The Iron Wall of Fear

Back in 1923, the situation in Palestine was markedly different from what we have been familiar with for the past half-century. The eventual rise of the state of Israel was considered a pipe dream, even by most of the Zionist immigrants of the day. Though there were high tensions between the Jewish immigrants and the Palestinian Arabs, and there was some fighting (including some very horrid incidents on both sides), the major violence was still some years away. Questions in the Yishuv (the term for the pre-state Jewish immigrant community in Palestine) were abstract, dealing in general approaches to relations with the Arabs of Palestine. The dominant view, of the Labor Zionists, was that if the Arabs could only be made to understand how the Zionist immigration would benefit them (in familiar, colonial terms, envisioning how the immigrants would “civilize” the indigenous population), they would be willing to consent to the creation of the Jewish national home in Palestine.


This view was countered by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionists, who were the ideological ancestors of today’s Likud Bloc, Israel’s dominant political party. Jabotinsky expounded his view in his famous 1923 paper entitled “The Iron Wall”. In his view, the Labor image of the Palestinian Arabs was unrealistic and condescending. While he agreed that the Zionists could offer the Arabs the benefits of “civilization”, he said that the Labor stance denied the basic fact that the Palestinians were people like any other and that no indigenous population would ever willingly accept foreign settlement. Thus, Jabotinsky reasoned, the Labor view of winning the Palestinian Arabs over to support of the Zionist movement was naïve and doomed to failure. History has certainly demonstrated that Jabotinsky was correct about this, at least. On this basis, Jabotinsky reasoned that since the goal was a majority Jewish population in Palestine, that necessarily meant dominating the indigenous population. As the Palestinian Arabs would never accept this state of affairs no matter how the Labor Zionists tried to pretty it up, it would be necessary to battle them for supremacy in the land. In Jabotinsky’s view, it was only when the Jews of Palestine had erected a figurative “iron wall” that the Arab population of Palestine would be willing to make the necessary compromises. They would do so simply because they would realize they had no other choice. History, of course, shows that Jabotinsky underestimated the Palestinians’ will and resolve.


Interestingly, Jabotinsky actually made the point that his “iron wall” vision did not include the requirement for any Arabs to leave Palestine. Whether or not one believes that to have been a sincere commitment, it is striking in its contrast to the way things actually evolved. In 1923, conversation and thought about population transfer was necessarily far off. Most did not think about it, as it simply seemed ludicrously outside of foreseeable possibilities. Yet, by 1948, that is precisely what did happen. That turn of events changed everything, and it was only one of many changes.


Avi Shlaim, in his book, “The Iron Wall” (intentionally named after Jabotinsky’s essay, as Shlaim posits that this line of thinking has been, in fact, the cornerstone of Israeli strategy since the 1940s) makes a strong case that Jabotinsky, despite being the ideological father of the Likud, actually saw a good deal of his Iron Wall strategy seep into the thinking of the leaders of the Labor Party. Labor was the dominant political force in Israel until the late 1970s. David Ben-Gurion and his successors pursued a strategy of military strength, which Shlaim demonstrates was very much in line with Jabotinsky’s ideas. The contention between Labor and Revisionists evolved into the competition we have seen over the last quarter century between Labor and Likud, yet Shlaim amply demonstrates that their basic strategies were similar, even while their tactics differed markedly. Now, that seepage of ideology is playing itself out in the creation of a physical Iron Wall.


More than 60 years after Jabotinsky’s death, Israel is bringing his vision to literal life. And just as Jabotinsky’s ideology eventually seeped into both of the major groupings of Israeli politics, the wall being built now is really a joint project of both the Labor Party and Likud bloc.  The wall was planned and promoted during the administration of Ehud Barak, and is the embodiment of Labor’s long-held program of peace through separation. A wall such as this one has been considered before, but it was the Sharon government that actually started building it, thus associating the idea with the Israeli right. The problems the wall presents are myriad. As a security measure, it is dubious at best. The increased difficulty for suicide bombers entering Israel is likely to be more than offset by the increase in Palestinian desperation the wall will create.


