The Barrier: On the edge of a volcano

The Wall
The Wall (© Eric Beauchemin)

In the summer of 2002, Israel began erecting a barrier to seal off the occupied Palestinian territories. The move followed a series of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. 150 kilometres of the 700-kilometre structure have already been built. The barrier is due to be completed by late 2005. Israel calls it a security fence. Palestinians call it The Wall. In a two-part series, entitled “The Barrier”, Eric Beauchemin examines the impact of the barrier on Palestinians and Israelis.

Part 2: “On the edge of a volcano” looks at the wide range of opinions in Israeli society about the barrier. Many are convinced the security fence will protect them from new suicide bombings, others are indifferent, and some believe it will only further inflame Palestinian anger.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: November 3, 2004

“The Barrier” garnered a gold medal at the New York Radio Festivals in 2005.


In the summer of 2002, Israel began erecting a barrier to seal off the occupied Palestinian territories. The move followed a series of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. The 700-kilometre structure is due to be completed by late 2005. Palestinians call it the Wall. Israel calls it a security fence.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “On the Edge of a Volcano”, part 2 of “The Barrier”, a 2-part series, produced by Eric Beauchemin.

The barrier represents a somewhat disorganised attempt to find a way out of a difficult situation.

It’s just like a knife in the landscape. I think it’s a disaster.

We are getting the results. There is not 100% insurance that there will be no terror.

I think it’s a bad thing. I feel like in a ghetto.

It seems very stupid for me to build walls. You build a fence. You have to tear it down some day.

The aftermath of a Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem that left 15 dead and 130 injured in August 2001. In the past four years, over 1000 Israelis have been killed…more than 6000 wounded in Palestinian attacks. An Israeli friend makes cynical remarks to me whenever we get stuck in traffic jams behind buses – the suicide bombers’ favourite target. The subject keeps coming up, even when I don’t ask. For people in this tight-knit society, the memories of the bad days in 2001 and 2002 are all too fresh.

While I’m in Jerusalem, there’s another suicide bombing. 3 people are killed and 17 wounded. An Israeli attorney, Daniel Seidemann, explains that this has been people’s reality for the past four years.

Daniel Seidemann
Daniel Seidemann (© Eric Beauchemin) 

We’re sitting here on the 10th floor in my office in downtown Jerusalem. My kids go to school 200 metres away from here. My wife works another 200 metres away. And in our own private Bermuda triangle, we’ve had 10 suicide bombers. It’s very interesting. The Israeli public, in the convulsive terror up until a year ago, craved fence. And the craving for a fence, I think, was based mostly on psychology and is very understandable psychology. The first intifada destroyed the credibility of the greater Israel movement. The second intifada destroyed the credibility of the peace process, and people are desperate for something to do that will get us out of this, you know. If only we now put up a fence, things will be better.

In June 2002, the Israeli government approved the 2 billion dollar security fence project. Work began shortly afterwards. So far 150 kilometres of the 700-kilometre barrier have been erected. The Israeli Defence Forces, the IDF, regularly organise tours for foreign journalists. Major Barry Spielman meets us near Highway 6, the busy motorway that runs close to the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank.

You need to look at the fence as a zone, OK? We call it the seam zone. But it’s not just the fence. The fence is part of an apparatus which goes across about 10 yards, which includes the following things. On one side – let’s call it the Palestinian side – you have barbed wire and signs that you just saw a couple of minutes ago that warn that people that to walk in this direction, you’re endangering your life. In other words, there shouldn’t be any people that are innocent that are crossing it because they’ve been told very clearly that this place is off-limits. Past the barbed wire, you have yourself a ditch in many cases which will prevent cars from going across. Then you’ll have a dirt road which is similar to the road that you see along borders in which you can track if people walk across. Then you’ll have an asphalt road, and the asphalt road will be there so that our army patrol can drive across. Remember that the fence is part of an overall security doctrine: our army is operating on the other side of the fence. It’s not a border. It’s not meant to be a border. It can be moved. Then following that you’ll have another dirt road and then following that you have your electronic fence, not an electric fence. You do not get electrocuted if you touch the fence, but it’s an electronic fence which will give a signal which is picked up in a command and control centre like the one you saw and immediately people know, we know where it is. And then there’s all types of other things, such as cameras that are located in various different places that have an overall view of it. That together is the entire seam zone and the army is going to get there and the intention is to stop potential terrorists across the fence because once he gets across the fence, and there’s nothing between him and our civilian population, just like it was the situation before there was a fence. Unless there’s a miracle, he’s going to blow himself up and kill people.

