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Israel's Separation Barrier in the West Bank

Security Fence or Land Grab?

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West Bank Separation Wall
Shaul Schwarz/Photolibrary/Getty Images
Israel began building the planned 425-mile separation barrier in the West Bank in June 2002. The official purpose was to reduce suicide bombings in Israel, which in 2001 and 2002 claimed the lives of 335 civilians and Israeli troops in Israel. Israeli forces killed 1,442 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank during the same period, according to B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights.

Building the fence was also recognition on Israel's part that Israeli public opinion supports a two-state solution, but also, for now, complete separation, as negotiations toward a two-state solution have failed repeatedly. The fence is taking shape as both a physical barrier and a psychological separation that literally sums up in concrete and barbed wire the many dead ends of the peace process.

Built at a cost of $1.6 million to $2.5 million per mile, the separation barrier is the largest public construction project in either Israel or the Palestinian Territories. It is almost two-thirds complete.

Attacks Declined. Was the Barrier the Reason?

As a matter of security, the barrier appears to be a success. From its high in 2002, the number of civilians killed in Israel by Palestinian attacks was down to 104 in 2003, and to 10 in 2006. As of July 2007, just five Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian attacks in Israel.

The separation barrier isn’t the only reason for the decline, however. Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, said in 2006 that while the barrier has reduced attacks considerably, the main reason for the decline was a truce between Israelis and Palestinians that held until early 2006, when hostilities with Hamas in Gaza resumed. On the whole, the truce with the Palestinian authority in the West Bank is still holding.

Fewer Attacks, More Resentment

But the barrier has created a set of new Palestinian resentments. The barrier does not follow the boundaries of the Green Line (the unofficial border delineating the West Bank from Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War). Rather, Israeli security forces are building it well inside the West Bank and in circuitous patterns that in places surround entire Palestinian communities.

Almost 12 percent of Palestinian lands in the West Bank are either completely surrounded by the barrier or fall west of the barrier, which results in their de-facto annexation in areas administered by Israel, thus further reducing Palestinian lands.

Palestinians fear that the fence-line will become the official border once a two-state solution is found, although Israel says the barrier is not dispossessing Palestinians of title to their land, nor using the land without compensation, suggesting—officially at least—that the barrier is not necessarily permanent.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem alone, the barrier will cut off 55,000 Palestinians from the rest of the city. The belts of land between the barrier and the Green Line include 48 Israeli settlements with a population of 187,840 people as of 2005. Conversely, 57,330 Israeli citizens lived in the West Bank east of the barrier at the end of 2005.

A Succession of Court Rulings Against the Barrier

The barrier has been challenged in court by Palestinian residents and Israeli activists, resulting in four rulings so far — three by the Israeli Supreme Court and one by the International Court of Justice. The 2004 International Court of Justice opinion found that the barrier "constitutes breaches by Israel of its obligations under the applicable humanitarian law" and that it "cannot be justified by military exigencies or by the requirements of national security or public order." The court called on Israel to remove most of the barrier. But the opinion, endorsed by 15 of 16 justices (the exception was an American judge), was non-binding.

Three binding rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court — in 2004, 2005 and 2007 — required Israeli security forces to remove small sections of the barrier or reroute parts of it. But the rulings also endorsed the barrier in principle, asserting that Israel "has a legal duty to balance properly between security considerations and humanitarian ones."

A Barrier on Every Boundary Line

The Separation Barrier, of course, isn’t the only one of its kind dividing Israel from neighboring lands. The 32-mile (51 km) barrier of wire and barbed wire separating the Gaza Strip from Israel was built in 1993 and upgraded in 1999, and is paralleled on both sides by roads patrolled by Israeli troops. Israeli troops patrol a similar 6.8-mile (11 km) barrier along Gaza’s border with Egypt.

Most of the 149-mile (238 km) border between Jordan and Israel is fenced and patrolled by Israeli troops. In 2001, Israel completed building an electrified wire fence along its 49-mile (79 km) border with Lebanon.

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