The path the wall is taking cuts many Palestinians off from the lands they work, agricultural acreage they need to survive. Israeli promises of having gates in the wall which will permit them access ring hollow to those who have experienced the whim of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and of the Israeli government which decides when it will and will not institute a complete closure on Palestinian movements. The projected path of the wall, as published in the Israeli daily Yediot Akhronot, goes well beyond the Green Line (the internationally recognized border between Israel and the territories it has occupied since 1967). The part of it that has been constructed has already had a severe, well-documented impact on two Palestinian towns, Tul Karem and Qalqilyah. A secondary fence that would cut off Palestinian population centers from the Jordan Valley (a part of the West Bank that Ariel Sharon and the Likud have often stated they intended to find a way to keep even in the event of the creation of a Palestinian state).


A report for the international Humanitarian and Emergency Policy Group (which is comprised of representatives of the European Union and European Commission, the governments of the US and Norway, the World Bank and UNESCO), states that the wall is likely to “isolate, fragment, and, in some cases, impoverish those affected by its construction”. Palestinian land has been confiscated in order to make way for the wall, in addition to the severing of connection between farmers and their land. This is in direct violation not only of the Oslo Accords, but also of the more recent and relevant Roadmap. The wall puts some Palestinian communities on the Israeli side of it, while it virtually surrounds others. It will clearly make the already difficult economic and social problems experienced by Palestinians in the West Bank even worse. After all these years, the same mistake Jabotinsky made is still being repeated day after day. Increasing Palestinian misery has not brought about increased willingness to compromise. On the contrary, as Israel has strengthened its military stance against the Palestinians, Palestinian resolve has strengthened, and Palestinian rage has created a fertile ground for the recruitment of suicide bombers, and other violent attackers. Neither Jabotinsky’s metaphorical iron wall nor the solid one conceived by the Barak government and built by the Sharon, is bringing peace, compromise or even security for Israelis.


Israel will now be living behind its wall, a wall made of metal and concrete, insulating it from the world around it. More than ever, Israelis will be isolated from the real effects their government is having on the region surrounding it. Yet more disturbing than this, for Jews, is the building of a wall that keeps Jews, once again, separate from the larger world in which we live. For many centuries, Jews struggled to get out of the ghettos of Europe. Sometimes there were walls, sometimes not, but Jews always remained separate. The Enlightenment (and its Jewish parallel, which we call the Haskalah) opened up the possibility for Jews to live as part of the world around them, rather than as an insular community within others. Despite the fact that the hope for equality was seriously injured by the Holocaust and other traumas that Jews continued to face in the modern world, most of us continue to strive for such co-existence. Now, the only country in the world with a majority Jewish population is building its own ghetto. But this ghetto is very different from the ones of the past. It is built by Israeli fear, rather than by governmental religious bigotry. It is the ultimate physical expression of the politics of fear that Ariel Sharon preaches and that most of the Labor Party (in ex-prime minister Ehud Barak and his former defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and the rest of the remaining party leadership) has supported since the beginning of the intifada.


The wall creates a different kind of ghetto also in that it is a dual ghetto, affecting both Israelis and Palestinians, albeit in radically different ways. It will take Palestinian land, further strangle Palestinian travel and commerce, and make it even more unlikely that the Palestinians will even get the 22% of what was once Palestine under the British Mandate that the entire world (even, on paper, the United States) has agreed they are entitled to. It creates a further disruption of Palestinian life, increased hardship and desperation, and will only serve to increase the hopelessness and despair of Palestinians, some of whom will decide they have nothing better to do with their lives than to throw them away in order to kill Israeli civilians. It will also close Israelis in, so that only Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers will extend beyond it. Palestinians will see none of the humanity of Israelis, none of the desire for peace, none of the characteristics of Israelis that can serve as the basis for an eventual rapprochement, that will serve as the hope for peace and a future where Israeli and Palestinian children can grow up with some expectation of a decent future. The wall will ensure that only the worst of each side reaches the other.


The Israeli peace group Gush Shalom says the wall, “is not about ‘security’ or just another aspect of the occupation. The planned expansion of the wall can provide the outline for Sharon’s plan as to the possible border of a Palestinian ‘entity’…it will not bring peace and will destroy any possibility of a Palestinian state.” Palestinian-Israeli member of the Knesset, Azmi Bishara wrote, “Building the wall is not only an act of racial segregation, but also a political crime against the Palestinian people. It marks political borders. And while it coincides with the Green Line (in some places), another layer is added to it from the inside, which secures it from the east, and secures the settlements within it.” The wall is a crime, not only against international law, but also against any hope for peace. It is no wonder that very little discussion about it in the media outside of Israel and Palestine. No issue is currently more crucial. The wall is a barrier to peace and to hope. It must be taken down.

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