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Israel's Separation Wall - the death of Palestinian statehood

January 29, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Walls are the very embodiment, the essential symbol, of separateness and apartheid, and in Palestine, the Separation Wall gives a literal, concrete form to the Jewish exclusivism and separation represented by Israel’s governing political philosophy of Zionism. As such, the Separation Wall represents an end to any possibility of independent statehood for Palestinians in any part of their native land.

The Wall facilitates the achievement of Zionism’s primary objective-the establishment and maintenance of an exclusivist Jewish state in Palestine-by separating Palestinians from the Jewish population and aiding in the slow ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. This occurs by confiscating Palestinian land, restricting the free movement of Palestinians, preventing growth and expansion, and breaking up the territory available to them.

Although Israelis contend that the Wall was erected as a security barrier to prevent the entry of Palestinian suicide bombers into Israel, in fact the primary purpose of the structure is to assert a territorial claim. Human rights leaders have recognized this objective from the beginning. John Dugard, a highly knowledgeable United Nations human rights official, observed in 2003, when construction on the Wall was just beginning, that this construction was “a visible and clear act of territorial annexation under the guise of security.” The route of the Wall is obviously designed to incorporate the major Israeli settlement blocs into Israel; this is evident simply from looking at a map, which makes it clear that as the Wall winds in and out of the West Bank, it encompasses settlements, as well as land for their future expansion, even where they are situated deep inside the territory. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has pointed out that in some locations the effort to include land for expansion in fact took priority over security considerations and often even compromised security.1 Some Israeli officials have openly acknowledged that there are broad political implications beyond the Wall’s security purpose. Then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, among others, who later became Israeli foreign minister, referred to the Wall in 2005 as “the future border of the State of Israel.”2

Upon completion, the Separation Wall, now under construction for almost a decade, will be 440 miles long. Because it juts into the West Bank for 85 percent of its length, very deeply in many areas, it is more than twice as long as the 195-mile extent of the 1967 line marking the border between Israel and the West Bank. The Wall is longer by several times than the Berlin Wall and, at eight meters (26 feet) high in its concrete sections, twice as high. In urban areas, the barrier is a concrete structure; in rural areas it is an electronic fence bordered on each side by trenches, security roadways, and coils of razor wire, together averaging 200 feet wide. Agricultural land and olive groves have been destroyed to construct the Wall.  Homes along its route have been demolished or appropriated by the Israeli army and incorporated into the structure as guard posts.3

Often village population centers have been separated by the Wall from their farmlands and orchards, and the system of gates and checkpoints at openings in the Wall frequently does not allow farmers to reach their land for planting and harvest. Palestinians must have Israeli-issued permits, usually difficult to obtain and of limited duration, in order to cross the Wall to the Israeli side to reach land they own on that side. If a village itself is on the Israeli side of the Wall, residents must have a permit even to live in their homes. The north central West Bank, where the Wall is most intrusive, contains some of the most fertile farming land in Palestine and, not coincidentally, is also the location of a substantial number of Israeli settlements, which have now effectively been incorporated into Israel, along with additional Palestinian land for settlement expansion. As much as 90 percent of the fresh water wells in the West Bank have ended up on Israel’s side.

Over 400,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are directly affected by the Wall-either because their communities or their land has ended up west of the Wall on the Israeli side, or because they live in communities that are surrounded completely or on three sides by the Wall, or because they live in East Jerusalem, where the Wall runs in labyrinthine twists through and between Palestinian neighborhoods and Israeli settlements. Most of Jerusalem’s more than 200,000 Palestinian residents, ironically, have been placed on the Israeli side. Upon completion, 85 percent of the half million Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem will be situated on Israel’s side of the Wall.

In Jerusalem, where the Wall looms around virtually every corner and often runs down the middle of commercial and residential streets, the structure has had a hugely disruptive impact on the city’s Palestinian residents, as well as on the estimated 125,000 who reside in immediately adjacent suburbs that were once integral parts of the city but are now cut off from the city and its services.4 Jerusalem is surrounded by checkpoints and large terminals resembling international crossing points, intended to bar entry to most Palestinians.  Despite the city’s centrality as the political, economic, and cultural center of Palestine, West Bank Palestinians may enter only at a few designated checkpoints, only on foot, and only if they possess Israeli-issued permits that are usually granted for limited purposes-for instance, for work or medical treatment or, on rare occasions, for religious celebrations-and are good only for limited periods. The restrictions essentially cut Jerusalem off from its West Bank constituents and cut them off from their capital. The Wall has decapitated the Palestinian polity by physically severing its head from its population base.

The idea of physical separation along ethnic lines began to grow in the minds of Israeli leaders in the late 1980s, when the Palestine Liberation Organization formally endorsed the notion of accepting a small Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem, existing alongside Israel. Although Palestinians had been able during the first two decades of the Israeli occupation to travel relatively freely and work inside Israel, as the prospect of real movement toward peace arose, Israel began to worry about the demographic “threat” to its Jewish-majority state if substantial numbers of Palestinians were to be integrated under the terms of any future peace agreement. As a consequence, the Israelis began increasingly to restrict Palestinian entry to Israel as well as movement throughout the West Bank.  At the start of the Oslo peace process in the mid-1990s, a “general closure” was imposed on the occupied territories that, for instance, prevented Palestinians from entering East Jerusalem without hard-to-obtain permits, established checkpoints outside Palestinian towns and cities throughout the West Bank, and enclosed Gaza behind a security fence that prevented entry and exit except through a few fortified openings.

