The West Bank's 'rebuke of tyranny'

The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall last week was a cause for much celebration and received huge coverage in the global media. World leaders descended upon Berlin to celebrate the momentous event which reunited Germany and changed the face of Europe, and the world, forever.  Such high profile celebration was wholly fitting. The Berlin Wall did more than just divide a people, it represented the legacy of a monstrous war while its fall represented the end of the seemingly intractable Cold War.  The structure cost the lives of at least 136 people who attempted to cross it.  President Obama said of its fall; “There could be no clearer rebuke of tyranny, no stronger affirmation of freedom”.

However, throughout the much publicised celebrations , the destruction of another significant wall (albeit only partially) went largely unreported.  On 6 November approximately 300 Palestinians in the small West bank village of Ni'lin marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in their own way, by tearing down a section of Israel's ‘security’ wall.  The group managed to remove an eight-meter concrete slab before Israeli authorities intervened. One of the organisers of the protest alleged that "...the Israeli army arrived and started shooting large amounts of tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and even live ammunition."

The Israeli government began building the Separation Wall in June 2002.  It is projected to run for over 700km with almost 75 per cent of its total length inside the West Bank, rather than along the 1949 Armistice ‘Green Line’. In some areas such as East Jerusalem the wall is an eight-metre-high solid concrete structure. According to the Israeli state, the barrier is a security measure, and since the collapse of the Oslo process 80 per cent of Israelis have consistently supported the construction of the barrier.

Walls and barriers have played a significant, yet rather unsuccessful, role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In 2000, after the sudden collapse of the South Lebanon Army, a state of the art fence was constructed along the de facto border with Lebanon. In theory this was to provide Israelis with the security no longer achieved by their occupying Southern Lebanon. However, as the events of the 2006 Lebanon war tragically confirmed, the barrier was not capable of such defensive functions. Similarly, Israel’s fence surrounding Gaza, built in 1994, is often viewed as Sharon’s model for the West Bank wall. However, it too was ineffective. When the fence prevented terrorists from leaving Gaza, they simply changed tactics, developing rockets and the use of huge explosive charges inside the Gaza Strip.

Supporters of the West Bank wall contend that it can achieve numerous objectives such as limit the infiltration of suicide bombers into Israel, advance Israeli debate about the future of settlements, function as a temporary border which could be modified in the future and even present an incentive for Palestinians to revive negotiation.  

However, any Palestinian ‘state’ created by unilateral disengagement and segregated by the wall could in no way be independent, territorially contiguous, or viable. Constant, inflows of foreign aid would be necessary for it to function at all. In fact, the segregation of Gaza has facilitated the blockage of urgent aid to Palestinians living there, notably after the destruction of the area by Israel almost a year ago. Neither will the creation of such a ‘state’ address the final status of core issues such as Jerusalem, settlements, borders and the allocation of resources.

The wall has been repeatedly been found to be illegal under international law. In October 2003 the US vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council Resolution denouncing the wall as illegal.  Consequently in December 2003, the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution which appealed for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). On 9 July 2004, the ICJ issued an advisory opinion which concluded that the construction of the barrier is a violation of international law and thus states must take steps to avoid supporting its continued construction.  

However, the real impact of the wall is felt by the Palestinians living around it. The wall has a devastating social effect.  The structure serves to further fragment and separate Palestinian communities already isolated and dismembered by closures, territorial fragmentation and other restrictions imposed by Israel.  It has also resulted in the destruction of the Palestinians ability to earn a living and function as a community. For example, in Ni'lin the wall cuts through the village's centre and isolates residents from 60 per cent of their farmland. As a result of the ICJ’s declaration that in addition to the wall itself, the gate and permit systems are also illegal, the UN and NGOs are reluctant to apply for permits for their staff, thereby jeopardising their capacity to continue mobile health and food distribution services.

One of the participants in the Ni'lin demonstration told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth; "Twenty years ago, no one imagined that the monstrosity that divided Berlin would ever be taken down, but it took only two days to do it,"..."Today we proved that we too can pull it off, right here and right now. That is our land beyond the barrier, and we have no intention of ceding it. We will triumph because justice is on our side".

However although the law may be on the side of the Palestinians living in the shadow of the wall, the international community isn’t.  Despite the optimism of many such as Ahronoth, the wall remains as, literally, a concrete representation of the failure of both Israeli and international policy in the region in recent times.

The Wall - Some Facts:

  • The Wall’s total length is 723km, which is twice the length of the 1949 Armistice Line (Green Line) between the West Bank and Israel.
  • When completed, approximately 14 per cent of the Wall will constructed on the Green Line or in Israel, while 86 per cent will be inside the West Bank.
  • Approximately 125,000 Palestinians in 28 communities will be surrounded on three sides by the Wall.
  • Approximately 26,000 Palestinians in 8 communities will be surrounded on four sides by the Wall, with a tunnel or road connection to the rest of the West Bank.
  • Approximately 35,000 West Bank Palestinians will be located in an area known as ‘no man’s land’, between the Wall and the Green. They must have permits to live in their homes and can only leave their communities via a gate in the Wall.