The Wall with Highway 6 in the background
The Wall with Highway 6 in the background (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: You said that 3.8% of the fence is walled. Can you describe what this wall consists of? How high is the wall and I also see that there are watch towers there. There are several watch towers along the way. I don’t know how high it is. I think 8 metres it could be. But it’s not small. It’s pretty high. But it’s only along the area here of which Qalqilya borders Highway 6. The area that it doesn’t border Highway 6, on this side and north of it, there’s no wall. It goes back to a chain-linked fence. The wall has only been put in the place where it’s absolutely necessary. And it’s not paranoia. From these apartments here, the people shot across the way and there were casualties over here.

This is the only glimpse most Israelis ever get of the security fence, but from the Israeli side here along Highway 6, it looks more like an earthen embankment used along many motorways to block traffic noise. I’m on my way north to visit Yael Ben-Ya’acov, one of the few Israelis who has to deal with the security barrier on a daily basis. She lives together with 200 people in Mevo Dotan, a Jewish settlement in the far north of the West Bank. When I arrive at the security fence, IDF soldiers advise me to wait for the army escort that leaves every hour. There are a few kilometres of olive groves before the road climbs up the hill on which Mevo Dotan is located. Over the past four years, four settlers have been killed on this road, the last one only four months ago.

At the beginning, 1987, they’ve started with stones, so we changed the windows of our cars from glass to plastic. And now we are going with cars – not my car – but there is a car here in the settlement that is armed against bullets. And then they start to put bombs on the road. So then we will go with tanks and then we will go…. Where will it end?

Yael Ben-Ya’acov
Yael Ben-Ya’acov (© Eric Beauchemin)

Yael Ben-Ya’acov is one of the people who founded Mevo Dotan 27 years ago. For over a year now, she and the other settlers have had to pass the security fence whenever they leave Mevo Dotan.

It is not convenient for me to live behind the fence. Just a week ago, my son was here with his children, and 5 minutes before the escort was, one of the children needed something. So they had to wait one hour more. And from time to time, you come and the road is closed. And you have to wait by the fence for an hour or two or three hours if the road is closed, and you cannot go in. It’s not convenient for me. I have also civil rights!

A few years ago, when the Israeli Ministry of Defence was planning the route of the fence, many of the residents of Mevo Dotan asked for their settlement to be included on the Israeli side of the barrier. But Ya’acov disagreed. She feels that Mevo Dotan and the rest of the West Bank belong to the state of Israel.

I think that Mevo Dotan should be included in the state of Israel. I am a citizen of the state of Israel, and I want to be part of the state of Israel. EB: What does the security fence represent for you? Isolation. People that are committing suicide, they cannot be buried with everybody in the cemetery, but they bury them near the fence or behind the fence. EB: Why? Because they did something that is wrong. My feeling is now that I’m behind the fence because they made a barrier between me and between my friends living in Shaked and other places.

The man in charge of the security fence project is Nezah Mashiah. I meet him at the Ministry of Defence headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv.

The route was planned and designed by Central Command of the Israel Defence Force, after they find the route that is best for protecting Israeli citizens. At the end of the day, the government approved all the route of the security fence.

It is this route which has been condemned by Palestinians, some Israelis and much of the rest of the world. In July, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that the Wall – the term it used in its advisory opinion to the United Nations General Assembly – was illegal. Some sections of the barrier have been built on Israeli land, but 85% of the structure is on the Palestinian side of the 1967 Armistice Line. I ask Mr Mashiah why.

It’s an issue for agreements between Israel and when it will be Palestinian State. Now it’s under security. When it will be needed – if it will be needed – fence can be moved. People, we can’t raise them from their graves and be alive again. Fence can be moved. We moved fence after peace agreement with Jordan. We moved fence after peace agreement with Egypt. We moved fence after getting out from Lebanon. We moved the fence. It’s not a big issue. For peace, moving fence is nothing.

