The fence that ‘peace’ built

Israel's wall around the West Bank is the most stark expression of the peace process.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

A few hours after the USA vetoed a UN resolution condemning Israel’s fence around the West Bank on 14 October, suspected Palestinian militants bombed a US diplomatic convoy travelling in the Gaza Strip.

Commentators were quick to draw a link between America’s refusal to condemn ‘the fence’ and the subsequent bombing. Yet America’s veto of the resolution, which was tabled by Syria’s pro-Palestinian ambassador to the UN, was not the all-out defence of its ‘old friend’ Israel that many have claimed. Rather, the Americans argued that the resolution was ‘unbalanced’ and ‘failed to draw attention to Palestinian terrorism’. The Bush administration, like the UN, the European Union and many others around the world, has in fact been critical of Israel’s fence – which is fast becoming the central source of conflict and debate in the Middle East.

It isn’t hard to see why Israel’s fence has caused international outrage. It is already 90 miles long, and if the Israeli cabinet gets its way it will eventually stretch to 230 miles, encircling the entire West Bank. Much of the fence is really a huge concrete wall, topped with electrical fencing and barbed wire. There are 15-metre buffer zones – or ‘killing zones’, as local Palestinians call them – on either side. It cuts through Palestinian towns, dividing families and further restricting Palestinians’ freedom of movement. Of all the security measures imposed by Israel on the West Bank, the fence ranks up there with the worst of them.

Yet for all the global handwringing, the fence has its foundations in the peace process itself. One commentator claims that Israel’s fence is ‘jeopardising the peace process’ (1). President Bush says ‘the wall is a problem’, while the UN has reprimanded the Israelis for constructing a de facto border between Israel and the West Bank, ‘dividing the Middle East’ (2). In fact, it is the peace process that arbitrarily divides the Middle East, between two peoples who apparently must be separated for their own good and constantly supervised by benign outside powers. Israel’s fence is merely a physical, brutal expression of the politics of the peace process.

Bush says ‘it is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and the Israelis…with a wall snaking through the West Bank’ (3). Yet his administration, along with the UN, the European Union and Russia, is one of the Quartet of Powers behind the Roadmap to Peace – or to give it its full title: ‘A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.’ Bush and co’s Roadmap says that two separate states, with ‘provisional borders’, must be set up by no later than 2005, and demands ‘clear, unambiguous acceptance by both parties of the goal described below’, because ‘non-compliance…will impede progress’ (4).

The Roadmap calls for the arbitrary and ‘permanent’ separation between Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and Israelis in Israel. Its only vision for the Middle East is ‘the vision of two states’, living side by side in ‘peace and security’, but permanently kept in check by a ‘formal monitoring mechanism’ enforced by representatives of the Quartet of Powers (5). In many ways, Israel’s wall – ‘snaking through the West Bank’ and ‘dividing the Middle East’ – represents the implementation of this divisive policy, of the modern form of partition envisioned by the Quartet of Powers’ Roadmap.

The Middle Eastern peace process is founded on the notion that Israelis and Palestinians are incapable of resolving their problems without a heavy dose of outside intervention. The peace process is deeply undemocratic and divisive. When it was kickstarted at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, its distinctive feature was that it had very little to do with the people on the ground in Israel and Palestine. It was a process implemented and managed by outside powers, in particular the USA; by apparently disinterested forces that could help to restore peace between two apparently blinkered and entrenched peoples.

Like other US-sponsored peace processes in the early 1990s, the Middle Eastern process was less about resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, than about stabilising it; less about finding a definitive solution to Israeli/Palestinian differences, than about negotiating those differences and keeping them in check. Indeed, the earliest negotiations were concerned with ‘dumping’ (in the words of one US official) old-fashioned notions of a one-state solution – so the Palestine Liberation Organisation first recognised Israel’s right to exist in 1988, while the Israelis begrudgingly accepted the idea of a Palestinian state in the early 1990s (6). The peace process represented the defeat of earlier visions of one democratic state shared by Arabs and Jews, in favour of new forms of separation and the ‘international management’ of the Middle Eastern conflict (7).

Each stage of the peace process has reiterated the need to separate and monitor Palestinian and Israeli interests. The Oslo Accords of 1993 (agreed in Oslo and signed on the White House lawn, thousands of miles from Tel Aviv or Ramallah), first called for the glorified refugee camps of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to become a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority, and for Israel and Palestine (the ‘two parties’) to have their interests represented in ‘separate entities’. The Camp David negotiations of July 2000 – with then US President Bill Clinton and then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat – got bogged down (and eventually collapsed) in discussions about the total square-mile size of Gaza and the West Bank, and whether a certain seven per cent of the West Bank belonged to Israel or the newly-defined Palestine.

Today’s Roadmap to Peace represents the apex of this divisive vision for the Middle East, calling for a ‘permanent’ separation of national interests. And Israel’s fence, in many ways, is the peace process in action – a ‘provisional border’ between the ‘two parties’, providing for the Israeli state and an arbitrary Palestinian state to live side-by-side in ‘security’. Those criticising Israel’s fence would do well to look at its origins in the peace process.

If Israel’s fence is not the deviation from the peace process that many claim it is, nor is it an expression of Israel’s ‘imperialist ambitions’ over Palestine. Rather, the fence looks like a fearful and defensive measure on Israel’s part, driven more by a sense of isolation than conquest. Many of Israel’s critics claim that the fence is a ‘land grab’, showing Israel’s determination to dominate the Middle East. The fence certainly cuts into West Bank territory along its path, deeply in parts, in order to include some Jewish settlements on the ‘Israeli side’. But it also represents the negation of Israel’s historic territorial claims over Palestinian territory.

Until recently, the revisionist Zionism of what is now Ariel Sharon’s ruling Likud Party talked up the creation of a ‘Greater Israel’ – with claims over the East Bank of the river Jordan (in Jordan) as well as over the West Bank. Likud’s party line was that ‘the state of Israel has rights and claims to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria [meaning the West Bank] and the Gaza sector’, emphasising that ‘under no conditions shall a Palestinian state be established’.

Now, Likud rulers have effectively ditched these territorial claims by building a fence between Israel as it currently exists and the West Bank, offering a tacit political recognition, and a powerful physical recognition, of Palestinian territory. Consequently, it isn’t only Palestinians in the West Bank, whose villages and livelihoods are being torn apart, who oppose the fence. So do hawkish Israelis, concerned that the fence will undermine Israel’s ‘sovereign territory’ and give Palestinian claims to statehood too much legitimacy.

Far from being a ‘new form of occupation’, as one writer put it, the creeping fence highlights Israel’s defensive position in the peace process; its desire to shut itself off from hostile forces rather than engage and defeat them in the name of winning territory.

The fence will almost certainly further entrench divisions between Israelis and Palestinians, and store up conflict for the future. In this, too, it is in keeping with the peace process that created it.

Read on:

Making a prison of Palestine, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Israel’s Berlin Wall, Kristina Nwazota, PBS NewsHour, 22 September 2003

(2) Israel’s Berlin Wall, Kristina Nwazota, PBS NewsHour, 22 September 2003

(3) Israel’s Berlin Wall, Kristina Nwazota, PBS NewsHour, 22 September 2003

(4) A performance-based roadmap to a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, US Department of State, 30 April 2003

(5) A performance-based roadmap to a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, US Department of State, 30 April 2003

(6) See Peace process gone wrong?, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) A performance-based roadmap to a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, US Department of State, 30 April 2003

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Topics Politics


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