Global Policy Forum

Sealing in the Palestinians: The Story of the Most Controversial Border Wall in the World

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By Rene Backman

March 13, 2010

Who invented the wall? Who came up with the idea for it? "Maybe it was me," Dany Tirza says half-jokingly as he weaves his car through Gilo morning traffic. Adjacent to the southern neighborhoods of Jerusalem, this truly "new" city of thirty-seven thousand people, which dominates the nearby Palestinian enclaves of Bethlehem and Beit Jala, is considered by the Israelis to be a natural extension of the Holy City. In fact, Gilo was built on the outskirts of "Greater Jerusalem," as it was redefined by Israel in 1967 after the Six-Day War, on approximately seven thousand acres of annexed Palestinian land. But Gilo is on the Palestinian side of the "Green Line," which, since 1949, separates the State of Israel from the present- day West Bank. Thus, it is a settlement, one of twelve built by Israel since 1967 at the periphery of Greater Jerusalem.

Colonel Dany Tirza lives in Kfar Adumim, a settlement near the Jordan Valley. He is a strapping man with salt-and-pepper hair who wears the crocheted yarmulke of a settler. Forty-six years old, he has recently been relegated to the Reserves, but remains in charge of "strategic and spatial" planning at the Ministry of Defense. This grants him a plastic ID card authorizing passage at any crossing. He travels with an armed soldier in the backseat of his car for protection. Tirza never goes anywhere without a thick folder of daily updated aerial maps. He is considered by the military forces to be one of their top experts on the West Bank. He has trekked its villages and pathways in all directions in his Jeep. Perhaps only Ariel Sharon possesses as much ground-level intelligence about the region. At the beginning of the Oslo peace process, Tirza was put in charge of the Rainbow Project, planning military withdrawals and redeployments in the West Bank, during the region's initial period of self government. As such, he was also part of the Israeli delegation involved in negotiations with the Palestinians. It was during this time that Yasser Arafat, amused to see Tirza arrive at the meetings every day with a roll of maps under his arm, gave him the nom de guerre Abu Karita, or "the father of maps."

When the Sharon government decided in 2001 to launch a study on a barrier project between Israelis and Palestinians, Dany Tirza was naturally put in charge of it, and of sketching the barrier's path. Today he supervises the construction sites, works on modifications called for by the Supreme Court, and adds the finishing touches. He has even become a diplomat, traveling to the Vatican to negotiate the course of the wall on Catholic-owned lands. "Here's where it all might have begun," he says as he gets out of his car and steps onto a rocky promontory at the southern edge of Gilo, across from the village of Beit Jala, on the other side of the valley.

"At the beginning of the Second Intifada, in October 2000, this area was under attack by snipers. They were taking potshots at people in the street from their apartment windows." The snipers were located in Beit Jala, which sits on a hill overlooking Gilo. "A policeman was killed nearby. At that time, we knew the liaison to the Palestinian police in Bethlehem very well. He was a part of the town's security force, he spoke Hebrew, and he had four thousand men with Kalashnikovs at his disposal. But when we asked him to stop the shooting, he said that it was impossible, because the snipers were young people from the refugee camps hiding in the Beit Jala mayor's house, and that he could not take them out by force. So we brought two tanks to a parking lot in Gilo and fired shells on the mayor's house from here." Indeed, the tanks had a remarkably clear shot of the building from this parking lot. "As you can see from here, the mayor's house has never been repaired. After this, we conducted military operations and engagements inside Beit Jala, but we could not stay forever and watch every house.

"Then the idea came to me that in order to prevent the snipers from targeting the people of Gilo, we could build a wall six feet high and some sixty feet long, with concrete upside- down Ts, simply arranged side by side. The wall worked. The shooting stopped, and people were able to live normally again.

Five years later, the Gilo wall is still standing. Local artists have had fun covering it with a mural of the Palestinian hill that it hides, perhaps hoping to help it blend in with the surroundings.

"Back then, ensuring security in the neighborhood was a nightmare," Dany Tirza continues, as he glances over the arid hillsides overlooking the road from Bethlehem to Hebron. "Each morning, the thousands of Palestinians who work in Jerusalem come into town through the checkpoint near Rachel's Tomb, but they also take one of the many paths etched out in the hills. At one time, we deployed up to fourteen Border Police Jeeps here to try to filter who was coming in. But even with the best-laid plans and the best- trained soldiers, you couldn't intercept all the terrorists among the innocent workers. In 2003, a border patrol broke up a group of three young Palestinians from the Deheishe refugee camp, to the south of Bethlehem. They had been trained for suicide attacks, and were trying to get into Jerusalem from Beit Jala. Two of them apparently were turned back, but the third succeeded in reaching the bus station, which connects Gilo to Jerusalem's center. He got on the bus and set off his belt near a school. Twenty-three children were killed.

