A UN report (.pdf) published last week concludes that the wall Israel is constructing in the occupied West Bank is creating severe “geographical and bureaucratic hardships
for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians”, “preventing and delaying Palestinians from accessing essential services and workplaces”. Entire communities have been devastated. The densely populated Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Ram is a typical example: since the annexation wall severed it from the rest of Jerusalem a third of businesses and “vast numbers” of residents have left, turning a once thriving area into “a virtual ghost town”.
In many cases the wall separates Palestinians from essential services like hospitals, schools and workplaces. Farmers wishing to access their fields must go through an impossibly complex bureaucratic procedure to obtain a “visitor” permit (needless to say, this is not required of the Israeli settlers), and even then they are often arbitrarily refused access on unspecified “security” grounds. A UN survey conducted in early 2007 found that less than 20% of those who used to work on land now isolated between the wall and the Green Line were granted permits. The number of permits being granted appears to be steadily decreasing – the UN report cites the agricultural village of Jayyus, where the number of valid permits has declined from 603 in 2003 to 168 in 2008, leaving some 350 families without a single permit-holder. Many people who were granted permits previously are now denied, and whereas permits used to be valid for two years, they must now be renewed every six months. Such policies are particularly telling with regards to Israel’s intentions in the West Bank, because there is simply no way to justify them on security grounds. The only plausible reason Israel could have for progressively reducing the access of farmers to their fields is to induce Palestinians living in certain communities to leave. In some cases the means used are less subtle, as when Israel demolished the entire village of Khirbet Qassa last year (a fate that the residents of ‘Arab a-Ramadin al-Janubi look set to share), leaving more than 200 people homeless, but the objective is the same: Israel intends to annex the land west of the wall, amounting to some 10% of the West Bank, and the Palestinians are being made to understand that this is now Israeli land in which they are, at best, “visitors”.
It is a truism that governments will attempt to defend controversial policies on security grounds, regardless of their actual motives. Israel’s stated justifications for the wall are no exception – we are told that the wall is purely a security measure to, in the words of former advisor to Ariel Sharon Dov Weisglass, keep the Palestinian “madmen” out. In reality, a quick look at a map makes clear that, as Dror Etkes of Peace Now explains, the route of the wall is “largely determined by the presence and needs of the settlers”. Amnesty International, describing the wall as a “land grab … aimed at facilitating the expansion and consolidation of unlawful Israeli settlements”, similarly notes that,
“The fence/wall is routed so as to ensure the territorial contiguity of Israeli settlements with Israel and to encompass large areas of Palestinian land for the future expansion of the settlements.”
That this is so is hardly a secret. The UN report cites two cases where the Israeli government has explicitly admitted that the route of the wall was determined by the location of settlements. According to B’Tselem and Bimkom, “the primary consideration in determining the route of the Barrier around Zufin”, a settlement built on land belonging to the Palestinian village of Jayyus, “was to leave areas planned for the settlement’s expansion and for a nearby industrial zone on the ‘Israeli’ side of the barrier.” In a subsequent court case the government acknowledged that “plans for an industrial zone for Zufin had been taken into consideration in planning the route.” Similarly, the government admitted that a revised route plan for the wall around the settlement of Ariel “took into account an unapproved plan to expand Ariel southwards”.
It is clear, in other words, that the “security barrier” constitutes, and is intended to constitute, a “de facto border” (.pdf). As Noam Chomsky points out, few people would deny Israel’s right to build a wall to defend its citizens. But, he adds,
“[i]t is … clear where such a wall would be built if security were the guiding concern: inside Israel, within the internationally recognized border, the Green Line established after the 1948-49 war. The wall could then be as forbidding as the authorities chose: patrolled by the army on both sides, heavily mined, impenetrable. Such a wall would maximize security, and there would be no international protest or violation of international law.”
The wall as it actually exists, on the other hand, has clearly been designed with one purpose in mind: to annex a majority of the settlements and the most fertile land in the West Bank to Israel. As the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem puts it,
“if [Israel] wants to build a physical barrier between it and the West Bank, it must be built along the Green Line or inside its territory. The current route was not based on security considerations, but to perpetuate and expand the settlements.”
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs select committee reported in 2004 that the route of the barrier “destroys the viability of a future Palestinian state” (the UN report similarly notes, for example, that the construction of the wall around Ma’ale Adumim will “physically separate East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank”) and supports suspicions that the wall was constructed in order to create “apartheid-style ‘homelands’ for Palestinians behind the fence” and thus to allow Israel to “enter negotiations with a redrawn map of the West Bank presented as a fait accompli.” The UN report also makes clear that the wall is part of a broader Israeli policy to divide the West Bank into a series of isolated prison camps, surrounded on all sides by Israeli forces and settlements. Alongside the network of roadblocks and checkpoints Israel has constructed to, as the World Bank reports, “[protect] and [enhance] the free movement of settlers and the physical and economic expansion of the settlements at the expense of the Palestinian population”, the wall “compounds the fragmentation of the West Bank by creating non-contiguous enclaves of Palestinian communities and territory”. This is all entirely consistent with long-held Israeli plans, most recently proposed at Camp David in 2000, for the colonisation of the West Bank. Rejected by Arafat, Israel has moved to implement its designs unilaterally, by force.
The UN report was published to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the July 2004 International Court of Justice ruling that declared the wall, where built on Palestinian territory, to be illegal. The Court judged that “the construction of the wall and its associated régime create a ‘fait accompli’ on the ground that could well become permanent”, and warned that if the route was chosen to facilitate settlement expansion as well as for security reasons – as is clearly the case and, indeed, as Israel openly admits – it would be “tantamount to de facto annexation”. The Court called for the wall to be dismantled and for compensation to be paid to Palestinians affected by it.
Four years on, Israel has not complied with any section of the ICJ ruling. Indeed, as B’Tselem notes, it has not even complied with the Israeli High Court, which nullified three sections of the wall on the grounds that their impact on the Palestinian population was “disproportionate”. However, it is not only Israel that is in violation of international law in this regard. The ICJ ruled that every party to the Fourth Geneva Convention has the obligation to “see to it that any impediment, resulting from the construction of the wall, to the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self determination is brought to an end” and to “ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law”. In fact the U.S. has continued to facilitate Israeli crimes and in 2004 reversed decades of official policy by effectively endorsing Israel’s annexation of the major settlement blocs, while Britain, even as it has recognised the illegality of the wall, has done nothing in practice to oppose it, failing even to take the step recommended by the Commons select committee of conditioning Israel’s preferential trade status with the EU on its respect for international law.
The Palestinians courageously resisting the wall in places like Bil’in and Nilin face injury, torture and death in their efforts to force Israel to comply with the law. We face none of that, which makes our obligation to act all the greater.