Israel’s Wall in Palestine: Control, not Security

By Gary Fields

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and soon after that South African apartheid crumbled. At the time it appeared that such systems, with their landscapes of walls and practices of separation, would be consigned to historical memory. Today, however, there is a new generation of fear-driven landscapes, ranging from urban-based, gated communities to borderlands between nation-states, best exemplified by the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.

These new landscapes, despite differences, share a basic similarity: they partition social differences using the built environment to preempt the circulation of groups of people across space. And nowhere are these processes of partition and separation as formidable as in Palestine.

There, entire cities are being recast as enclaves while Palestinians are routinely blocked from moving freely to homes, work and social activities by what the International Court of Justice has dubbed simply as the Wall. This structure, built by the state of Israel, is a formidable barrier, meandering for roughly 700 kilometers mostly within Palestinian territory while forging a geography of fragmented and impassible spaces. The Wall would appear to conform to the landscapes of separation so prolific in the world today, however, if one goes beyond the visual imagery, a far different meaning for this barrier emerges.

The government of Israel states that the purpose of the Wall is “security.” The Israeli state is justifiably concerned about the safety of its citizens in a conflict where civilians on both sides are continually targeted. Yet the question that emerges given the placement of the barrier largely inside Palestinian territory is, Why is it not being built on the border between Israel proper and Palestinian territory? To answer this question, we must examine the Palestinian landscape not only as a built environment of separation and preempted circulation but also as the result of a broader set of exclusionary practices stemming from the politics of dispossession and enclosure. According to Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, what is occurring is a deliberateprogram of remaking land and shifting populations, not a construction program of defensive fortifications. The Palestinian landscape represents an expression of powerand an example of “territoriality” marked by the effort of individuals or groups to control other people and socio-economic relationships by delimiting and asserting control over a geographic area.

The Wall and the “Matrix of Control”

Rising upon the Palestinian landscape in cloaks of concrete and concertina wire, the Wall functions as part of what Jeffrey Helper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions has termed a “matrix of control” over Palestinian territory. In addition to the Wall, this matrix consists of three types of infrastructure imposed on the landscape and designed as offensive elements for transforming Palestinian geography. These include the checkpoint, the settlement and the roads linking settlements to towns in Israel. Still under construction, the Wall, which first appeared in 2002, is actually a late entrant into this matrix, essentially reinforcing the other three elements while creating unique effects of its own. Consequently, in order to understand the Wall, we must place this edifice alongside the other elements in the matrix and analyze how these elements together create a geographical landscape of encroachment and confiscation, immobility and ex-communication. With their construction impacts, and as infrastructure of the built environment, these elements immobilize and restrict Palestinian movement within and across space and undermine and destroy Palestinian economic activity, creating economic dead zones.

The element of landscape most common in this geography of immobility and encroachment is the checkpoint, restricting both human circulation and traffic in goods. At any one time there are roughly 400 of these arrayed across Palestine ranging in scale from large terminals for human processing to modest collections of barriers and obstructions to simple but immovable concrete blocks placed on roadways to preempt cars from accessing certain routes. By immobilizing people and goods, the checkpoint severely distorts the relationship of distance and time for Palestinians and products moving from one point to another. As a consequence, the time needed to cover distance is open-ended, while distance itself is abstracted from any meaningful linear measure. A 20-kilometer trip from Bethlehem to Ramallah represents an always unknowable increment of time. Such uncertainty reinforces immobility. The trip not taken to visit family or friends because of what may be encountered at the checkpoint is as much a part of the geography of immobility as the checkpoint itself.

The situation of Al-Haya Food Industries, a meat processing firm located in Nazariah, a Palestinian town partitioned from East Jerusalem by the Wall, illustrates the affects of the Wall on economic life. “What we are talking about from the Wall is a new market geography,” insists Banan Khatib, managing director of Al-Haya.

Historically, much of our business was in East Jerusalem. Now, because of the Wall, in order to sell to shops in East Jerusalem, we have to take travel halfway to Jericho…. Instead of a trip taking five minutes, the trip takes one hour, much longer if we cannot pass the checkpoint. Consequently, our market in East Jerusalem has shrunk because we have no access there and the people have no access to our goods. Furthermore, labor markets in the West Bank are now completely fragmented. For some of our technical staff, we have had to rent flats here in Nazariah because some of them live far from the facility and could not get to our plant. The whole system is a complete rupture of trade and communications.

