The Deeper Meaning of the Wall

by VIRGINIA TILLY

Some people are greatly gratified that the International Court of Justice has been reviewing the legality of Israel’s "security fence"–known everywhere outside of Israeli rhetoric as "the Wall" (or, in the media, increasingly as "the barrier"). Massive demonstrations have accompanied this review, rightly attacking the Wall as a symbol and instrument of occupation. And certainly the Palestinian case is very solid. Where it is constructed on West Bank land, the Wall is clearly illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. (See "Israeli Settlements: Against the Law".) It clearly serves Israel’s seizure of West Bank land, a goal only thinly veiled by the Sharon government’s anti-terrorism claim. More broadly, its towering bulk graphically signals the abuse of a vulnerable population under occupation, galvanizing scandalized international denunciations. For human rights and Palestinian political activists, judicial review of the Wall is also valuable for its spin-off effects: allowing the entire question of Israeli occupation policy to come afresh under the spotlight of international human-rights law, an exposure hopefully more constructive than the worn and sterile orbit of (hitherto pointless) international diplomacy.

But this close focus on the Wall’s legality risks missing the bigger picture. The Wall’s deeper import is actually obscured by those (including the ICRC and some Palestinian authorities) who hold that, if it is constructed along the Green Line on Israeli land, they would have no objection to it. Our recognizing its true significance might be further deflected by Israeli announcements, in recent days, that the Wall will be moved over a few hundred yards, here and there, for a few miles along its length, to make it more humane or "just." For the Wall’s deeper purpose is not simply a land grab. Its true purpose is to consolidate the two-state solution–the Jewishness of Israel, the isolation of the Palestinians–by sealing the crippled fragments of Palestinian society within an impenetrable walled enclave. And it will have this grander–and ruinous–effect whatever its precise location.

The Wall in fact represents–actually, implements–Sharon’s "unilateral disengagement" strategy, a vision reflected also in his plan to withdraw Jewish settlements from Gaza. Sharon’s mission in both policies is brutally direct: to consolidate Israel as a Jewish state by sealing off a (dismembered and debilitated) Palestinian enclave "state" while he still holds power, and before international and domestic forces (or simple demographic change) threaten to impose a one-state solution and wreck the Zionist dream from within. The Wall’s "sealing" effect is an essential ingredient in this strategy. For even if a Palestinian "state" is established, the fragmentation of Palestinian land, impoverishment of Palestinians in an enclave economy, and continuing Palestinian demographic weight will continue to threaten Israel’s Jewish character through the constant pressure of proximate Palestinian labor and trade on Israeli markets. Even normal inter–ethnic relations manifest to Sharon and his ilk as a political threat: hence the recent Israeli law banning the immigration of Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens. Dire consequence may arise from such fraternization-dissolution of ethnic and ultimately of political boundaries, and the staged erosion of the Jewish state.

The Wall is therefore intended to re-impose stark ethnic division by the crudest method: physically delimiting the two ethnic enclaves of Jewish Israel on one side and the remaining wreck of Christian/Muslim Palestine on the other. Nor is that deeper ethnic purpose of the Wall obscure, but runs openly in Israeli debates: for instance, in a draft statement by this week’s meeting of Conservative Rabbis in Jerusalem, which stated frankly that the Wall is "a legitimate tool for self defense" but also essential to "protect the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel" (Ha’aretz, Feb 23).

Missing this angle, many people have overlooked the link of the Wall to Sharon’s Gaza-withdrawal plan-an announcement startling to many and even publicly praised by people who should know better, like Kofi Annan. Close observers of Israeli settlement policy, however, received the plan with little pleasure and less surprise. Gaza has always been expendable to political pragmatists like Sharon: the territory holds no ancient Jewish sites important to biblical myth or Zionist imagination; water is extremely scarce and the settlements have been especially expensive to maintain; the modest number of settlers (some 7500) is unlikely to grow; and security for that tiny population, juxtaposed against the massive and terribly overcrowded Palestinian population, has been both difficult and very expensive, and will only become more so.

Possibly even more valuable to Sharon is, ironically, militant Jewish-settler resistance to an ordered withdrawal from the Gaza settlements, for it will provide him with crucial political capital in retaining the West Bank settlements by signaling the far greater political cost of dismantling the latter. The settler movements, set on retaining control of "Judea and Samaria" (names of Jewish kingdoms once located in today’s West Bank), are making the same political calculation. Abandoning Gaza for a more consolidated hold on the West Bank has therefore been in the cards for decades; even its inevitable drama is well-planned. The only surprise was therefore Sharon’s timing, so much faster than anyone had foreseen-and in his hands, it portends only more trouble.

Withdrawal from Gaza is indeed clearly timed to serve Sharon’s accelerated plan to consolidate Israel’s control over the West Bank, via the settlement grid he has worked for decades to construct. EU and even US officials (not famed for their insight) are anxiously trying to confirm that the Gaza settlers will not be transferred there tokenistic as that concern might be. The archipelago of Jewish-only fortress-towns and small cities is, in any case, now close to sufficient for Sharon’s purposes: firmly connected by a strategic matrix of fortified highways, cutting Palestinian cities and villages off from each other and already slicing Palestinian society into dismembered fragments. Visitors to the region are now aghast at the impact. The Wall is only the most graphic manifestation of this matrix.

But the Wall, again, has a deeper and more dire function than simple annexation or even security in a risky annexation strategy. Its ethnic agenda is clear and offensive; even for some Israelis, it connotes awful images from Germany and the Cold War. Nowhere else in the world would such a wall be tolerated: can the reader imagine international acceptance of such a structure being raised by some government in the former Yugoslavia? in Northern Ireland? in Chechnya? or in South Africa? That it might be acceptable if it truly hugged the Green Line reflects a collective inability of the international community to grasp its dangers and import for the future, but also a reprehensible reluctance to address its basic inadmissibility in the context of any ethnic conflict. And that it is somehow defensible to some supporters of Israel-whether or not they are genuinely bamboozled by the anti-terrorism defense-has to be seen as indicating a fundamental moral impoverishment at the heart of the Zionist dream.

Which brings us to the bitter heart of the question. In debates about the Wall, Israel’s friends–even its foes–are evading discussion of its deeper ethnic significance because of the subject’s delicacy. Creating a Jewish state has, of course, been the central dream of mainstream Zionism (although not of all Zionism’s currents) since the turn of the last century. It is therefore a political sacred cow, given the passions attached. But it is that Zionist dream which has now turned to the crudest ethnic separation, threatening the region, and the world, with lasting instability. In recent years, a few courageous "post-Zionist" Jewish and Jewish-Israeli voices have publicly raised the uneasy contradiction between a truly democratic and a Jewish-dominant Israel, and questioned the moral and political advisability of moving on to establish a truly democratic Israel, through a one-state binational solution. They are still a fringe group, barely scratching the political surface. But great political change has often, throughout history, been launched by a few intellectuals-a potential evidenced in the vitriolic attacks they have received. Whether other people presently appalled by the Wall wish to grapple with that debate is, however, a second question. The first question is whether critics of the Wall can grasp its real meaning, and so avoid wasting hard work, time, and political capital calling for its simple relocation to the Green Line.

Virginia Tilley is an Associate Professor of Political Science
at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. She can be reached at: tilley@hws.edu

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