Backs to the Wall

Early September 2003. Two Palestinian schoolgirls cross a part of the Wall in Abu Dis, Jerusalem district. The holes have since been sealed. (PENGON/Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign)

Uncertainty about the future intensified for Mufida Ahmad’s family this year when a mammoth wall ripped through their land in the West Bank village of Jayyus. Ahmad and her husband had bought the quarter acre for $1,400—a hefty but hopeful investment for the family of seven. On it, they cultivated eight olive trees. To pay for the land, and pay off a $4,000 bank loan they had taken to meet the family’s basic needs, Ahmad worked nine hours a day in a sewing factory for a mere $150 a month. But the trees, land, and future for which they had sacrificed have all disappeared under the Israeli Separation Wall.

The Wall—called a “security fence” by the Israeli government and the “Apartheid Wall” by Palestinians—is actually a series of walls, razor wire, electrified fences, trenches, and watchtowers flanked by a 30- to 75-yard “buffer zone” which the Israeli military patrols. The first phase of construction was launched in June 2002 and finished just 13 months later, in July of this year. The completed section stretches for 90 miles in the northwestern West Bank districts of Jenin, Tulkarem, and Qalqiliya. At several points it cuts almost four miles into the West Bank (which spans only 35 miles at its widest section; see the map on p. 29). The Wall has already resulted in Israel’s de facto annexation of fertile Palestinian agricultural land, groundwater wells, and 10 illegal Israeli Jewish-only settlements. Although the first phase of construction was declared complete, demolitions and razing continue around it. The Israeli government has announced three more building phases and it plans to finish the structure by 2005.

In March, the Jewish settlers’ council (YESHA)—fearing that many settlements would be trapped on the Palestinian side—convinced the Israeli government to change the Wall’s trajectory so that in future phases it will cut 10 miles into the West Bank, incorporating major settlement blocs like Ariel and Immanuel. The route zigzags to annex the maximum amount of land possible for the Israeli settlements while leaving major Palestinian population centers outside Israel’s borders.

Also in March, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon announced plans to erect a second wall along the Jordan River Valley—far inside the eastern border of the West Bank—to annex a string of Israeli settlements on prime Palestinian agricultural land. (On the map on p. 29, the path of the second wall appears as a light gray line in the eastern West Bank.)

If built in its entirety, the first, three-phase Wall alone will constitute the largest confiscation of Palestinian land since 1967, devastate the agricultural base of the West Bank, and destroy any possibility of a viable Palestinian state. If both walls are built, they will enclose the entire West Bank and run over 400 miles, four times the length of the Berlin Wall. Not only will they take some of the most fertile land and richest water resources in the West Bank, they will partition the territory into three ghettos: one located around the cities of Nablus and Jenin in the north, a second in Ramallah in the north-center, and a third in Bethlehem/Hebron in the south. (These three urban areas are further subdivided into numerous enclaves by Israeli settlements, bypass roads, and military checkpoints.) In total, less than half of the West Bank will remain in Palestinian hands—just 12% of pre-1948 Palestine. (See “The Green Line,” p. 28.) The Wall will completely separate East Jerusalem, which was illegally annexed by Israel in 1980, from the rest of the West Bank. East Jerusalem is not only the intended capital of a future Palestinian state, but also the religious, cultural, social, and economic center of the West Bank. A total of 430,000 West Bank Palestinians, including those in East Jerusalem, will be trapped on the Israeli side of the Wall.

Even before the Wall’s construction began, the Palestinian economy lay decimated from the three-year long Israeli military crackdown against the intifada, particularly the enforced curfews, military destruction, and closures. (Closures place movement restrictions on Palestinian people, vehicles, and goods. Under closure, hundreds of military checkpoints and roadblocks make it almost impossible for Palestinians to enter Israel or to move from one Palestinian population center in the West Bank and Gaza to another). As of October 2002, closures had cost Palestinians $3.3 billion in lost income and left 67% of Palestinian households living in poverty. The Separation Wall will make permanent the state of siege experienced by much of Palestine during the current intifada. The full economic impact of the Wall is not yet known, but its first segment has already gutted productive assets, blocked access to resources, and hobbled people’s movement.