Such impacts also emphasize the role of the Wall in isolating cities and undermining the urban systems central to communications and economic life. Cities thrive not only as concentrations of resources fixed at a single locality but also as a function of connections to hinterlands and other cities. Such linkages form the networks—human, material and informational—that are the basis of economic development and a vibrant social and cultural life. For geographer Doreen Massey, cities embody two kinds of systems: roots linked to specific locations and routes by which cities extend beyond their boundaries. The Wall, however, disconnects these roots and routes,resulting in a fractured urban system throughout Palestine. The disconnection and territorial fragmentation, in turn, are undermining the networks of trade, production and communication between cities and villages while slowly removing Jerusalem from its historical role as the city where such networks ultimately converge. At the same time, economic life is slowly suffocating in cities such as Bethlehem and Qalqilya, which are surrounded and ghettoized by the Wall.

Israeli Settlements, Displacement and the Wall

While the checkpoint and the Wall have their own special impacts, they assume a much more profound role and meaning in conjunction with the element that enforces the geography of encroachment and displacement, the Israeli settlement. By occupying innumerable Palestinian hilltops, settlements have created impassible zones and fragmented the Palestinian landscape more dramatically than any other built form. Prior to Jewish settlement in Palestine, the Palestinian agrarian village generally occupied the middle- to upper-middle portion of the hilly terrain characteristic of the region, leaving the hilltop for agriculture, grazing or in some instances, public recreational space. Israeli settlement, by contrast, now covets the hilltop as the site for the built-up area of towns and the landscape’s commanding heights. Nowhere is this contrast in settlement patterns more obvious than in the area of Ariel, a town which sits atop several surrounding Palestinian villages. There are currently about 175 Jewish-only settlements in Palestine with a settler population of 460,000, a number that has increased unabated since the settlement program began in earnest in 1972. As these settlements become increasingly implanted throughout the territory, and as the infrastructure expands to support them (primarily roads linking settlements and cities in Israel), they take more land and encroach and displace further.

Ahmad Mohammed Ibdah is one of the farmers victimized by the construction process for the Wall. Mr. Ibdah insists on beginning his story about the Wall in 1978, when he lost twenty dunums of land to confiscation during construction of the Ariel settlement. “This was theft,” he insists. On May 30, 2005, Mr. Ibdah saw his farm vanish for good when he, along with others from the village, found notices from the Israeli army in their olive trees outlining plans to take their land for construction of the Wall, ostensibly to protect the settlers of Ariel. “They destroyed 100 of my trees on ten dunums of my land,” he recounts, “another 300 of my olive trees now lie on the Ariel side of the Wall, which I cannot reach…I have nothing left.”

As settlements in the Occupied Territories increase and expand, so too do the efforts to control the circulation of Palestinians in and around these areas. The checkpoint and the Wall thus emerge in tandem as increasingly ubiquitous elements of landscape architecture corresponding to the ubiquity of the settlements themselves.

The Wall against Economic Livelihood

While the Wall plays a role in the geography of immobility and destruction, it plays a less well understood role in creating economic dead zones, spaces of commercial and industrial depression. Expanding throughout the West Bank, the dead zone emerges as a space where the Wall and the 60-80 meter “seam” around it encroach upon areas with commercial establishments, extinguishing the economic life of businesses while imbuing the area nearby with a depressed, abandoned character. One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon is the Jerusalem-Hebron Road at the Western entrance to Bethlehem. The once vibrant area is now bounded by a large checkpoint terminal and surrounded by the Wall, and many of its shops are now closed. Isam Albandek, the owner of Albandek Marble and Stone, describes how the Wall forty meters from his facility is destroying his livelihood. “If you look out the window,” he asks, “what do you see?”

It is completely dead here. There is no traffic, no people, no transport, no business. Customers who used to visit our factory do not come anymore because they either cannot come here, or they are afraid to come. And employees don’t want to work here because it is difficult to get here… In addition, because I am so close to the Wall, we face the constant threat of demolition. They could come here any day and claim that we are in a ‘security area’ and demolish the factory.

When looking at the enormity of the Wall in places such as Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Qalqilya, it is tempting to ascribe to it the power of fragmentation and excommunication. Indeed, it would be wrong not to imbue the structure with certain physical and technological capabilities. But just as technologies are socially constructed artifacts, so too is the Wall a socially constructed element of architecture. In this sense, the Wall is not what is creating the system of fragmentation and excommunication. Instead, it is the ongoing policy of dispossession and enclosure that has created the Wall. The continuity of or change in this policy will determine whether the Wall will fall, or whether it becomes an enduring fixture of power on the landscape.

Gary Fields is an associate professor in the Department of Communications at the University of California, San Diego.

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