But in the meantime, the barrier and the Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank are creating irreversible facts on the ground, and growing numbers of Israelis are worried. One of them is Professor Gadi Algazi, a historian at Tel Aviv University and a peace activist.

Gadi Algazi
Gadi Algazi (© Eric Beauchemin)

The Wall can be demolished, but it is built in an agrarian context. It’s not the Berlin Wall, which means that within three years it can destroy the income and the way of life of village communities. Palestinians are directly affected, losing their access to the lands, losing access to water, to water wells, losing the possibility to move about, destroying whole networks of the flow of people and of merchandise. It’s a system of control. It’s a system of expropriation that is sold or presented as a means to achieve personal security for Israelis. It has nothing to do with it.

Only a minority of Israelis would agree with Professor Algazi’s views. But they are gaining ground in some circles, even in Israel’s military establishment. Earlier this year, four former heads of the Israeli intelligence service declared their opposition to the security fence. It was an unheard of public disavowal of government policy. The courts too are getting involved. In February of this year, a group of Israelis from the town of Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem, joined the inhabitants of neighbouring Palestinian villages such as Beit Surik and Biddu in petitioning Israel’s High Court to move the fence. Hagai Agmon-Snir was one of the people involved in the case.

Hagai Agmon-Snir
Hagai Agmon-Snir (© Eric Beauchemin)

We decided – it was a very brave point by then – to join the petition to the Supreme Court, and 30 of us came to my house and we just signed a petition and joined the appeal to the Supreme Court and that’s where the story starts. EB: Why did you feel so strongly about it, you yourself? We were thinking that one important thing in stopping terror is to make the residents of Beit Surik not so miserable because what they were planning to do at Beit Surik was closing them in a ghetto without their agricultural land. We are talking about people who work, who are really farmers and from a very quiet village who were not involved in terror in all these years, the meaning of that will be that they will be involved in terror. So even from the security point of view we emphasized that it’s a very wrong route.

It was an argument that impressed the High Court judges, particularly since Israelis were making it.

It took the court almost two months to work on the story and analysing it for themselves. I must say that we were surprised to see that the Supreme Court – it was a very rare move in Israel – the Supreme Court didn’t agree with the Ministry of Defence and agreed with us eventually. Everybody was shocked about it. It was a great surprise. In Israel it was very hard to make people understand that there’s two issues to speak about: one of them is if there’s a need to have a fence or a barrier or whatever name you want to call it and a second issue: what is going to be the route. And whenever someone was talking about changing the route, people say oh, you are against the fence. And we succeeded to make this differentiation, to make people understand that we need to talk about the route and it’s another issue to speak about the fence, and the Supreme Court agreed with that.

Joshua Ben-David
Joshua Ben-David (© Eric Beauchemin)

The court’s ruling sent shockwaves through the country and forced the Ministry of Defence to review the route of other segments of the barrier. This has left many settlers up in the air, as I heard from Joshua Ben-David. He lives in Peduel about 40 kilometres from Tel Aviv.

We’re located in a village that really overlooks the entire coastal plain and Ariel Sharon himself used to come out and visit and talk about the strategic importance of this area in preventing attacks on the coastal plain of Israel. So we alternate between being pretty certain that we will be included in Israel and being not at all certain. EB: Do you want to be in? I’m an Israeli.

I say now that when we do our barriers around our villages, we get ourselves into a ghetto and I think it’s a bad thing.

Yael Hashash is another resident of Peduel.

Yael Hashash
Yael Hashash (© Eric Beauchemin)

I think we have to fight for our land. I really think we have to fight our land. I feel that it’s my land, and it will be very bad to us or to our families or to relatives who live on the shore if we gave up here. But when you say fight for the land, which land, up until where? To my opinion for everywhere the Jewish stay. Everywhere. There are settlements throughout the occupied territories. EB: Does that mean fighting up until the Jordan River? I wish that we doesn’t have to do it. I really wish. But today when we saw the way they fight us and they kill our families and our men and our relatives, I think we have to fight. They don’t let us any other choice.

Hashash’s belief that war against the Palestinians is the only solution represents a minority view. But tensions within the right-wing of Israeli public opinion have increased because of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to pull all the settlers out of the Gaza Strip, which Zionists consider part of Judea and Samaria, the historical land of Israel. Rabi Seth Mandell is one of those who opposes the withdrawal. He’s the director of the Coby Mandell Foundation in Jerusalem. The foundation is named after his son, who was murdered three years ago by Palestinians in a cave 500 metres from the family home.

