How to build a wall

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I’m assured by a reader that the Great Wall of China is not, in fact, visible from space. Is this then just the imperial equivalent of an urban legend? I have no idea, but certainly that massive, if never continuous, ancient wall along China’s border with the steppes, was history’s most ambitious military effort at “security.” However, as Hebrew University’s military historian Martin van Creveld comments, “It didn’t succeed in keeping out the Mongols.”

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Robert Frost famously reminded us, and yet the urge for walled-in security is as old as the earliest kraal, as old as the most ancient walled city. The poet Robert Bly speaks of the psychological defenses we develop in childhood to protect ourselves from whatever threatens and that then haunt us in adulthood as “six big ideas. Five don’t work.”

A vast defensive wall, however logical its construction might seem to a fearful people, is certainly one of those five. There’s something atavistic about such a wall. It seems a throwback to another age. Have most walls worked? Not in the long run, in part, as with the Berlin Wall, because while walls may officially be conceived as ways to keep the “barbarians” at arms length, the walls of our time have often had more to do with keeping populations in. At the very least, whether in the former East Berlin, on our own border with Mexico (where, south of San Diego, we’re now building a 14-mile long “triple fence” guaranteed to keep no one out), or in Ariel Sharon’s Israel, it may be at least as important to consider what’s being walled in as out.

And of course, no matter how built, in a world in which untold numbers of people seem to be in ever more constant motion and those desperate to keep them out are unlikely to be more desperate than those striving to get in (as we may be about to discover off the coast of Florida), there always turn out to be ways around, under, through or above. And what does it tell us that no one ever celebrates the building of a wall as in Berlin over a decade ago the world celebrated the tearing down of one?

All of this is just my way of leading up to perhaps the strangest wall of all — a concrete monstrosity in some places twice as high as the Berlin Wall, with attendant sensor fences, loads of razor wire, sniper towers, trenches and track ways, being built in an indeterminate zone between Israel’s Green Line and the Occupied Territories, a “wall” meant to be 700 kilometers long, about 200 of which have already been constructed. We imagine walls as static entities, immobile markers along a line or boundary; yet for all its physical heft, Sharon’s is the least static of walls. It follows no set path, but moves constantly, snaking here and there over a boundary-less terrain, among Palestinian fields, olive groves, and villages, towns, and cities. As it is being built; bits of it are already being dismantled and rebuilt in slightly different spots.

Though masquerading as a defensive wall, a security barrier par excellence meant mainly to shut out the suicide bombers who have devastated Israel since the second Intifada gained momentum, it is, in fact, a thief in the night (and the day as well). It is in some ways the very opposite of a wall. A free-wheeling enclosure, it has an active quality to it, swiveling here or there depending on the politics of the moment and the mood of the international community. That’s why those describing it often turn to exceedingly active imagery to catch its reality as Boston Globe columnist James Carroll did most vividly on his recent return from Bethlehem when, describing how the Wall looks from a Palestinian point of view, he wrote (A wall across the world):

“[I]t is a running monument of destruction, as bulldozers obliterate property, olive groves, farmland, wells, and playing fields. The wall interrupts roads and bisects towns and cities. Members of families are separated, workers are impeded from getting to jobs, pregnant women and other patients find themselves cut off from doctors and hospitals. Because the wall meanders along a serpentine path designed to protect as many Israelis as possible, its loops isolate dozens of Arab villages and create numerous Palestinian enclaves, effective cages.”

“[I]t is a running monument of destruction, as bulldozers obliterate property, olive groves, farmland, wells, and playing fields. The wall interrupts roads and bisects towns and cities. Members of families are separated, workers are impeded from getting to jobs, pregnant women and other patients find themselves cut off from doctors and hospitals. Because the wall meanders along a serpentine path designed to protect as many Israelis as possible, its loops isolate dozens of Arab villages and create numerous Palestinian enclaves, effective cages.”

Here is how Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star describes the moment when one small part of the Wall was fitted into place exactly between two Palestinian cities (Two Sides of the Fence):

“Like a giant slab of geopolitical Lego, the last piece of concrete was slipped gingerly into position by crane at exactly 3:46 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. Eight metres high and 18 tonnes heavy, Israel’s final, steel-reinforced response to suicide bombs landed without a sound.”

“But its reverberations were felt immediately in the anguished Arab faces watching from both sides of the divide that now separates the tiny twin cities of Baka al-Gharbiyah, in Israel proper, and Baka al-Sharqiyah, in the Palestinian West Bank. All afternoon, crowds in these conjoined towns that straddle the fateful Green Line, the pre-1967 border established on the 1948 armistice line, shared baleful glances with their soon-to-be-severed neighbours across the way.”