"There are not a thousand ways to prevent this sort of thing. There is one: build a very effective, impenetrable barrier, and establish a rigorous policy at crossings." As stated in multiple documents from the government and the Ministry of Defense, and by many Israeli politicians, the objectives of the "security barrier" were to prevent the infiltration of terrorists, forbid the entry of clandestine arms and explosives, and protect the lives of 6.7 million Israeli citizens. This preoccupation with security is not unfounded. Between September 28, 2000? the date of Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to the Temple Mount (to Muslims, the Noble Sanctuary), in Jerusalem, which triggered the Second Intifada? and January 31, 2006, 992 Israelis, including 683 civilians, were killed in attacks or bombings. More than 40 fell during the first three months of conflict. The following year, total fatalities reached 188, then 420 in 2002, before they began to decline: 185 in 2003, 108 in 2004, and 50 in 2005. In the same period, Israeli army operations and attacks on settlements caused 3,399 deaths among Palestinians.5

The idea of building a wall or barrier as protection against invaders, immigrants, smugglers, or neighbors, or to separate sectors of the population, or, as in Berlin, to prevent people from fleeing an intolerable regime, is neither new nor original. Between 220 and 206 B.C., during the short-lived Qin Dynasty, the neighboring Chinese sovereign rulers already had a network of fortifications in place to protect them from one another, but also to contain attacks from nomadic tribes from the north. Other lines of defense were erected in the middle of the sixth century by the northern Qi Dynasty, then by the Sui. To the south of these fortresses, of which almost nothing remains, the Great Wall of China, extending close to four thousand miles long, was undertaken by Ming emperors beginning in 1368. Completed in 1620, it was intended to protect the Chinese from Manchu invasions. History shows that its strategic efficacy is debatable, as the Manchu Dynasty of the Qing conquered Peking in 1644.

Much less spectacular and ambitious was the seventy-five-mile wall built in 122 in the north of En gland by Emperor Hadrian, which served to delineate the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. Even though its garrison of more than ten thousand men resisted many attacks, it was abandoned by Hadrian's successor, and a good many of its stone blocks were reused elsewhere. Its central section was spared pillage and, named a World Heritage site in 1987, is now a major tourist destination in the region.

As for the Wall of the Farmers-General (fifteen miles long, with sixty toll barriers), which Claude-Nicolas Ledoux built around Paris in 1785 to enforce the taxation of merchandise fl owing into the capital, it did not survive through the French Revolution or the "Grands Boulevards" a century later. Today, all that remains are a few of the toll barriers that escaped revolutionary fury, and an anonymous alliterative ditty: "Le murmurant Paris rend Paris murmurant . . ." ("The wall walling Paris keeps Paris murmuring").

These experiments, along with their spotty results, have hardly discouraged modern leaders from seeking recourse in walls or barriers, whether to resolve political or territorial disputes, prevent hostile incursions, discourage illegal immigrants, or simply buy time while negotiating compromises with the people on the other side of the wall.

A dozen walls or barriers of this type exist today between China and Hong Kong (20 miles); China and Macao (1,000 feet); India and Pakistani Kashmir (340 miles); Morocco and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta (6 miles) and Melilla (7 miles); Morocco and the western Sahara (1,550 miles); North Korea and South Korea (155 miles); the Republic of Cyprus and the northern region of the island, occupied by Turkey since July 1974 (205 miles). Others are under construction between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Thailand and Malaysia, and Bangladesh and India, where the Indian government has undertaken the construction of a 2,500-mile-long barrier that will cost $565 million.

The United States has already walled in several sections of its 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico. Today it is planning to construct a 690-mile-long wall along the most porous zones of this territory to deter the entry of illegal immigrants.

Danny Tirza, with his bulletproof partition in Gilo, was perhaps the first in Israel to fully actualize a protection wall and demonstrate its efficiency, but the desire for a line of physical separation between the two peoples had long been lurking in the minds of Israeli ideologues, military people, and politicians.

Twenty-five years before the creation of the State of Israel, Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, the ideological father of Likud, had first suggested the idea. In a famous article dated November 1923, the theoretician of Zionist revisionism, who dreamed of creating a Jewish State on the two banks of the Jordan, envisioned the erection of a "wall of iron" as protection from the "Arab insubordinates." "All autochthonic people," he wrote, "struggle against foreigners who settle on their land, and there always remains for them the hope, however faint, that they can avert the dangers associated with settlement. Such is how the Arabs of Palestine will feel, as long as the spark of hope remains that they can prevent the transfiguration of the Arab Palestine into Eretz Israel, that is, a Jewish Palestine. . . . That is why those who hold that an accord with the Arabs is a sine qua non of the Zionist political stance must say to themselves from today on that it is definitively out of the question, and that there is nothing else to do but to give up the Zionist project. Our emigration to Palestine must continue without consideration of the Arab position, in a way that our settling can develop there under the protection of a power that is not dependant on the local population, under the shelter of a wall of iron that this population can never break down. This must be our political stance regarding the Arab question."

In Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine before the creation of the State of Israel, the idea of separation, founded on the conviction that the Arabs would never accept the existence of the State of Israel between the Mediterranean and Jordan, was omnipresent. This idea continues to be an obsession among the settlement communities, and in Israeli political circles on both the Right and the Left today.

On July 26, 1967, less than two months after the Six-Day War, it was a Labor Party representative, Yigal Allon, who proposed to the government a "territorial compromise" to divide the West Bank between Israel and Jordan. At the time a former commander of Palmach, the assault forces of Haganah (which served, unofficially, as Yishuv's army), Allon was minister of labor under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. His plan did not explicitly call for a wall or barrier among the Palestinian enclaves that had been handed over to Jordan, but rather a "strategic defense zone," controlled by Israel, about six miles wide between Jordan and the eastern foothills of the West Bank. It also proposed the creation of a string of settlements along the ridgeline, to delineate the new border and to serve as an early warning post. This plan, which implied the Israeli annexation of 33 percent of the West Bank, was never endorsed by the government or by the Labor Party (even if it remained for a long time the unofficial program of the party in terms of settlements).

Today, there are twenty settlements along the Jordan, and the spectacularly scenic Allon Road runs across the Judean Desert to the Jordan Valley, where it terminates near the Green Line, nine miles to the south of Beit She'an. Just under fifty miles long, and mostly off limits to Palestinians, Allon Road connects ten settlements, constructed between 1968 and 1979, with more than six thousand inhabitants. From the vantage point of these well- guarded hills overlooking the western side of the Jordan Valley, one can see as far as the Jericho Oasis and, when the weather is clear, to the ochre-colored summits of Djebel Amman, in Jordan.

Over the following decades, other separation and settlement plans gained momentum in Israeli political and military circles. None of these initial proposals would materialize into a real, concrete separation between Israelis and Palestinians, but many resulted in settlements and "bypass roads" reserved for Israelis. The proliferation of settlements with special-access entries would gradually enclose the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories in a series of pockets, separated from one another by military roadblocks and checkpoints, and transform their daily travel into a Kafkaesque obstacle course.

More than twenty years before becoming Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, at the time minister of agriculture of the "religious Likud" coalition government formed by Menachem Begin, had also conceived of a way for Jews to populate the West Bank. On September 29, 1977, his plan was submitted to the government and adopted that October. It opened the way for the construction over four years of nearly sixty settlements designed to ensure the security of Israel, and to satisfy the territorial and messianic demands of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), who were allies of Begin. Like Gush Emunim's founders, the Israeli prime minister felt that Judea-Samaria was the cradle of the Jewish people, and that it was Israel's right to settle there.

Did Sharon imagine, as far back as 1977, the construction of a security barrier around the settlements, and their, de facto, annexation to Israeli territory, ignoring the existence of the Green Line? One of his ardent supporters, Ron Nachman, mayor of the Ariel settlement, believes the answer is yes. In 2003, Nachman told a journalist from the mainstream daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth ard, he had seen in Sharonis hands the map showing the outline of a wall in the West Bank.

It was not until the 1990s that the Israeli army constructed the first true barrier between Palestinians and Israelis, around the Gaza Strip. Thirty-seven miles long, it is composed of a nine-foot-high fence fitted with several kinds of intrusion-detecting devices and sensors, and has a patrol road running alongside it. It was heavily influenced by the barriers installed along the Lebanese, Syrian, and Jordanian borders. The Gaza barrier was designed not only to clearly demarcate the "Autonomous Areas" as drawn by the Oslo and Cairo accords, but also to prevent terrorism and armed infiltration from Gaza into Israel. After the withdrawal of its troops, the Israeli military feared that the police force of the Autonomous Palestinian Territories would constitute a threat to Israelis, particularly in Jericho and Gaza. The Israeli army symbolically gave the keys of Jericho back to the Palestinians on May 13, 1994. On May 18, it withdrew from most of the Gaza Strip, but not from the settlements there, which account for close to 20 percent of the territory. Yasser Arafat, coming from Egypt, arrived in Gaza the following July. It was not until August 2005 that the Israelis finally left the settlements.