As a result of the fence, 700 families in the Gaza Strip are being evacuated. Some would call it ethnic cleansing. That causes a tremendous amount of anger amongst a wide swath of the population who supports them. There’s somewhere around 7000 people who are going to be affected by it.

Rabbi Seth Mandell
Rabbi Seth Mandell (© Eric Beauchemin)

He fears that the disengagement plan and the fence are part of a much bigger scheme.

The root of the security fence is what’s called the demographic problem. And clearly, what they want to do is have as many Jewish citizens of Israel on the Israeli side of the security fence as possible. EB: But when you look at other settlements in the West Bank, these are not included with in the fence and at the same time, there are Israelis there and there are no plans to move them. I think that’s true in the short run. I think that many of those communities will be on the other side of the fence, and I would not be confident that as time goes on, those communities are also not moved to the Israeli side of the fence. I don’t think this is the end of the process. I think this is the beginning of the process. It may take a few years, but I believe that probably most of the settlements that are in the outlying districts will be in fact evacuated in the long run. That’s going to have a tremendous effect on the community. There’s no question about it.

It’s in Jerusalem – the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that the barrier faces the biggest challenges.

Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem are akin to Siamese twins that share vital and less vital organs. And the actual attempt to create a physical separation barrier is always going to be a very problematic choice.

Danny Seidemann deals with the consequences of the fence on a daily basis. He’s an attorney who specialises in relations between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem.

The route of the fence in Jerusalem is based on a number of conceptions and all of them are problematic. One of the conceptions is the municipal line as determined by Israel in 1967 unilaterally and not recognised by anybody else, and much of the fence in the Jerusalem area follows that once fictitious line. Now people don’t live according to this dotted line on the map. So we’re separating Palestinian from Palestinian and kids from their schools, workers from their places of employment, and much of the fence was determined and its route in a way that was oblivious to the complexities on the ground. Other parts of the fence have been determined to establish an Israeli sphere of influence over greater Jerusalem, to consolidate our hegemony over the public domain. Other parts of the fence – and this is a case that is pending and very problematic – the route cuts deeply into the city of Jerusalem in order to put some 30,000 Palestinians on the other side of the fence in order to reduce the number of Palestinians in the city.

As I look out from the window of Seidemann’s 10th story office, I can see how the fence and the settlers are changing the make-up of what has long been known as:

Jerusalem, the undivided capital of Israel that will never be re-divided and that’s one word.

On the Palestinian side of the Wall in Jerusalem
On the Palestinian side of the Wall in Jerusalem (© Eric Beauchemin)

Traditionally, the western part of the city was Jewish, the eastern part Arab. But for over a decade, Jews have been settling in the eastern part of the city, and settlements are being built behind them, deep in Palestinian territory. Where the settlements go, so does the fence.

One of the things that I think we have forgotten, I think, is that a credible ceasefire is much better than any physical barrier. Palestinians will always be able to hurt us, so that the fence is not going to be effective in Jerusalem in the long run. It may stabilise the situation of a critically wounded patient, but it won’t get us better. As a tool is legitimate, as an ideology it’s folly.

It’s unbelievable, but there is no real way to finish the Wall in Jerusalem right now that will really be maintainable, which will be something that people will be able to live with for a while, for a few years. And this is something that the Ministry of Defence may not formally agree, but they understand it very well. There is no correct way to put the fence. It’s a wall in Jerusalem, to put this wall in Jerusalem. EB: So what does that mean in the longer term for Jerusalem? It’s a very good question. You know, we succeeded to make the situation so complex, sometimes because we wanted to make it complex. Some of the idea of the settlements was to complicate the situation. You know, now we say it’s very complex, but we made it complex in some sense.

Most Israelis have never crossed checkpoints like this one to see what it’s like on the other side of the fence. Seidemann regularly has to to consult with his Palestinian clients. But the fence is making even business contacts between Israelis and Palestinians increasingly difficult.