“And then, suddenly, the last narrow sliver of direct eye contact was gone, leaving a blank expanse of fresh-cast gray concrete. Some wept, some shook their heads in disbelief and some simply walked away in brooding silence.”

Amnesty International recently denounced Sharon’s wall (which, as an idea, once came out of the Labor Party, and was initially opposed by Likud because of what it might leave out — the illegal Jewish settlements of “greater Israel”). In doing so, Amnesty offered this startling statistic: “Close to 90% of it is on Palestinian land inside the West Bank, encircling Palestinian towns and villages and cutting off communities and families from each other.”

“Security” is the cry of those building it, as it is of all who build walls; and “security,” especially from the depredations of suicide bombers — the bombed-out hull of a city bus was airlifted to the Hague by the Israeli government to sit opposite the International Court of Justice as its hearings on the Wall began last week — is what rallied desperate Israelis to support it. And yet it is visibly a wall of insecurity as well as a barely hidden attempt to creep up on the most extreme of all policies, so-called population transfer.

Population transfer — the sending of Palestinians anywhere else — has certainly been part of the “dialogue” of the present Israeli government. Only the other day, Ze’ev Boim, the Likud’s deputy defense minister, in memorial comments about the victims of a 1978 massacre, said, according to the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, “”What is it about Islam as a whole and the Palestinians in particular? Is it some form of cultural deprivation? Is it some genetic defect? There is something that defies explanation in this continued murderousness.” And then, after an uproar ensued, he “apologized” for his “genetic defect” remark, claiming his comments had been taken “out of context.” (Try to imagine any context that would have allowed such remarks to be “out of context.”)

If this is, in fact, the extreme context in which, on the Israeli side, the Wall is going up, it seems that on the Palestinian side “population transfer” is already underway in a modest fashion. In Israel’s Failing Wall in the most recent issue of the Nation magazine, Hillel Schenker describes the nature of this “voluntary” transfer:

“Najat Hirbawi, circulation manager of the Palestine-Israel Journal, lives in Azariya. She says there are three ways of coping with the new walled-off reality. She and her family have moved to East Jerusalem, to guarantee access to work; those who can afford it choose this option. A second option open to bearers of foreign passports is simply to leave–to Canada, the United States, Europe or Latin America. Left behind are the poor, the less educated, less mobile, many of them depressed and very angry.”

But, as with so many things, it turns out that there are unexpected “transfers” threatening to happen inside the wall as well. As Schenker puts it:

“The irony is that one can see a mirror image on the Israeli side. A growing number of the young, the ambitious, the more highly educated and the mobile are thinking of leaving.”

In recent weeks much shock has been expressed internationally about the nature of Israel’s wall — an “anti-terror fence” or “security fence” saving lives on one side, an “apartheid wall” dividing Palestinian lands into helpless, impoverished “Bantustans” on the other (for a recent commentary on this by the South African Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry see Israel’s wall of shame will create poor Palestinian Bantustans) — and especially about it’s most essential task, the theft of Palestinian lands. But, it’s important to note that this had all been perfectly evident since the project began.

Robin Shulman, a former student of mine, who from 1998-2000 lived in a Jerusalem neighborhood (“my house was the last on the Jewish side; my walkway was part of the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan”), decided in the fall of 2002 to follow the “borders” of an Israel which, for a variety of reasons, was then, as now, essentially a borderless land. She wrote, “I wanted to assess how lines are drawn in border zones where people see, hear, smell, infiltrate, ignore, explore, peddle to, steal from, long for, recoil from, partner with, throw stones at and try to kill the people on the other side. What is it like to live on the border in a country without borders — or whose borders are everywhere?”

Over a ten-day period for PBS’s Frontline website, she did just that, starting her tour where the present wall, then known as “the Seam Line Project” (as if something was to be stitched together not taken apart) was just beginning to go up. When she was done, she summed up what she had seen this way:

“‘It is not a border,’ say Israeli officials, who, with careful consistency, refer to the massive wall and fence system as the Seam Line Project. Certainly it defies most conventions of border establishment: There is no agreement with the people on the other side. Israel will not withdraw its forces from the Palestinian side, and that access is built in, with roads designated for Israeli military vehicles on both sides. The United Nations has not acknowledged the new walls and fences. The jutting, jagged barrier will not follow the armistice line accepted as the informal West Bank border since 1949, but will enclose West Bank Jewish settlements, will exclude many nearby Palestinian villages, and, in the first phase of construction, will involve confiscating an estimated 42 square miles of land, mostly farmland, from Palestinians. The project will also enclose an estimated 10,000 (according to the Israeli Ministry of Defense) to 26,000 (according to the Palestinian Authority) Palestinians, who will be trapped between the old border and the new wall, unable to easily enter either Israel or the West Bank.”

