Making a prison of Palestine

Israel's proposal to fence off the West Bank shows that, in foreign policy, caution can be as deadly as conquest.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

‘This is only the start of our nightmare. It is four or five miles long now, but in a few years’ time it will be 200 miles long and we will all be prisoners.’

So said a Palestinian farmer in the northern part of the West Bank in December 2002, as he watched the Israeli authorities put the finishing touches to the first stretch of their controversial fence between Israel and the West Bank (1).

Israeli contractors started building the ‘anti-terrorist fence’ in June 2002, stretching from the Salem army checkpoint outside the Palestinian town of Jenin down to the village of Umm el-Fahm, and finished it in late December. According to the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, ‘The first five kilometres are [just] waiting for a landlord to take over the keys’ (2).

Israel’s proposal to fence off the West Bank has met with international condemnation – and it isn’t hard to see why. The first five-kilometre run is a huge concrete wall topped with electrical fencing and barbed wire. There is a 15-metre buffer zone – or ‘killing zone’ as local Palestinians call it – on either side.

The final version will come complete with gun towers, x-ray machines and permanent checkpoints (or ‘gateways’), so that everything that moves between this militant part of the West Bank and Israel can be ‘sieved’. ‘And we thought the checkpoints were bad’, said one Palestinian.

This is only the start of Israel’s fencing plans. The former Israeli defence minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer expressed his keenness to build a 220-mile fence around the entire West Bank earlier this year, in order to ‘protect Israel from the suicide bombers’ (3). Whether such a massive wall can be erected, in the face of Palestinian opposition and international fury, remains to be seen. But as a Palestinian official points out, ‘If it’s built, the consequences will be dire’. The many Palestinians who live in the West Bank but who work illegally in Israel will lose their livelihoods, families will be separated, and the West Bank ‘will effectively become a prison’, says the official.

For many in the West, the West Bank fence is the latest example of Israel’s hard and unflinching attitude towards the Palestinians. ‘Fence them in: Israel’s answer for the West Bank’, sneered a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald, criticising Israel’s ‘drastic plan’ for being too hardline (4). For one left-wing US commentator, the fence is ‘another form of Israeli occupation’, which shows that Israel is as ‘grittily determined as it ever was’ to ‘degrade and defeat the Palestinians’.

There is no doubt that a West Bank fence would further degrade Palestinians – but do Israel’s plans demonstrate a ‘gritty determination’ to defeat its opponents? Is the fence another sign of Israel’s far-reaching ambitions over Palestine, as some commentators claim?

In fact, far from being the product of a determined policy, the proposed fence reflects a strong sense of fear and loathing on Israel’s part. The Israeli authorities’ focus on fence-building suggests that an increasingly cautious Israel now puts security above its broader territorial and political ambitions – and that such precautionary measures could prove as deadly for those on the receiving end as the Israeli conquest of old.

The proposed West Bank fence seems to have been influenced by the Bush administration’s pre-emptive policy for foreign affairs – where the aim is to act before being acted against. ‘We have got to stop the suicide bombers before they get to us’, said an Israeli politician in October 2002, ‘[to stop] their actions even before they can emerge’ (5). This echoes the central tenet of President Bush’s National Security Strategy, published in September 2002, which promises that ‘America will act against…emerging threats before they are fully formed’, because apparently foreign policy cannot be built around ‘hoping for the best’ (6).

Of course there’s a big difference between America and Israel – Israel faces a very real and constant threat. Bush’s document talks up the ‘embittered few’ around the world who are plotting America’s downfall through the use of ‘catastrophic technologies’ – though the notion that a few nutters could smash the USA is more imagined than real (7).

Israel, by contrast, is surrounded by hostility. Palestinian demands pose a mortal threat to Israel’s very existence, which is why Israel has had to rely on military might for its survival. The suicide bombers that Israel wants to stop in its tracks are all too real – and a large number of those bombers come from the refugee camps in and around Jenin in the West Bank, close to where the first section of Israel’s wall has been built (8).

What America and Israel do have in common, though, is a new focus on risk aversion in their foreign policies, where the stated aim is to stop hostile actors before they have a chance to act rather than engaging them in the old-fashioned way. With its long-term commitment to ‘the fence’, and its increasingly toned-down interventions in Palestinian territories, Israel seems slowly to be moving from traditional engagement to pre-emption, from tackling its opponents head-on to nipping its opponents’ actions in the bud. Where Israel went in for the kill in Lebanon in the early 1980s and during the first Palestinian intifada of the late 1980s, now it seems keen just to shut its enemies out.

