Walls, Refugees, and the “Israeli Security Fence”

This is a personal anecdote and reflection from one of our contributing writers.

A chilly winter breeze stung my face as I stood on the edge of the Palestinian village of Bil’in. I stood there in solidarity with the villagers, scanning the square kilometer that lies between the village and the wall. What would become of this land? To whom does it belong?

It was a typical Friday for the citizens of Bil’in. The noon prayer had just ended, and the village began to gather for a non-violent protest against the separation wall – a 760 kilometer fence built by the Israeli government in 2002. The men, women, and children of Bil’in were joined by human rights activists of every ilk: Palestinian, American, Israeli. This particular week, I was among them.

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Before Israel approved the construction of the wall in 2002, that rugged kilometer of terrain in Bil’in was Palestinian land – well within the boundary enumerated by the 1949 Armistice Agreements, U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181, and every major peace agreement since Camp David (commonly known as the “Green Line”). In fact, only 15% of the separation wall follows the Green Line. The remaining 85% cuts deep into the West Bank, annexing some of its most resource-rich lands and over half of its water supply.

After the wall is completed, 8.5% of the West Bank (as defined by the Green Line) will fall on the Israeli side, trapping 27,520-31,000 Palestinians in a state of political limbo. These 25,000 Palestinians will lack the rights of Israeli citizens but remain separated from the protective jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. And without proper permits, their houses may be bulldozed at the whim of the IDF. For Palestinians who live close to the wall, a permit still might not be enough: if their houses fall within one of Israel’s planned “buffer zones”, they can legally be bulldozed without compensation.

Picture by Reuters
Picture by Reuters

Other Palestinian homes are subject to demolition if they are built on property needed by the Israeli government, or if a family member is believed to be a security threat. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, twelve innocent families lose their homes for every person the IDF believes to be engaging in “militant activities” (a designation which includes stone throwing) against Israel. However, to be clear, nearly half of the Palestinian homes demolished by the IDF were never even suspected of housing militant activity, according to B’Tselem, nor are these families afforded due process.

In response to B’Tselem’s allegations, the IDF claims that it gives prior warning in all but the most extenuating of circumstances. B’Tselem says otherwise: according to their figures, prior warning is given in less than 3% of all cases. A 2006 report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) states, “To date, more than 3,000 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank have pending demolition orders, which can immediately executed without prior warning.”

According to OCHA, the typical family in a house demolition is only able to salvage a few prized possessions, as demolition squads allow, on average, between two and thirty minutes to evacuate. When no prior warning is given, the consequences can be even more severe: in addition to rendering a family homeless and ridding them of their possessions, the element of surprise often produces “heat of the moment” confrontations between tenants and the IDF. Many of these result in injuries and deaths.

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The West Bank village of Qalqiliya

As the wall stands today, multiple Palestinian villages are literally encircled by an eight-meter electric fence. The Palestinian city of Qalqiliya (population 45,000) is not only completely encircled, but also cut off from a third of its water supply. A similar situation exists in Bethlehem. For these unfortunate victims of circumstance, the only path to the outside world is through an IDF-controlled checkpoint. In order for a local villager over the age of 12 to return home, he is required to possess a permit as evidence of land ownership.

The 34 fortified checkpoints (three main terminals, nine commercial terminals, and 22 terminals for cars and workers) that divide the West Bank today greatly restrict freedom of travel, leaving hundreds of thousands impoverished and living in ghetto-like conditions, as they are unable to find stable work. In order to accommodate the 1,661+ kilometers of private “Israeli-only” roads and the other 634 checkpoints (which include military trenches, roadblocks, and metal gates), 44 underground tunnels are currently being constructed to connect 22 isolated Palestinian villages inside of 3 adjacent jurisdictions.

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Several international bodies, including the International Court of Justice (the judicial arm of the United Nations), have declared the route of construction illegal. “The construction of the wall and its associated regimes are contrary to international law,” the 2004 ICJ ruling read. It went on to remind Israel that it is “bound to comply with its obligations to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and its obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” According to the ruling, Israel can build a wall for security purposes, but only on its side of the Green Line.

Even Justice Thomas Buergenthal, the American judge who cast the only dissenting vote in the ICJ decision, recognized the Palestinian right to self-determination, reiterated Israel’s obligation to international humanitarian law, and conceded that there were legitimate questions as to whether the barrier, given its route, qualifies as self-defense. In response to the ICJ’s concerns, the Knesset has claimed that the separation wall is only a “temporary” measure, to be reversed as soon as the Palestinians and Israelis reach a successful peace agreement.

This position, of course, would be more convincing if the construction of Jewish-only settlements on the disputed land between the wall and the Green Line hadn’t risen sharply almost immediately after the wall was approved. The original Israeli settlements in the West Bank (which have also been declared illegal by multiple ICJ rulings and UN resolutions, as a breach of the fourth Geneva Convention) were also called “temporary” at first. They began as military outposts and evolved into civilian settlements. Eventually, they were regarded as “facts on the ground” during negotiations. It’s reasonable to wonder whether these new settlements will follow suit.

Israeli courts, though ruling in favor of a slight route revision in the Ramallah district, have opted not to accept the ICJ’s decision, even though they have acknowledged that Israel controls the West Bank in a “belligerent occupation” and that the “law of belligerent occupation…imposes conditions” on the occupying military, even in security sensitive areas. Bil’in was one of the villages in the Ramallah district that the courts approved for rerouting. Regardless, construction has continued as planned.
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As I stood on top of that hill in Bil’in, I observed a sandy dirt road that paved a clear path through the wild goat grass, dodging the occasional sabra cactus, toward the edge of the separation wall. A cacophony of village noise consumed me: a child crying, a mother consoling. The sound of Israeli riot dispersal techniques reverberated throughout the village. The deafening boom of a 44mm rubber bullet echoed from a sister protest in the nearby village of Na’alin. Tear gas canisters hissed through the air.

Despite the generally non-violent nature of the weekly protests against the separation wall, 16 demonstrators have been killed over the years. Of those, ten were children under the age of 18. 15 were killed by live ammunition, a method of riot dispersal banned by the IDF following the second intifada because of its highly lethal nature.

We began to march toward the wall. Some chanted in Arabic, others simply held signs. As soon as we stepped into the “closed military zone,” which extended far into the village, IDF riot control began to shoot tear gas into the crowd.

Some protesters fled, visibly suffering from tear gas inhalation. Others continued toward the wall, where they intended to plant a Palestinian flag in symbolic expression of their resistance. They were met with rubber bullets.

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It’s a tragic story, but even more tragically, it’s not a new one: Land stolen, the inhabitants 1. stripped of their right to due process under the pretense of the post-colonial power’s “national security” 2. forced to prove residency or risk deportation from their own home and 3. shot at when they attempt to reclaim their dignity and rightful property. Let’s learn from history and never again let fear and xenophobia trump ethics in a world that claims to have evolved.

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