Two years old and, with the figures changed to reflect the growing length of the wall, it might as well have been written today.

Ha’aretz journalist Amira Hass, the only Jewish Israeli reporter living in Ramallah, recently wrote an eloquent piece (Failed Predictions) on exactly how obvious all this was and on the pure bad faith of those in the Sharon government now blaming an international publicity disaster on the blindness of the wall’s planners.

“‘The planners of the fence failed to predict its effects on innocent Palestinians,’ National Security Advisor Giora Eiland told a high-level diplomatic-security forum in Germany this week (Haaretz, February 9). Like Eiland, other Israeli representatives are now trying to convince the western countries and the United States in particular that the route of the separation fence is a human, localized and almost chance error that can be corrected to minimize the damage.”

She adds sardonically:

“One really does need special analytical powers to predict that caging thousands of people behind iron gates and stationing 19-year-old soldiers to open them, if they feel like it, two or three times a day, would have a deleterious affect on studies at schools and universities, sabotage medical treatment for cancer and kidney patients and split up families. After all, only especially creative minds could have guessed that it would be very hard for 260,000 people to maintain ‘a normal fabric of life’ in the 81 enclaves of various sorts that the fence creates. Eighty-one enclaves that separate them from neighboring villages, from the provincial towns and from the rest of the West Bank, shutting them in behind barbed wire fences and guard towers and excavations and double fences and bureaucratic-military systems of permits to go in and out of the enclaves that are needed by garbage collectors and doctors, family members and teachers.”

As she comments, hard to predict was not the effect of the wall, but the sudden international reaction of revulsion to it, even in the United States. “After all, the kinds of damage that the fence is causing are not new. The Israeli occupation regime has been testing them successfully for 37 years now, sometimes in the name of security and sometimes in the name of the Jewish people’s right to preferential rights in this country.”

Sharon’s associates had simply forgotten exactly how hard it is to love a wall. After all, they were already enclosed and hardly noticed. Now, as Hillel Schenker comments, “with the specter of the beginnings of a South Africa-type international boycott looming over the horizon,” they are dodging and weaving — and as a result so is the wall itself.

If I were to pick one signal of changing opinion in elite circles in the United States — or possibly just growing panic (at last) over our own “Likudniks” and the walls we’d like to build in the world — it would be the appearance of a strong, thoughtful Noam Chomsky essay on the Wall smack in the middle of the New York Times op-ed page the other day. I thought before I ever saw something like it aliens would surely have made first contact with us somewhere in the vicinity of Roswell, New Mexico. But, as it happened, I was wrong.

Chomsky emphasized the degree to which Sharon’s policies, including the building of the Wall in Palestinian lands, like it or not, are in a sense ours as well (A Wall as a Weapon):

“Palestinians in the seam between the wall and the Green Line will be permitted to apply for the right to live in their own homes; Israelis automatically have the right to use these lands It is misleading to call these Israeli policies. They are American-Israeli policies — made possible by unremitting United States military, economic and diplomatic support of Israel. This has been true since 1971 when, with American support, Israel rejected a full peace offer from Egypt, preferring expansion to security. In 1976, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for a two-state settlement in accord with an overwhelming international consensus. The two-state proposal has the support of a majority of Americans today, and could be enacted immediately if Washington wanted to do so.

“At most, the Hague hearings will end in an advisory ruling that the wall is illegal. It will change nothing. Any real chance for a political settlement — and for decent lives for the people of the region — depends on the United States.”

James Carroll in his Globe column also commented on how Bush administration strategies and fantasies play out in Israel:

“There is a certain kind of American narcissism that sees every world problem as originating in Washington, but still a visitor here sees connections. George W. Bush has thrown up a wall across the world, exacerbating an ‘us versus them’ bipolarity that grips this and other places. Bush sponsors the illusion that deep sources of terror can be ignored in favor of a civilizational ‘clash’ that efficiently feeds those sources. The failure of this approach is on full display in Iraq, which is quickly becoming the rallying point for whole new jihadist belligerence as Islamic extremists take up Bush’s challenge The Sharon government, meanwhile, sees itself as waging the frontline battle of the war on terrorism, but that war’s futile strategies were drawn up in Washington. Bush’s example has reinforced the most self-defeating impulses of the Israeli government.”