Despite claims that Israel’s fence-building demonstrates its hardness and determination, in fact the West Bank wall represents a significant retreat on some of the Israeli authorities’ broader ambitions – starting with their territorial claims over Palestinian land.

Israel invaded and occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the Six-Day War of 1967 – areas that, until then, had been under the control of Jordan and Egypt respectively. The territory that Israel claimed during the 1967 war included east Jerusalem, which had been under Jordanian control inside the West Bank, and which Israel formally annexed in 1967.

After the Six-Day War there was a massive exodus of Palestinians, estimated at half a million, from previously Palestinian land, leading to international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. But it wasn’t until the American-led peace process of the early 1990s that Israel countenanced some kind of formal Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories.

The historic distinction between the revisionist Zionism of what is now Ariel Sharon’s ruling Likud Party and the Labour Zionism of the opposition parties, is that the former often talked up the creation of a Greater Israel – with claims over the East Bank of Jordan (which is in Jordan) as well as over the West Bank that was given over to Palestinian self-rule as part of the 1990s peace process. From the 1967 war up to the early 1990s, Likud’s party line was that ‘the state of Israel has rights and claims to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria [revisionist Zionist terms for the West Bank] and the Gaza sector’, emphasising that ‘under no conditions shall a Palestinian state be established’ (9).

Now, Likud is effectively writing off such territorial claims by mapping out, and starting to build, a fence pretty much along Israel’s pre-1967 borders (the fence will cut into parts of West Bank territory along its route) – offering a tacit political recognition, and a powerful physical recognition, of Palestinian territory. As a result, it isn’t only the beleaguered Palestinians who oppose the proposed fence – so do hard-right Israelis, concerned that the fence will undermine Israel’s ‘sovereign territory’, abandon Jewish settlers in the West Bank to their fate, and give Palestinian claims ‘too much legitimacy’.

Israel has toyed with the idea of fencing off the Palestinians in the past, and indeed it has already largely fenced off the smaller, and territorially less important, Gaza Strip. But what stopped Israel from erecting a West Bank wall in the past was precisely a concern about undermining Israeli sovereignty. As one newspaper notes: ‘In the past, Israel has refrained from erecting a comprehensive fence around the West Bank for fear it would be interpreted as political boundary. But Israel’s leading defence analyst, Ze’ev Schiff, said such considerations would be put aside in favour of providing greater security.’ (10)

So now security – keeping pre-1967 Israel safe from attack – takes precedence over political and territorial claims. When Haim Ramon, an influential Israeli politician, one-time prime ministerial hopeful and strong supporter of the fence, was asked in May 2002 whether the West Bank wall would be a new border finally giving Palestinians their land, he seemed unperturbed. ‘That is not the main issue’, he said. ‘What is important is that we have a line, a border, it does not matter what you call it.’ (11).

This seemingly flexible approach towards borders and lines, or ‘whatever you call it’, suggests that Israel is not quite as immoveable as its critics in the West claim. In the debates about the fence so far, it looks like some Israeli politicians are now happy to sacrifice their sovereign claims in the name of that all-important ‘security’; to write off their historic ambition to lord it over the West Bank if it will mean facing less risk of attack by their opponents. In this sense, the proposed fence would strike at the heart of revisionist Zionism’s traditional aims.

Likewise, the proposed fence undermines some of revisionist Zionism’s central political tenets. Another distinction between Likud’s revisionist Zionism and Labour Zionism was that the revisionists’ aim was always to incorporate Palestinians into Israeli society – once Israel had brought Palestinian land under its control, of course. Where Labour Zionists wanted to expel Arabs and create a fully Jewish state, revisionist Zionists were happy to live alongside Arabs as long as Israel had the upper hand.

This was often wrongly understood as a left/right distinction, when in fact the distinction was between those who wanted to exclude Palestinians from Israeli society (the Labour Zionists) and those who were happy to get the most that they could from a subjugated Palestinian population (the revisionist Zionists). So where Labour Zionism campaigned around the slogan ‘Jewish land, Jewish labour and Jewish produce’, revisionist Zionism instead spelled out its broader territorial ambitions and its belief that Palestinians could live inside Israel as long as they played by Israeli rules.

