The Security Wall: Part I

Okay, Okay. I know. It took me forever to update this. I apologize. The last 3 weeks have been rife with drama and intrigue, including a move into a much nicer apartment building, a nasty case of food poisoning, final exams, and a trip to Jordan.

So with that in mind, I need to catch y’all up on what’s been happening here. Aside from the above list, one of the most notable events of the last month was our fellowship’s tour of the security wall separating Israel from most of the West Bank–a highly controversial and deeply divisive issue.

As you may know, Jerusalem was hit by a wave of suicide bombings during the second intifada (the intifada, translated as “the shaking off,” began almost exactly five years ago, and although it never officially ended, there is a de facto cease fire that has quelled the vast majority of the violence). In its campaign against the suicide bombings–which were, on many occasions, almost weekly events–Israel began building a long, contiguous fence to separate itself from the Palestinian territories, and to reduce the number of suicide bombers coming into Israel.

This, like all major policy decisions, was highly controversial. On one hand, by sealing itself off and ensuring that the only points of entry are through IDF-controlled checkpoints, the Israeli government made it markedly harder for would-be suicide bombers to carry out their missions. They can no longer slip across the border, stay in a halfway house in East Jerusalem, and get on a bus the next morning with a bomb. Because of the fence, which is 9 meters high at some points, anyone hoping to carry out a bombing would have to go to a designated checkpoint, present their papers to multiple IDF guards, explain why they’re going into Israel, and have their bags searched for explosives. The number of successful suicide bombing attempts has fallen markedly since the fence went up (in conjunction with the gradual tapering off of the intifada).

On the other hand, though, is the fact that the fence oftentimes slices right through a village or neighborhood, cutting extended families off from each other and isolating workers from their jobs on the other side. The Palestinian economy has suffered greatly because of this, and many reports of clinical depression and other psychological difficulties have arisen from the fact that very few people are employed, most can barely afford basic amenities, and many are unable to see their families on the other side.

This, of course, begs the question of what is most important: safety and security, or the humanitarian issues that come from maintaining this security? Israel cannot stop suicide attacks based solely on intelligence and the intuition of bystanders who notice someone suspicious. The wall is, undoubtedly, serving its purpose, but is it creating other problems by solving the ones that have plagued the country for years? Or, on the other hand, are these new problems just not as grave as the ones that Israel faced during the intifada? If the less tangible humanitarian issues aren’t as dire as suicide attacks, is the impetus to find a solution undercut by the “lesser of two evils” status?

Obviously, these aren’t easy questions to answer. I’ve found that the more I think about it, the less I can claim to know what is right. I fully support Israel’s need for security, and agree that the fence is doing a good job of bolstering the country’s defenses against suicide bombers. I do think that the humanitarian issues are the lesser of two evils, but I also think that diminishing their importance risks inflaming the still-smoldering embers of the intifada. If these issues are ignored, Israel’s indifference will send a message of “we really don’t care” to the people whose anger they’re trying to quell. If this happens, it seems quite clear that they’ll blow up in everyone’s face. But how do you address these issues without compromising the integrity of the fence itself? If you let someone through because she say it’s her sister’s birthday, do you believe her? If someone has a permit to work on the other side of the fence–but could very well spend the day sheltering and feeding aspiring suicide bombers–do you let him through? The whole thing is an ethical minefield.

Adding to the complexity of the issue is the government’s plans for where the fence will be built next: in the West Bank areas surrounding Jerusalem. Since 1967, when the international borders were drawn between Israel and the Palestinian territories, both groups have been trying to block the expansion of their opponent. Many Orthodox and Messianic Jews have been establishing settlements in the West Bank, which they believe is rightfully theirs under God’s decree. The settlements in the West Bank are essentially an attempt to make a major inroad into the land, thereby making it almost impossible to cut them off from mainland Israel–and thus annexing a major portion of the West Bank. However, the Palestinians are onto this scheme, and always build a village immediately adjcent to the settlement, thus making it impossible to incorporate the settlement without annexing the Arab village. To do so would vilify Israel in the eyes of the international community, and would likely provoke enough anger and political consequences to deter this course of action. But, like a chess board on a larger scale, each group builds practially on top of the other, so that it’s physically impossible to incorporate one without annexing the other (or, vice versa, impossible to exclude one without cutting out the other).

The issue of the security wall, as you can tell, is deeply complex and profoundly loaded. As much as I try to hash through it, no options for compromise seem viable. Hopefully that will change someday, but the issues presented by the wall will likely be Israel’s biggest challenge in the years to come.

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