The Wall’s First Phase and Coming Expansion

Twenty-two percent of the population of the West Bank—half a million people—live in the three northern districts sliced through by the Wall’s first phase of construction. Approximately 206,000 live in directly affected communities—ones that lost land to the Wall, had markets, homes, and agricultural buildings demolished, or find themselves cut off from the rest of the West Bank. Some 11,550 residents in 16 villages are now trapped between the Wall and the Green Line, in an area considered a “closed military zone.” They are completely isolated from the rest of the West Bank and these residents fear that they will ultimately be evicted from the area by the military or forced out by economic strangulation.

Another 18 communities are completely imprisoned by the Wall. For example, Qalqiliya, a city of 42,000, is surrounded on all sides, and its single entrance and exit is opened and closed at the whim of the Israeli military. Why should the Wall maroon this city? Qalqiliya has the misfortune to be positioned between two Israeli settlements—Zufin lies to its north and Alfe Menashe to the south. Prior to the beginning of the intifada in September 2000, the 18 communities together had an average unemployment rate of 18%. This figure has swelled to 78% since Israeli closures and the Wall sealed them in.

Devastating Losses

‘Abbas Khaled ‘Ali Yusef, a shop owner in the Nazlat Isa market, has seen his shop demolished three times. It mysteriously burned to the ground in November 2001 after an Israeli military checkpoint was erected next door. He rebuilt the shop but it was destroyed a few months later by the military. After he opened a shop in a different location, it was demolished in August 2003, along with over 100 others, to clear the way for the Wall. Abbas hopes to start a fourth business in Tulkarem, where he thinks he and his brothers can continue to support their families.

Thousands like ‘Abbas Khaled ‘Ali Yusef and Mufida Ahmad have lost their family property with no compensation or recourse. ‘Ali Yusef’s town of Nazlat Isa—once a thriving market on the Green Line that catered primarily to Palestinian citizens of Israel—saw over 200 shops and five homes demolished by the Wall’s construction in the past year and a half. In addition, over 100,000 trees have been uprooted in 47 communities and approximately 3,700 acres of cropland destroyed for the footprint of the Wall. And these direct losses of assets are just one type of economic destruction wrought by the construction of the first phase of the Wall and its buffer zone.

In addition, the Wall makes large tracts of land inaccessible to their owners. Its first phase isolated 51 communities from their lands, which total 25,000 acres. While this land has not been officially confiscated, many fear that it soon will be—according to Israeli law, land that goes uncultivated for three years becomes government property. While Israel has built 20 gates in the Tulkarem and Qalqiliya districts, ostensibly to help farmers reach their fields, most are permanently closed, and at the few that open sporadically there have been reports of Palestinians shot, beaten, humiliated, and prevented from crossing. Even farmers who still have access to their land face serious questions about whether and how much to plant, since impeded access to markets means they may see little or no return on their investments.

Likewise, the Wall blocks access to water. The first phase of construction has trapped 50 wells in the buffer zone and west of the Wall. These wells supply 8,770,000 cubic yards of water annually and are essential to the irrigation of cropland in the area. In Qalqiliya, 34 of the district’s 75 wells are now inaccessible to residents, and over 200 cisterns and tens of reservoirs are isolated behind the Wall. Certain areas west of the Wall, like Baqa ash Sharqiya, have long served as sources of water for surrounding villages. Tankers would drive well water to neighboring communities that have no water source. Now that the Wall separates Baqa ash Sharqiya from these villages, it is virtually impossible for the tankers to get through. Not only does the loss of water assets result in reduced water access for households and a decline in agriculture, but since these wells are privately owned, it also means lost income for the well owners.

Finally, the Wall hinders mobility, and therefore, economic activity. Because some communities are trapped between the Wall and the Green Line, while others are almost completely sealed off by the Wall, residents simply have limited access to the employment opportunities, markets, and resources that they once enjoyed. In many communities the Wall makes it impossible to travel for work.

Agricultural Base at Risk

With wage laborers unable to get to jobs in Israel, and Palestinian businesses floundering, agriculture has become an increasingly important source of income and sustenance for Palestinians. Yet this is the sector most threatened by the Wall’s construction.

