Globalist: Israel's wall, a victory for the logic of war

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 14-Jul-04 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

An Israeli soldier checks the documents of Palestinians before they pass through a gate in the fence.
QALQILYA, West Bank Inside the "War Room," as it is informally called, Israeli soldiers gaze at banks of computer and television screens. What they see are images of the wall or fence or barrier - it is all these things in different places - that is transforming the physical and mental landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their job is to stop anyone crossing the barrier and so make Israel safer.

An officer shows off the gadgetry: night-vision cameras trained 24 hours a day on a barrier loaded with electronic gizmos that signal the precise location of anyone who touches it, ensuring that Israeli forces reach the area within two to eight minutes to stop the sort of infiltration of Palestinian suicide bombers that resulted in close to 100 Israeli deaths in March 2002 alone.

The barrier, destined to run over 690 kilometers, or 430 miles, from the northern West Bank to its southern rim, with numerous protrusions into the area, has become an article of faith for these soldiers and officers. It is an effective tool, they say, not a political statement. Projected to cost well over $1 billion, it works and must be completed.

If Israelis are going to the beach and to clubs again, and if bombings have become rare, it is thanks in large part, they insist, to these ditches and guard towers and coils of barbed wire and miles of wire fencing that separate two peoples, demarcating the gulf between them.

Belief in the barrier is by no means confined to the army. Most Israelis are tired of the conflict, exhausted by it. They want to forget what goes on over there, in the West Bank. A wall helps them do that. They feel that peace was within reach in the 1990s, but now the best that can be hoped for is damage limitation. A fence seems to serve that objective: It makes the task of Palestinians who want to kill them harder.

"There is a feeling that you cannot resolve this situation for the coming decades, you can only manage it," says Tom Segev, a historian. "The wall is ugly and terrible, but it is also a way of managing."

So when the International Court of Justice in The Hague rules that the barrier is illegal, or when the Israeli Supreme Court declares that its planned path northwest of Jerusalem must be changed, many Israelis shrug. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's insistence that the barrier is necessary for self-defense - and international opinion or law be damned - finds a generally sympathetic domestic reception.

Opinions diverge on the reasons for the precipitous fall in Palestinian bombings this year. Is the intifada exhausted after almost four years? Was Yasser Arafat cowed by the Israeli killing of Hamas leaders? Did the removal of those leaders throw Palestinian militants into disarray? Have the ceaseless patrols by more than 12,000 Israeli soldiers in the West Bank blocked attacks?

Perhaps each theory has its share of truth. But whoever espouses these ideas also tends to see the barrier as an effective, additional guarantee of some semblance of normal life in Israel.

Sure, the price is high - the defeat of hope - but so be it.

What is missing, of course, from such Israeli musings is any real grasp of the life of the person on the other side of the barrier, the Palestinian. On those war-room screens the most common sight is a Palestinian in a donkey cart trundling along a dirt track beside the barrier.

The contrast between the high-tech Israeli cameras that deliver these images and the abject existence of the Palestinians photographed provides an apt summation of the divergence of the societies: a first-world Israel forging ahead as best it can, a third-world Palestinian society going backward.

The barrier, destined for completion by the end of next year, amounts to the most visible expression of the way Israelis and Palestinians have parted company. Because it wills and advances this unilateralist separation, the wall is profoundly political, whatever Israeli officers say.

To move through the West Bank today is to witness the growth of parallel networks. Israelis drive on highways to their settlements spreading like garrisons on hills. Palestinians are increasingly confined to dirt tracks beside these roads. The impression of colonizer and colonized is inescapable.

Nowhere is this separation more evident than between Qalqilya and the adjacent West Bank town of Hable. Having built the fence around three sides of these two towns, Israeli authorities realized that the two places, now cut off, depended on each other. So now the army is building a series of tunnels under the winding fence that will be used by Palestinians.

Israeli officers portray this as a generous gesture. They are proud of helping the tunnel people communicate. They show off flourishing orange trees and say the trees are proof of how "we let them into their fields." At one gate, Mutassem Abu Tayem, a 36-year-old Palestinian farmer, waits on a donkey cart to be let onto his land. His view? "We are living in a prison and are treated like beasts."

Fair treatment, many Israelis would say, for a people who adopted a national strategy of blowing up busloads of children. But the moral cost of the barrier to the idea of a Jewish homeland seems enormous.

In the Jerusalem area, where the wall is really a wall of concrete, higher than the Berlin Wall, the offense to the ideal that was Israel appears incalculable.

Look one way from the Mount of Olives and you see the golden walls of the Old City, refracting light. Turn east toward the village of Abu Dis and there is this gray monument to defeat, deadening light. To one side, minarets and churches and onion domes and synagogues piled, it seems, one on top of the other. To the other, the razor cut of a wall through land and psyche.

Life is an accumulation, war a dissection. It is clear in Jerusalem today that the logic of war has won.

Roger Cohen can be reached at

Tomorrow: Peter S. Canellos examines John F. Kerry's liberal credentials.