The bright red letters stand out starkly against the ugly grey cement. The wall that is slicing through East Jerusalem is some thirty feet high, but casts its shadow for miles. There is little the Palestinians hemmed in on both sides of the wall can do to oppose it. So, the wall is dotted with marks where rocks have been thrown at it in anger, and covered with graffiti.
Some graffiti writers ask if the builder of this wall can be a “man of peace”. Some ask how a people whose history is full of ghettos can now be building one. And someone decided to remind us all, in those blood-red letters, that it was “Paid by USA”.
You can feel the wall when you’re near it, a pressure bearing down on you, gradually pressing you down farther and farther. Walking beside it, on either side, you can see Palestinians trying to live their lives under this weight. It isn’t easy. The construction of the wall has separated many people from their families, from their places of work, from fields and grazing areas and from medical services. In Qalqilya, the town has been surrounded by the wall, the route of the barrier looping to encircle it. Many people, those who can, have fled Qalqilya. This is only the beginning. The longer the wall stands, the more pronounced the damage to Palestinian lives will become.
There has been a marked reduction in attacks on Israeli civilians in recent months, and it would be foolish and disingenuous to suggest that the wall doesn’t play a part in that. It is equally disingenuous to suggest, as Israel does, that the route of the wall was determined by its security needs. Israel’s High Court itself recognized that portions of the wall did more damage to the Palestinian population than could be justified by security needs. But the court, always reluctant to interfere in security matters, affirmed Israel’s right to build its wall in Palestinian territory.
The International Court of Justice at The Hague begged to differ. Their view, upheld even by the lone dissenting judge (the American judge, not surprisingly) was that the wall was a violation of Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power (Justice Buergenthal, who dissented, questioned whether the court had sufficient evidence to measure Israel’s security needs against this violation). The Court’s full ruling, invoking as it did the Fourth Geneva Convention, also reminded the world that Israel’s project of settlement in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is also illegal, stripping away Israel’s characterizations of the territories as “disputed”, rather than “occupied”.
In that tango of diplomatic semantics, Israel has an eager dance partner in the United States. The Clinton Administration provided Israel with a useful tool in maintaining its occupation by shifting its classification of the West Bank and Gaza from “occupied territories” to “disputed territories”. In keeping with that tradition, not only did the US vote against a UN General Assembly resolution calling on Israel to remove those parts of the wall built on Palestinian land (that would be most of it); but Congress also overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the Hague decision.
Those scarlet letters on the dull grey wall — “Paid by USA” — are burned into my mind. It is the US that enables the occupation, this permanent scar in Jewish history, no matter how many of us insist that this not be done in our name. Not only with money, but with equipment, weapons, and bulldozers. Perhaps above all else, the US gives the occupation legitimacy. The world’s only superpower tells the world that Israel’s wall is legitimate, and what the rest of the world says be damned.
No one denies that Israel has not only the right, but the responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens. But it is Israel itself that places some of those citizens in occupied lands, in direct contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which explicitly prohibits the transfer of an occupying power’s citizens into occupied lands. Thus, extending its wall around settlements cannot be viewed as a legitimate security need. Even more, the Council for Peace and Security, made up of some 1000 high-ranking reserve IDF officers and former high officials in the Shabak and Mossad, has made it clear that the current route of the wall was determined by political, rather than security considerations. In other words, the route was chosen to grab land and pressure the Palestinians, not to protect Israelis. This stands to reason, since the Green Line is much more defensible than the current route, and the wall’s path will place hundreds of thousands of Palestinians on the “Israeli side”.
But the United States supports Israel’s argument that this repressive wall is being built along security lines. The world’s voice has been raised in a clear chorus, supporting Israel’s right to defend its citizens, but opposing using such defense as an excuse for increasing Palestinian misery. However, America stands against the world, as it does in so many ways. And the American people hardly even hear about their government’s behavior. In the din of a presidential race, the occupation of Iraq, and the assorted neoconservative misadventures of the Bush administration, the sound of America helping to construct a wall remains unheard.
The writing on the wall speaks of US payment. It speaks of the so-called “Jewish state” moving its Jews back behind a wall, which this time is a prison we are making rather than one we are put in. The wall itself broadcasts the rising fear of Israeli Jews, reminding us of the increasing trend in Israel to rid itself of all Arabs, even those citizens of the state that have lived in it in peace for decades. The wall is the myth of separation, which will never be the answer to the ongoing conflict over Israel/Palestine. Israeli peace activists will remind us that Israel needs outside help to push it toward peace with justice. The wall won’t bring it. But the United States can, if we reverse the policy of supporting occupation. The American people can do this. At no time has the need of the Palestinians, or the Israeli people, been greater.
Mitchell Plitnick is Director of Policy and Education at Jewish Voice for Peace.