The northwestern districts of Jenin, Tulkarem, and Qalqiliya sit atop the Western Aquifer, the major groundwater source of the West Bank. This area—where the first segment of the Wall now stands—accounts for about 42% of the West Bank’s agricultural sector, contains 80% of the West Bank’s wells, and provides 53% of its water-sector employment. The region serves as the bread (and water) basket for the rest of the West Bank, and the presence of the Wall in this region may seriously reduce food security.

While the northwest region is the West Bank’s most developed agricultural area, projections show that several other areas have potential for agricultural development. However, these areas—in the southwest West Bank and the Jordan River Valley—are also slated to fall on the Israeli side of the Wall. (See “Water Apartheid.”) In sum, the Wall will destroy the current and potential agricultural base of the Palestinian economy. In addition, industrial development will be limited by lack of water and by the internal fragmentation of Palestinian territory as well as the isolation of the Palestinian ghettos from Israel, Jordan, and the wider world. Without access to employment in Israel, the only option for many Palestinian workers will be to go to the industrial zones and agricultural plantations of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which have benefited from cheap Palestinian labor. (See “Low-Road Development.”)

Mobilizing Against the Wall

The Wall is estimated to cost $1 billion if completed in its entirety—around $2.5 million per mile. Part of this bill will likely be underwritten by U.S. grants and loans to Israel, which is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. The Bush administration has mentioned the possibility of imposing economic sanctions on the country if it builds the Wall by subtracting $1 from U.S. loan guarantees for every dollar Israel spends on construction. However, the administration itself is split and the pro-Israel lobby has scoffed at the idea. Many in the region are skeptical that Bush will act, given his record of almost unconditional support for Israel’s actions and the imminent U.S. elections.

Meanwhile, Palestinian communities and local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are mobilizing to stop the Wall. Affected communities are organizing meetings, exhibitions, and demonstrations. In some communities, such as Jayyus, local residents have erected “protest tents” on land trapped behind the Wall, and are camping out day and night. To support these communities in their struggle, the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network (PENGON) created the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign in 2002. Campaign coordinator Jamal Juma’ explains the campaign name this way: “We are witnessing a 21st century apartheid, which will lay siege to Palestinians within fragmented, disconnected cantons, taking final possession of the Palestinian right to live in freedom, in a state like any other people.”

The campaign is a Palestinian national grassroots movement that calls for the Wall’s elimination, works to educate local and international journalists, coordinates the resistance of Palestinian communities, and lobbies the Palestinian Authority to take a strong, unequivocal stance against the Wall. The campaign has declared November 9, 2003 the International Day Against the Wall, and activist groups around the world are organizing solidarity events.

Only a small number of Israelis oppose the Wall; the majority of the Israeli “peace camp” is not mobilizing against it, although some are advocating that it be moved to the Green Line. This position is unacceptable to Palestinians, who recognize that even building the Wall along the Green Line, while perhaps minimizing the loss of land and damage to property, would make Israel’s crippling closure of the West Bank and Gaza permanent and devastate the Palestinian economy. The 36-year Israeli occupation has made the Palestinian economy completely dependent upon Israel, which controls all imports, exports and labor flows. Even right on the Green Line, the Wall would exacerbate that dependence and vulnerability. Furthermore, the Wall would forcibly separate families and communities that found themselves placed arbitrarily on opposite sides of the Green Line after the 1948 War, but who continue to function as one community.

If a just peace is to prevail in the region, Israel must agree to dismantle the Wall, return confiscated land to its owners, and compensate Palestinians for damages and lost income. The U.S.-sponsored Oslo Process and “road map” have demonstrated that no peace process can succeed without guaranteeing basic human rights, providing economic justice, and answering the questions of Palestinians like Abdel Nasser Quzmar from ‘Izbat Salman. Once a farmer with seven acres of land cultivated in olives, citrus, and vegetables, and spotted with greenhouses, he has lost almost everything since the Wall surrounded his community. “I had never before come home empty handed. So, what shall I do now when everything I have ever owned is either confiscated or destroyed?”

Lucy Mair is currently based in Jerusalem and works as the Palestine Program Representative for Boston-based Grassroots International. Robyn Long works with the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network (PENGON) and the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign in Jerusalem. This article was first published in Dollars and Sense, Issue 250, November/December 2003 and reprinted with permission.