The decision this Christmas by a prominent London church, St James’s of Piccadilly, to build a replica model of Israel’s apartheid wall as part of the festival “Bethlehem Unwrapped“ provoked a predictable hasbara — propaganda — offensive by the Israeli government and Zionist lobby groups.
Firstly, the wall was built purely because of suicide bombings, and secondly, that it “works,” with a 90 percent drop in attacks cited. This line of argument was repeated by, for example, the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
Even if that were all true — that the wall was only built as a response to suicide bombings, and that it was solely responsible for a 90 percent reduction in attacks — criticism of the barrier from a human rights and international law perspective remains valid.
As the Red Cross put it, the wall — and settlements — “are not compatible with Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.” In other words, you can’t just do what you like in the name of “security.”
That being said, since these are the same lines repeated by pro-Israel advocates, it is worthwhile explaining how this position is misleading and disingenuous.
“The fence was erected because of suicide bombings”
The idea of a wall pre-dates the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that began in September 2000.
It can be traced back to the early 1990s, when former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called for Israel to “take Gaza out of Tel Aviv,” later arguing that “separation as a philosophy” will require a “clear border.”
“Whoever wants to swallow 1.8 million Arabs,” he said, “will just bring greater support for Hamas.” Prior to the Camp David summit of 2000, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak also vowed to implement “a physical separation” — as his campaign slogan went, “Us here, Them over there.”
The theme of demographics-based “separation” — distinct from “security” as such — has appeared in other justifications for the wall. In 2012, Shaul Arieli, negotiator under three Israeli premiers, wrote that “the need” for the wall stemmed from the fact that “tens of thousands of Palestinians” seek work in Israel, with or without permits, thus “slowly lead[ing] to a Palestinian ‘return’ to Israel.”
Arieli claimed this rationale was “of no less importance” than the security justification. In 2010, Jerusalem municipality official Yakir Segev publicly stated that the wall “was built for political and demographic reasons — not just security concerns.”
There is a further clue for the purpose of the wall from those involved in planning it — specifically, Danny Tirza, an Israeli army colonel. Himself a settler, Tirza has admitted that “the main thing” the Israeli government told him in giving him the job “was to include as many Israelis inside the fence and leave as many Palestinians outside.”
The big problem for those claiming that the wall was just built to stop suicide bombings is its route. A reminder: the wall is twice the length of the 1967 ceasefire line (the so-called “Green Line”) that separates the occupied West Bank from present-day Israel.
Eighty five percent of the route runs inside the occupied West Bank. To the west of the wall lies around 10 percent of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), territory that includes eight industrial zones and 82 settlements with a population of more than 400,000 settlers.
The 2004 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague states that the wall impedes “the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self-determination,” its route threatening to create “de facto annexation.”
Despite all of the above, Israeli officials and pro-Israel lobby groups for a while insisted that the wall was a mere temporary security measure, which could be removed or altered at will.
Unsurprisingly, however, the wall has come to be referred to as the route of a future border with a Palestinian “state,” an assumption that informs, for example, how settlement construction is interpreted (i.e. whether building in settlements to the west or east of the wall).
In a June 2013 briefing, Alan Johnson’s Israel lobby group BICOM referred to what it claimed is “an emergent consensus on the rough outlines of a border, which will…fall somewhere between the Green Line and the West Bank security barrier.”
Just this last week, former director of Israel’s Shin Bet secret police Ami Ayalon wrote an op-ed arguing that to preserve “a clear Jewish majority,” the Israeli government “must declare that it has no and will have no sovereignty claims east of the security fence.”
And, back in November, there were even reports that Netanyahu’s negotiating team had suggested the wall would be “a permanent frontier” during the current peace talks.
90 percent reduction?
This second myth used by Israel’s apologists with regards to the wall has been critiqued less than the first, but is just as disingenuous.
Construction on the wall began in the summer of 2002, a year which saw a record 55 suicide bombing attacks inside Israel (according to the Israeli government’s own data).
In 2003, this fell to 25 such attacks, with 14 in 2004, seven throughout 2005, four in 2006, and one in 2007. So doesn’t that show that the wall worked?
