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Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, New York Times best selling author, professor at Princeton University, activist and ordained Presbyterian minister. He has written 11 books, including the New York Times best-seller “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” (2012), which he...
Israel’s Barrier to Peace
I walk down the road to the elderly woman. I kneel in the shade beside her. She is missing many teeth. Her dirty hair, platted and uncombed, is thick and white. Her name is Fatme Khalil al-Bas. She is 72. Her husband died a few years ago. Next to us are the shattered walls of an old stone house. It was her house. She was born in it and lived there until Israeli tanks blew it up in the 1967 war. She and her family continued to work the fields around the wreck of a home, never rebuilding. When the Israelis built the wall they seized her land. She was left with a small garden lot. Her fields, the ones where she worked as a girl, as a mother and a grandmother, are inaccessible. They are overgrown and untended on the other side of the wall. They belong to Israel now. She left her small apartment to sleep under the fig tree. She has built a shelter out of old boards placed across the branches. In the small patch of land she grows tomatoes and cucumbers.
Much of what she says is incoherent. She rails against her husband’s second wife and than says softly, “He was a good man.” She spits out the names of Ariel Sharon and George Bush and Yasir Arafat, hissing with anger. She vows to protect her little plot with her life, even though she says she is afraid at night, “afraid as a woman to sleep alone on the ground, afraid for my honor.”
I stand to leave. She looks at me with plaintive eyes. I turn and see Mrs. Auynaf watching us.
“I am a bird in a net,” the old woman whispers.
Qalqiliya is a ghetto. It is completely surrounded by the wall. There is one Israeli military checkpoint to let people into the West Bank or back home again. Only those with special Israeli-issued permits can go in and out of Qalqiliya. It is not the Lodz ghetto or the Warsaw ghetto, but it is a ghetto that would be recognizable to the Jews who were herded into walled enclaves by Pope IV in 1555 and stranded there for generations. Qalqiliya, like all ghettos, is dying. And it is being joined by dozens of other ringed ghettos as the serpentine barrier snaking its way through up and down two sides of the West Bank gobbles up Palestinian land and lays down nooses around Palestinian cities, towns, villages and fields.
Construction began on the barrier in 2002 with the purported intent of safeguarding Israel from suicide bombers and other types of attacks. Although it nominally runs along the 1949 Jordanian-Israeli armistice/Green Line that demarcates the boundary between Israel and the Palestinian-held West Bank, around 80 percent of the barrier actually cuts into Palestinian territories—at some points by as much as 20 kilometers.
If and when the barrier is completed, several years from now, it will see the West Bank cut up into three large enclaves and numerous small ringed ghettos. The three large enclaves will include in the south the Bethlehem/Hebron area and in the north the Jenin/Nablus and Ramallah areas.
B’tselem, a leading Israeli human rights organization that documents conditions in the occupied territories, recently estimated that the barrier will eventually stretch 703 miles around the West Bank, about 450 of which are already completed or under construction. (The Berlin Wall, for comparison, ran 96 miles.) B’tselem also estimates that 500,000 West Bank residents will be directly affected by the barrier (by virtue of residing in areas completely encircled by the wall; by virtue of residing west of the barrier and thus in de facto Israeli territory; or by virtue of residing in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians effectively cannot cross into West Jerusalem).
I stand on Qalqiliya’s main street. There is little traffic. Shop after shop is shuttered and closed. The heavy metal doors are secured to the ground with thick padlocks. There are signs in Hebrew and Arabic, fading reminders of a time when commerce was possible. There were, before the wall was built, 42,000 people living here. Mayor Maa’rouf Zahran says at least 6,000 have left. Many more, with the unemployment rate close to 70%, will follow. Over the tip of the wall, in the distance, I can see the tops of the skyscrapers in Tel Aviv. It feels as if it is a plague town, quarantined. Israeli officials, after a few suicide bombers slipped into Israel from Qalqiliya, began to refer to the town as a “hotel for terrorists.”
There are hundreds of acres of farmland on the other side of the wall, some of the best farmland in the West Bank, which is harder and harder to reach given the gates, checkpoints and closures. There are some 32 farming villages on the outskirts of Qalqiliya, cut off from their land, sinking into poverty and despair. Olive groves, with trees that are hundreds of years old, have been uprooted and bulldozed into the ground. The barrier is wiping out the middle class in the West Bank, the last bulwark in the West Bank against Islamic fundamentalism. It is plunging the West Bank into the squalor that defines life in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians struggle to live on less than $ 2 a day. It is the Africanization of Palestinian land.
It is also ethnic cleansing, less overtly violent than that I watched carried out by the Serbs in Bosnia, but as effective. Thousands of Palestinians have left, never to return. Cities such as Bethlehem are emptying. This, Palestinians say, is the real goal, to make life impossible and force them to leave.
The Israelis, who have thought hard about making the project as linguistically benign as possible, call the barrier “the seam line.” They insist it is not meant to be a border. They say it will make Israel more secure. They said that once Gaza was enclosed, suicide attacks from the Gaza Strip would end. They promise that once the West Bank is sealed off, terrorists will not be able to cross into Israel. The promise of security for the weary Israeli populace is like manna from heaven.
This assumes, of course, that the barrier will separate Palestinians from Jews. It ignores the 1 million Israeli Arabs living inside Israel, some of whom have already elected to use their bodies as weapons. It ignores the presence of Jewish settlers in some 200 settlements who often live within yards of Palestinians. But most ominously, it ignores the consequences of total enclosure. The West Bank, like Gaza, will erupt with high-octane rage. Hamas was an insignificant group with little following in 1988 when I first reported from Gaza. The Islamic radicals are now the vanguard of the resistance. Every pillar of concrete driven into the soil of the West Bank will bring forth screeching bands of killers. It happened in Gaza. It will happen here. Security will never come with the barrier, but then security is not the point. What is happening is much more insidious.
If the barrier is being built for security, why is so much of the West Bank being confiscated by Israel? Why is the barrier plunging in deep loops into the West Bank to draw far-flung settlements into Israel? Why are thousands of acres of the most fertile farmland and much of the West Bank’s aquifers being seized by Israel?
The barrier does not run along the old 1967 border or the 1949 armistice line between Israel and the Arab states, which, in the eyes of the United Nations, delineates Israel and the West Bank. It will contain at least 50% of the West Bank, including the whole of the western mountain aquifer, which supplies the West Bank Palestinians with over half their water. The barrier is the most catastrophic blow to the Palestinians since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
The barrier itself mocks any claim that it is temporary. It costs $ 1 million per mile and will run over $ 2 billion by the time it is completed. It will cut the entire 224-mile length of the West Bank off from Israel, but because of its diversions into the West Bank to incorporate Palestinian land it will be about 400 miles in length. A second barrier is being built on the Jordan River side of the West Bank. To look at a map of the barrier is to miss the point. The barrier interconnects with every other piece of Israeli-stolen real estate in Palestinian territory. And when all the pieces are in place the Israelis will no doubt offer up the little ringed puddles of poverty and despair and misery to the world as a Palestinian state.
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