Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Yet another siege of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah abated on September 29, as the Palestinian leader again emerged with his previously sagging popularity bolstered by confinement at the hands of Israel. Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza broke Israeli-imposed curfews on September 28 to mark the second anniversary of the Palestinian uprising and demonstrate for Arafat’s freedom of movement. While the media has focused on Israel’s defiance of international pressure to end the Ramallah siege, deadly Israeli incursions into the Gaza Strip and further incidents of Palestinian violence in the Occupied Territories, Israel has proceeded largely unnoticed with the construction of a wall in the West Bank, an alteration of the landscape of occupation which has far more serious implications for the long-term future of the conflict than the latest “cycle of violence.”

Israel has successfully portrayed the new West Bank wall as a necessary measure for the prevention of suicide bombings inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel. In reality, the wall—three times as long and twice as high as the one which formerly divided Berlin—puts another concrete stamp on the occupation, creating additional “facts on the ground” with which Israel can bargain should it again enter negotiations to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. With regard to four key issues postponed by the Oslo “peace process” of the 1990s until the never-held final status negotiations—borders, settlements, water and Jerusalem—the wall moves the goalposts further in Israel’s favor.

Cutting Off Qalqilya

Preparations for construction of the wall began at Salem, a village to the west of Jenin in the northern West Bank, on June 16, 2002. This section of the wall will stretch for 72 miles, reaching Tulkarm and forming a loop around the city of Qalqilya, the closest West Bank town to the Mediterranean, sitting only eight miles from Tel Aviv. In the past two months, Israel has encircled Qalqilya with a ten-foot wall and confiscated over 55 percent of the surrounding arable land. There is only one way out. Residents must apply to the Israeli military, through a long and bureaucratic process, for rarely granted permits to leave.

“Qalqilya used to export fruit and vegetables as far as the Gulf,” explained the mayor, Marouf Zahran, as he stood on the edge of fields now off limits to Palestinian farmers. “Now we are wondering how we can have enough food to feed our own people. We have had only had 75 days of free movement in the whole intifada. And even before lands were confiscated, it was often not possible for farmers to reach their crops.” Like elsewhere in the West Bank and Gaza, fear of settler attacks has caused many farmers to abandon plots that soldiers would allow them to enter.

During the 1990s, negotiations designated Qalqilya as part of Area A—the disconnected enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza which were under the security and administrative control of the Palestinian Authority until the successive Israeli invasions of 2002. But several hundred dunams of farmland adjacent to the town were nonetheless confiscated toward the end of the Oslo era. Much of the land was bulldozed, its trees uprooted, for bypass roads leading to Israeli settlements and an earlier smaller version of a separation fence.

Four years ago, before building a house on the edge of Qalqilya, Marwan ascertained from municipality maps and documents signed by Israeli authorities that his chosen site lay inside Area A and therefore within the municipality’s jurisdiction. At the time, other houses and cafes lay to the east within the municipal boundaries, but now Marwan’s house stands right next to the wall. Some outlying buildings have been destroyed or evacuated; other families who have remained in their homes find themselves on the other side of the wall, cut off from what is left of Qalqilya. In August, Marwan received a visit from army personnel, who handed him demolition papers. The papers say that the house is “illegally” built and must be destroyed, ignoring the municipality’s documentation of Area A boundaries.

Every few feet along the wall lies a watchtower. As a small boy showed off on his bicycle in front of journalists, warning shots rang out when soldiers apparently deemed that the boy had ventured too close to the wall. Close to where he was playing is a school built in 2000. Although the school is not slated for demolition, Zahran shrugged when asked about the building’s future. “Who knows what they will do in the future? In any case, sending your children to school so close to military watchtowers is a big concern for parents.”

Erasing the Green Line

Many on the Israeli left celebrated the June groundbreaking for the “security fence”—long opposed by the right and the settlers—as a final recognition by Israel that a two-state solution is inevitable. But celebration does not seem in order when one considers what kind of state the wall would produce. At some points, the Israeli fence reaches as far as three miles east of the Green Line, the armistice line of the 1948 war beyond which UN resolutions require Israel to withdraw. If the fence is to demarcate the borders of a future Palestinian state, it will place an estimated 11,000 West Bank Palestinians on the Israeli side. According to Israeli maps obtained by the Palestinian human rights organization LAW, these Palestinians will be living in a closed military zone covering thousands of dunams between the Green Line and the wall. LAW’s information suggests that this area will be controlled by 30 permanent checkpoints in the wall, and that special permits will be needed to enter or exit, whether for work, family or medical reasons.