Not quite. Have a look at the graph above, prepared for this post, using Israeli government and UN data. You can see in mid-2003, the wall was only 20 percent completed, while by mid-2006, it had only reached 50 percent completion. Was a wall whose route was never more than half finished solely responsible for such a drop in attacks?
The answer lies in two events marked on the graph’s timeline: “Operation Defensive Shield” in the spring of 2002, and a unilaterally-declared Hamas ceasefire in the West Bank from 2004/2005 onwards.Operation Defensive Shield was a large-scale Israeli military assault on West Bank cities resulting in numerous massacres and hundreds of dead, amid massive and systematic human rights abuses. In the words of Haaretz’s security correspondents, “Operation Defensive Shield” “suppressed…suicide bombings” and “restored normalcy.” Of course the brutal assault did anything but give Palestinians “normalcy.” While there were still some two dozen suicide bombings in the year after the assault, it likely contributed to what happened next: a Hamas ceasefire and the gradual abandonment by Palestinian armed groups of suicide bombing as a tactic and that is what really brought the number of such attacks close to zero.
The significance of the second factor, Hamas’ ceasefire, was acknowledged by none other than the Israeli security services. In January 2006, Shin Bet’s annual statistics showed a considerable drop in “terror attacks” for 2005, with “the main reason for the sharp decline,” Shin Bet said, “the [Hamas-called] truce in the [occupied] territories.”
Haaretz commented that “the security fence is no longer mentioned as the major factor in preventing suicide bombings, mainly because the terrorists have found ways to bypass it.” The “main reason for the reduction in terrorist acts,” the report emphasized, was the Hamas truce, and the organization’s “focus on the political arena.”
Even a 2004 paper authored by an Israeli colonel that was intended to show the effectiveness of the “security fence” in reducing suicide bombing attacks referred to the wall as one of three causes for the drop. Avi Dichter, head of Shin Bet from 2000-2005, was clear in 2011 that “the West Bank fence alone did not solve the terror problem.”
How to prevent violence
It is important to note here that the most effective way for Israel to prevent violence is to cease violence, and that the absence of suicide bombing attacks has continued even as the Israeli military has visited extreme violence upon Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli violence – of which, of course, the wall itself is one example – prompts the Palestinian response.
While the Wall was only twenty percent completed in mid-2003, a decade later the wall’s route is still only 62 percent complete.
On Sunday, Yediot Ahronot cited sources within Israel’s “defense establishment” who estimated that around 6,000 Palestinians cross through gaps in the Wall every month. A lower figure of 20-30,000 Palestinians workers a year is cited by Israeli workers’ advocacy group Kav LaOved (which even at its lower end would still mean almost 400 a week).
To cite another example, in 2007 — when the Wall was 50 percent completed and there was one suicide bombing attack the whole year — an estimated average of more than 1,200 Palestinians bypassed the wall to work without permits every week.
Even the founder of Israeli campaign group A Fence for Life has admitted that with “tens of thousands of illegal workers” facing “no problem crossing the gaps in the fence,” the lack of attacks is fundamentally due to “the Palestinians’ choice”.
Israel’s apologists, therefore, want you to believe that a partially completed wall, crossed routinely by at least hundreds of Palestinians every week, is the reason for an almost total reduction in suicide bombing attacks.
The additional implication is that the Israeli government, by failing to close the significant gaps in the route, is leaving its citizens at risk of attack due to, in the state’s own words, “budgetary concerns.”
The impact of the Wall
While the two main myths propagated by Israel lobbyists are easily debunked, there are plenty of things we do know for certain about the wall.
We know that from the ICJ to the Red Cross, it has been described as illegal. We know of its disastrous impact on Palestinian farmers, villages, cities, families, schoolchildren, students and many others. We know that from Jenin to Bethlehem, through the concrete-split streets of East Jerusalem, the wall has become another element of Israel’s colonization of Palestine, one more link in the apartheid chain.
The propaganda myths about security are intended to hide this reality but, like the wall itself, they are arguments full of holes.