In truth, this first barrier did not hold up long against Palestinian aggression after the explosion of the Second Intifada in September 2000. "During my first tour of duty in Gaza as chief of the Southern Command9 in December 2000," notes Major General Doron Almog, head of the Israeli division deployed in the Strip from 1994 to 1996, "I noticed that the Palestinians had dismantled most of the barrier. At the same time, the army received ten to thirty reports each day from army and police intelligence that terrorists were trying to infiltrate Israel to bring in explosives and organize suicide attacks. So my first decision was to build the barrier back up. This took six months, from December 2000 to June 2001. In tandem, we created a half-mile-deep buffer zone along the fencing10 cleared of any obstacle. Sometimes the orchards made it possible for the terrorists to approach up to 150 feet from the barrier without being detected. So we got rid of all the trees so we could watch over the area better. We also built high-tech observation towers which allowed soldiers to watch over a 3.72- mile section of the barrier while cameras recorded each incident. Finally, we created a new protocol for how soldiers manage Palestinians who approach the barrier. The result was that from 2000 to 2003, when I quit my post, out of more than 400 attempts to cross the barrier detected by the army, none succeeded."

Another man whose opinion greatly influenced how the wall was constructed arrived at the same conclusion. His name is Avraham (Avi) Dichter, head of the southern sector of Shin Bet, the General Security Ser vice of the State of Israel. At the beginning of the 1990s, he also noticed that the barrier around Gaza had succeeded in preventing suicide bombers from entering Israeli territory and that, even though the terrorist networks of Gaza were well armed with explosives and mine detectors, they had become much less effective in Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, and Hebron. His opinion would bear even greater influence when, on May 14, 2000, he was appointed to the head of Shin Bet by the prime minister from the Labor Party, Ehud Barak.

A devastating attack on a group of soldiers returning to base after a weekend of rest on January 22, 1995, would ultimately move the Labor Party prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, initiator and signer of the Oslo Accords, to commission the fi rst study of a wall project between Israel and the Palestinians. The attack fell on Beit Lid Junction, about twenty miles northeast of Tel Aviv. Several dozen soldiers were gathered at the intersection of Highways 4 and 57, waiting for a ride back to their unit, when two suicide bombers almost simultaneously detonated. Islamic Jihad, one of the organizations hostile to the Oslo Accords, claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed twenty soldiers and one civilian. Sickened by Yasser Arafat's inability to control "his" extremists, Rabin appointed his minister of police, Moshe Shachal, to the head of a commission charged with studying the construction of a wall.

Shachal, who had participated in the conception of the barrier around Gaza, with the support of the army and the security ser vices, went to work. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, fifty acts of violent terrorism against Israeli civilians and military personnel had been recorded. The number of victims had reached one hundred. "In fact," remembers General Uzi Dayan (Reserves), at the time head of the Department of Planning for the IDF General Staff, "the project was aimed at combating both petty and organized crime, and arms and car trafficking between Israel and the Autonomous Palestinian Territories. The leaders at the top of the political hierarchy still believed that a true peace agreement with the Palestinians was possible, and that once such an agreement was in place, things would be simpler, especially thanks to the collaboration between our forces and theirs. I can't say that I shared this opinion. Like other heads in the security ser vice, I began to think that the Palestinians would never come to effectively fight their own terrorists and that a barrier would undoubtedly be an efficient tool of protection, barring anything better."

Mired in endless discussions, the "Shachal Project" did not survive past Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated on November 4, 1995, in Tel Aviv, by Yigal Amir, a young religious nationalist who accused Rabin of selling Israeli land to the Arabs.

A slightly modified version of the same project?estimated by Dany Tirza at 2 billion shekels, or $535 million?was briefly discussed under Binyamin Netanyahu, who was elected prime minister in May 1996, but abandoned under pressure by Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai. Of Iraqi origin, Mordechai arrived in Israel in 1949 at the age of five, and would go on to command a battalion of paratroopers at the Suez front during the October War of 1973. He thought that the barrier was dangerous because it might become a true border over time.

In the fall of 2000, Ariel Sharon, elected president of Likud a year earlier, visited the Temple Mount, which set off the Second Intifada. The Labor Party prime minister Ehud Barak, who was in a delicate political situation because his party had become the minority in the Knesset in July, announced that he, too, was in favor of a barrier. The plan that was submitted for his approval in November was founded on a core principle: "We are here, they are there." He foresaw a barrier that would filter the passage of vehicles and pedestrians along the Green Line, as well as around the big settlements? notably Ariel, Ma'ale Adumim, Gush Etzion, and those at the periphery of Jerusalem. The status of the isolated settlements was still up for discussion. It would, in effect, never be addressed under Barak: endless haggling over the constitution of a national unity government, or "national emergency," would postpone the question of the barrier for another year. That is, until Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel on February 6, 2001, with 62.39 percent of the vote.


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