“This wall has nothing to do with martyr operations. That is just an excuse,” says Khaled Shanti, a resident of Qalqilya and general secretary of the Farmers and Peasants Union in the West Bank. “It is part of a wider plan for the isolation of Qalqilya that was launched years ago.” In 1980, Ariel Sharon, then housing minister, introduced a settlement project known as the Star Points Plan, which aimed to erase the Green Line between the Palestinian-populated Triangle region on Israel’s side of the border, and Qalqilya and the other Palestinian towns and villages close to the border in the West Bank. The Triangle region next to the Green Line on the Israeli side is the most densely populated Arab area inside Israel. To break up the concentration of Palestinians and the contiguous Palestinian-populated territory, the Star Points Plan called for building settlements on both sides of the line.

Nine Israeli settlements now dot the West Bank in the immediate area of Qalqilya, taking up land and draining local water resources. Soon after being built, the settlements were linked to Israel with highways patrolled by military vehicles 24 hours a day. The settlements provide a justification for military installations, one five miles south of Qalqilya, and another just less than two miles away at the settlement of Alfei Menashe. “And now we reach the final stage,” Shanti continues, “a wall which loops around the city, using barbed wire, deep trenches and concrete.” The West Bank wall will secure the future of contiguous Israeli-populated territory reaching across the Green Line.

Water

Shanti and Zahran believe that water is one of Israel’s primary motivations in seeking to cut off Qalqilya. The city sits atop the largest aquifer in the West Bank, making its farmlands among the most fertile in the entire territory. Israel does not permit Palestinians to dig wells as deep as its own, leading to disproportionate allocation of water. The aquifer has an estimated capacity of 13 billion cubic feet per year, of which Palestinian wells can only reach 776 million. Currently, around Qalqilya eight wells owned by Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, draw 77,600 cubic feet of water per hour from the aquifer, according to Shanti. The Palestinian Hydrology Group estimates that Israel is currently using 75 percent of the renewable water resources found in the West Bank and Gaza.

Although water usually takes second place to settlements in media coverage of the conflict, in the long term water is of greater value to Israel in the West Bank than the settlements themselves. Settlements are a tool that Israel can use to maintain control of the three key aquifers in the West Bank, and also the valuable water resources of the Jordan Valley, in a region facing increasing water shortages. At the same time, a viable Palestinian state cannot be created without access to water, meaning that the wall around Qalqilya reduces the chances for negotiated agreement over water resources.

“Facts on the Ground”

A wall is also being constructed in occupied East Jerusalem, contributing to what Israeli activist Jeff Halper describes as “the matrix of control”—a system of barriers, military outposts, settlements, highways and railroads which would permit Israel to exert control over the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem even if negotiations established a Palestinian state in the bulk of the Occupied Territories. So far the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Abu Dis and Ras al-Amud have been divided by a fence of concrete and razor wire, and other walls are slated for construction. As part of a wider plan labeled “Enveloping Jerusalem” advanced by Sharon, Israel is using the new barriers to safeguard the future status of the 200,000 Israeli settlers currently living in East Jerusalem, and render a straightforward division of the city impossible.

Both Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations are resisting the creation of more “facts on the ground.” LAW believes that the construction of the wall snaking down from Salem to encircle Qalqilya “fulfills all elements of the crime of apartheid as defined under the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (1976), which expressly states that the crime of apartheid ‘shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practiced in southern Africa.'” In building the “security fence,” the human rights groups say, Israel is also in contravention of the Hague Regulations and the Fourth Geneva Convention regarding international standards of treatment of people under occupation.

Back in Qalqilya, Marouf Zahran shows journalists the new palm trees being planted to replace those cut down by Israeli tanks during the incursions of the spring and summer, conveying his unspoken understanding that the seedlings will probably be destroyed when tanks next rumble into town. Despite the pronouncements of the “quartet” convened by Secretary of State Colin Powell to discuss formulas for returning to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the reality on the ground demonstrates to the mayor how far peace is from the top of the international agenda. As Zahran admonishes, “Why will the people of Qalqilya want to talk peace over a ten-foot wall?”

How to cite this article:

Isabelle Humphries "Building a Wall, Sealing the Occupation," Middle East Report Online, September 22, 2002.
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