What the Bush administration is actually supporting in Israel, as in Iraq, is a principle of induced international chaos based on the application of preemptive force.

Imagine, for a moment, the look of a “secure” Israel at the end of this process — a tiny, though militarily powerful, country in the Middle East seemingly intent on turning itself into a crusader state and then locking itself inside a wall. We’re not talking about walling a city here, or even a border area, but close to a whole country. I believe that would be a first. And here’s the catch, even from the Israeli point of view: Israel’s most essential problems can’t be solved by a wall — even one that successfully left the “barbarians” outside the gates, which this of course won’t. Neither seam, nor line, this wall, no matter how situated, is guaranteed to be nothing but a mess of bad stitching. And here’s the irony: When done it will leave Jews out and close Palestinians in. And I’m not even considering here its effect on the growing minority of Israeli Arabs.

Worse, a completed wall will surely hasten along a process already underway — the squeezing of democracy out of Israel and, economically, its recreation on the model of a Third World state. Nor can the wall solve the matter of Israel’s “demographic bomb” — the fast growing non-Jewish populations inside Israel and in the occupied territories and Gaza.

Whatever short-term relief the wall offers, it cannot but squeeze what’s valuable out of what it’s enclosing in the name of “security” — and here’s the final irony, the likelihood that fanatics will find no other ways to turn themselves into suicidal weapons and kill is small indeed. In this light, it’s worth considering what Marouf Zahran, mayor of the Palestinian town of Qalqilya in the occupied West Bank, wrote in the British Guardian recently (In the shadow of Sharon’s wall):

“For nearly three years before the start of the current intifada, not a single Israeli civilian was killed inside Israel by an act of terrorism. There was no wall then — but there was a peace process and a genuine Palestinian belief that Israel would end its occupation and allow the Palestinians to live in the same freedom and security it demands for Israelis.”

It’s clear what the Wall is squeezing out of Palestinian lives. On this Zahran couldn’t be more eloquent. He writes of his own town:

“We had a decent life, we prospered. We were a rare oasis of coexistence where Israelis came to buy our fruit, eat in our restaurants and visit our zoo. More than 40 Palestinian-Israeli business ventures were based in our town. Almost all of us speak Hebrew and see Israelis as our neighbours, not our enemies.

“Then came Sharon’s wallThe wall tightly encircles our town and cuts us off from our farmland and our livelihood. Armed Israeli soldiers control one narrow gateway from which we are allowed to enter and leave – if we are lucky enough to have a permit. On the rare occasions when our farmers are able to visit their fields, they are met by withered, untended crops, dying in the shadow of an ugly concrete wall One-third of Qalqilya’s water supply is inaccessible – the wells now lie outside the wall.”

This is a horror. It’s a tragedy for the Palestinians, but also for Israelis — and not just because of the hardening of moral and emotional arteries on all sides either. However counterintuitive this might seem, the suicide bombers (and the fanatic groups like Hamas that urge them to their deaths) are the Palestinian equivalent of the Wall.

Hass in another of her superb pieces in Ha’aretz yesterday considered the motives of the suicide bomber who blasted another Israeli city bus to smithereens and murdered another group of randomly chosen innocents on the very eve of the hearing at the court in the Hague and who, by doing so, managed to undermine months, if not years, of hard work by nonviolent Palestinian and Israeli opponents of the Wall. She concluded (What scared those who sent the bomber?):

“Activity in a civil struggle, in contrast to the use of arms, involves all strata of society, and even creates areas of contact between Palestinians and Israelis. Popular, wide-scale activity stirs a form of hope in this world, and dulls the sort of fatalistic faith in the world to come which makes it easier for young Palestinians to agree to carry out suicide missions. Perhaps that is what frightened those who carried out the last terror strike in Jerusalem, on the eve of the hearings in The Hague?”

The suicide bombers and the Wall planners/land-grabbers of the Sharon administration, though mortal enemies, are paired up in a mutual dance of insecurity. The ever-moveable Wall will certainly not be visible from the heavens centuries from now, an edifice we humans look on with a certain strange pride. It will not, in fact, exist. It is not the most solid, but the most fragile of structures. Tom

[Let me especially thank the War in Context website, whose editor first gathered a number of the pieces I’ve used above and others I found most useful, and Jewish Peace News, always invaluable, which offered a selection of others — visit their website or sign up for their e-mail service — as well as Tomdispatch readers who, as always, suggested pieces I would otherwise have missed.]