suffering it causes to Palestinian villagers and farmers caught on the wrong side, and more because of the effect it might have on the determined U.S. effort to restart peace negotiations in earnest.

Tearing down the wall now in advance of peace negotiations, as the Palestinians demand, may be unrealistic. But what amounts effectively to a self-imposed Israeli freeze in continuing to build their wall might yet underscore the U.S. demand to freeze Israeli settlement-building, opening the way to negotiations – a completed wall or not.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.