Now even these political aims seem to be getting the write-off treatment with a fence that will physically exclude large numbers of Palestinians from Israel and create a permanent barrier between ‘the State of Israel and hostile elements’. Sections of the Likud Party and revisionist Zionism seem to have abandoned their focus on subjugating and incorporating the Palestinians, in favour of fencing them out and forgetting about them. The proposal to build a 30-foot concrete fence around the whole West Bank suggests a new policy of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

Perhaps what best illustrates Israeli caution and indecision today is the fact that even the five-kilometre stretch of fence that has already been built is now stalled, as different bodies clash over who should run it. According to Ha’aretz: ‘[T]he 4.5 kilometres of fence from Kfar Salam south, which is meant to make it difficult for terrorists to reach Kfar Sava, and the one kilometre of the “Jerusalem envelope”, won’t be operating for the coming months. The reason: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hasn’t found time to decide who should be in charge of the fence.’ (12)

At the end of December, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Defence Ministry confirmed that ‘the decision hasn’t been made about whether the Israel Defence Forces or the Border Patrol should be in charge of the fence’, but she said the ministry ‘hopes a decision is to be made in the coming days’. But as Ha’aretz pointed out: ‘A similar hope was expressed more than six months ago by reserve Brigadier General Yossi Melamed, in charge of the fence at the Public Security Ministry. He emphasised at the time that until the prime minister makes a ruling in the dispute between the two ministries (defence and police), it will be impossible to plan the operational command and control system for the fence.’ (13)

Such indecision over the practicalities of running the first five kilometres of the fence doesn’t bode well for some politicians’ determination to build another 215 miles around the rest of the West Bank. The clashes between the defence ministry and the border patrol over who should control the fence reflect a broader political uncertainty within Israel about whether the fence should go ahead: prime minister Ariel Sharon isn’t keen on the project, but many in the defence ministry are.

But this indecision – which means that even though the fence is ready it won’t be up and running for at least another three months, according to Ha’aretz – also suggests that there are some bigger problems and contradictions when you make risk aversion central to foreign policy. Sometimes, it seems, even those measures aimed at keeping the threat at bay are viewed as being potentially too risky. So opponents of the fence claim that it will just invite further terrorist attacks; that it will make those who patrol it into ‘prime targets’; and that it will give Palestinian militants the idea of launching rocket attacks over the wall into Israeli territory (14).

So what started as a project to protect Israel from suicide bombers is now discussed as another invitation for Palestinians to attack. There is now the possibility that the fence built to keep the risk of attack at bay will never open on the grounds that it is just too risky.

And the Palestinians? It will be of little comfort to them that Israel’s proposed fence is driven more by fear and uncertainty than by conquest. Indeed, the fence debate shows that when precaution is put centre stage in foreign policy, when avoiding risk and keeping secure take precedence over political and territorial aims, the end result can be disastrous for those on the receiving end.

When the precautionary ‘just in case’ approach is applied to international affairs, harsh measures can be justified in the name of defeating the ‘terrorist threat’. It can lead to the ‘charred earth’ approach – where over-cautious and jittery elites see it as better to shut down and destroy everything potentially threatening, rather than face an unknowable and unpredictable risk. When Palestinians are viewed by Israel as a faceless and ominous threat lurking in its backyard, who must be stopped at any price, it is only a short step to treating them as less than human. In the name of shutting out the risk of attack, Israel even seems prepared to imprison an entire population.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Why the West is turning on Israel, by Mick Hume

Israeli Defensive Force, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) ‘Israel begins fencing off Palestinian areas’, Guardian

(2) Straddling the white elephant, Ha’aretz, 17 December 2002

(3) Israel fence revives old controversies, BBC News, 19 June 2002

(4) Fence them in: Israel’s answer for the West Bank, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 2002

(5) Israel fence revives old controversies, BBC News, 19 June 2002

(6) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, White House, September 2002

(7) See America the vulnerable, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) Israel fence revives old controversies, BBC News, 19 June 2002

(9) See The Opening Position, by Boris Shusteff, Freeman Center for Strategic Studies

(10) Fence them in: Israel’s answer for the West Bank, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 2002

(11) Israel’s new West Bank border, Christian Science Monitor, 16 May 2002

(12) Straddling the white elephant, Ha’aretz, 17 December 2002

(13) Straddling the white elephant, Ha’aretz, 17 December 2002

(14) Israel fence revives old controversies, BBC News, 19 June 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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