I’m not allowed to visit Bethlehem. They’re not allowed to visit Jerusalem. So when we meet, I go to the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and flatter the border patrol guards so that they will let me meet in the 200-metre space between the northern part of the checkpoint and the southern part of the checkpoint, and I will stand under the glaring sun. I say would you like to come into my conference room? Can I offer you a cup of coffee? There is no neutral meeting ground where Israelis and Palestinians can really meet. I represent 20,000 residents in the northern part of the city who live inside the city of Jerusalem but outside the fence. When I visited the neighbourhood in order to examine their problems and to meet with the residents, I was detained on my way back for illegally entering my nation’s capital.

There are almost a quarter of a million Palestinians living in Jerusalem and most of them are going to be on the Israeli side of the fence. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem have not participated in any significant numbers in the violent, deadly aspects of the intifada. And that’s not because they are Israelis. It is because there is a delicate ecosystem here. It is my fear that by building the fence the way we are, we are preventing the suicide bomber from coming into the city from outside at the expense of radicalisation of the population of East Jerusalem. And if indeed my forecast is correct we will miss the placid days that we had in 2000 to 2004 where hundreds of people were killed here in Jerusalem. We’re living on the edge of a volcano.

On Monday, there was another suicide bombing in Tel Aviv: 4 people were killed, including the 16-year-old suicide bomber. More than 30 were injured.

Many Israelis, particularly young people, tell me that they no longer read the newspapers, watch the news on TV or listen to the radio. They’re too tired of the violence, the anger, and the politics. Idit is one of them. She’s a 35-year-old architect who lives in Tel Aviv.

Even the wall in Berlin had a meaning. It was really obvious from one side. And here there is no difference between both sides of the wall. They took tge map. They sketched a line and built the wall. It has the same people, I mean the same culture on both sides.

Revital, 30-year-old Arab-Israeli living in Jaffa
Revital, 30-year-old Arab-Israeli living in Jaffa (© Eric Beauchemin)

My name is Revital. I’m an Arab-Israeli, and I live in Jaffa, it’s nearby Tel Aviv. I think this wall protects them psychologically. It doesn’t protect them physically. They want to believe it. They know inside that it doesn’t work, but they want to believe it and that relaxes them for now. So it’s OK. I can understand it of course because I go in the bus every morning where I can be in a bombing. He won’t see that I am Palestinian or Arab. I have the same danger here. I live this danger.

The Israeli government has to give answers to the people of Israel to give them security, to give them solutions, and they really don’t know [laugh] what to do. It’s a problem. It’s a problem because we are this round of terrorism, we really can’t end it.

Tommy is 26 and lives in Tel Aviv.

We just paranoid. You know, Israeli people in 50 years, we just got very paranoid here, after the Holocaust and everything. It’s really difficult to build a country in 50 years when you are surrounded with all of this anger. I think we need therapy here. We need some big psychology, like aliens that will come here and do counselling. Or maybe we need to smoke a lot of pot here, the Palestinians and the Israelis.

I think Israelis prefer something that they know, and it’s war. If you see all the leaders in Israel, in the 20 or 30 years, they are all generals. So you may say that it’s the army that controls Israel. It’s the army. They hit, we hit, and when I say we, I mean Israel because I’m inside Israel but I have family in Palestine. I have friends. and it’s very difficult for me to see that they are killing each other because we are family.

Shai (28) shares a flat with Tommy (26)
Shai (28) shares a flat with Tommy (26) (© Eric Beauchemin)

A lot of people that talk about territories, I think that they miss the point because it is better to live in a small country but better life than have more land and to suffer – I don’t know – let other people be without land, without country. We could have lived really happy. Maybe I’m too romantic person, but I really feel that’s not the way.

My name is Shai and I’m 32. You get to see it when you live here that all the actions here is like taken from Hollywood movies, to make it spectacular. It’s the Holy Land. It has to be like with the Hollywoodland. It has to be with a lot of fighting and a lot of blood and a lot of tears and a lot of drama and tragedy.

You know, when I was a kid I liked very much the band Pink Floyd and the Wall, the famous record. I grew up on this material. It seems very stupid for me to build walls. You build a fence, you have to tear it down some day because there are people here. They are living here. There will always be people here. And they have to find a solution to live together, you know. They don’t have to. They will because there is no other way. I don’t see other way.

“On the Edge of a Volcano” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.