Ironically, it was at precisely the time when prospects for a peace agreement and peaceful coexistence between the two peoples began to grow that Israel began to prepare for physical separation from-and increased oppression of-Palestinians living under occupation. The prospect that Israel might be forced, by international pressure or the pressure of Palestinian concessions, to relinquish territory under its control as part of a peace settlement and thus be forced to permanently integrate substantial numbers of a non-Jewish population loomed before Israelis as a threat to the fundamental objectives of Zionism.

The electronic fence surrounding Gaza was the first actual barrier to be erected, and it was quickly followed by discussion of a similar barrier in the West Bank. Initial design plans commissioned in the mid-1990s were shelved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then serving his first term as prime minister, because he and most of Israel’s right wing believed that such a physical structure would limit Israel’s territorial reach and could prevent consolidation of its control over the West Bank.5 But the rightwing leadership soon came to see that a barrier could provide benefits for Israel in the demographic struggle by helping to force a Palestinian exodus and need not in any case impose a limitation on continued Israeli control. With the start of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, plans for a physical barrier were revived, both to provide security for Israeli citizens but more importantly to impose crippling restrictions on Palestinians, as a means of pressuring them to submit to Israeli dominance or leave.6 Construction of the Wall began in the northern West Bank in 2002.

The lines of separation became frankly ethnic. Israel declared the area between the 1967 line and the Wall a “closed military zone” for the tens of thousands of Palestinians who ended up there and denied them access to Israel specifically because they are Palestinians, while at the same time, any Jew from anywhere in the world is freely able to travel in this area and live in the settlements situated there.7 According to one knowledgeable Israeli, the untenable situation in which these thousands of Palestinians have been placed was expected to “create the conditions for voluntary transfer,” the Israeli hope being that they would abandon their homes and move eastward into Palestinian cities-and, presumably, ultimately out of Palestine altogether. The alternative for Palestinians would be life in “a horrid, stifling jail.” In this way, Israel expected “to expand the borders of the State of Israel without paying the demographic price”-in other words, without having to incorporate Palestinians inside its borders.8

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Approximately 10-11 percent of West Bank territory will lie west of the Wall upon its completion. Although this is a relatively small proportion of the West Bank, it constitutes a substantial segment of land in light of the fact that the total area of the West Bank is only 2,200 square miles.  Moreover, because it cuts into the territory very deeply in several places, the Wall effectively breaks the West Bank into several almost totally isolated pieces. The southern West Bank, for instance, is almost completely cut off from the northern two-thirds by the Wall around Jerusalem, which extends far to the east to encompass the largest Israeli settlement, Ma’ale Adumim, and other smaller settlements. Two prominent salients extending deep into the northern West Bank break up that part of the territory into nearly isolated pieces.

Although the Wall does not define the full extent of Israeli territorial ambitions in the West Bank, it does guarantee Israeli dominion over the entire territory by completely ruling out the possibility of genuine Palestinian independence and sovereignty in a viable, contiguous state. The Wall, along with the occupation’s other restrictive measures for which the Wall is a focal point-the network of Israeli-only roads, the checkpoints, the permit system for Palestinians, and the closure of most of the Jordan Valley to Palestinians-together render independent Palestinian statehood a practical impossibility and minimize any impediment that Palestinian population growth might pose to continued Jewish domination. And this is Israel’s specific intent. By explicitly separating most Palestinians from Israeli Jews and making life so miserable for those who remain amidst the Jewish population, the Israeli hope is that Palestinians will ultimately leave Palestine altogether. This system of restrictions renders any future Israeli territorial concessions east of the Wall virtually meaningless and thus facilitates Israel’s further expansion.

Kathleen Christison is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and the Wound of Dispossession and co-author, with Bill Christison, of Palestine in Pieces: Graphic Perspectives on the Israeli Occupation, published last summer by Pluto Press. She can be reached at [email protected]


1Both citations in Ray Dolphin, The West Bank Wall: Unmaking Palestine (London: Pluto Press, 2006), pp. x-xi.
2Cited in United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), The Humanitarian Impact on Palestinians of Israeli Settlements and Other Infrastructure in the West Bank (Jerusalem: July 2007), p. 56 n. 33.
3Statistics and descriptions of the Wall in this and succeeding paragraphs are from Ibid., pp. 46-49 and 110-112, and from B’Tselem,
4“Human Rights Centre: Thousands of Jerusalemites Halt Claim to Taxes as a Prelude to Being Separated from the City,” Middle East Monitor (March 18, 2011),
5Graham Usher, “Introduction,” in Dolphin, The West Bank Wall, p. 9-13.
6Jeff Halper, An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p. 168.
7Lily Galili, “Seamier and Seamier, This Seam Line,” Ha’aretz (February 13, 2004).
8Cited in Saree Makdisi, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), p. 203


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