It is known as a separation barrier, a security or an anti-terrorist fence or, as the International Court of Justice described it, a wall. When completed, it will be a 422-mile long physical barrier separating Israel from Palestine. Construction of the wall began in 2002 during the second intifada when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved it to protect Israel from suicide bombers. The wall’s exact location and route and its precise role in reducing terrorist attacks remain controversial.
The wall functions as an obvious physical barrier separating Jew from Palestinian, reflecting their tense and often violent relationship and the perceived Israeli need to remain apart. As a result, the wall greatly diminishes physical contact and cultural exchange between these two peoples. This is an ominous development. The reduced level of personal, professional and cultural interaction means that ordinary citizens on both sides have less experience and understanding of one another as flesh and blood individuals. Each side becomes a suspicious and feared and an increasingly unknown “other”. This allows Jews and Palestinians to more readily vilify and demonize one another as less interpersonal contact enables ugly and derogatory prejudices and stereotypes to flourish on both sides, unchecked by the wisdom embedded in actual relationships.
The political consequence of this cannot be overemphasized. As negative stereotypes abound, intolerant and even hateful rhetoric becomes an increasingly accepted part of the cultural landscape. Political discourse about the underlying conflict becomes more harsh and inflexible, reinforcing the intransigent positions of hardliners on both sides. In turn, the spirit of accommodation and compromise vital to any productive and successful negotiation to engineer a durable peace agreement becomes difficult to nurture and sustain. We believe this has already occurred on both sides.
We believe the wall has also engendered a false sense of security that reduces a sense of urgency in Israel to negotiate a final settlement. It contributes to what we perceive as an arrogant swagger by members of the ruling Israeli cabinet in response to John Kerry’s recent efforts to promote constructive dialogue. We remain worried about the rigid and unrealistic postures of the current Israeli government that help explain why there has been no concerted effort to broker a peace deal with Mahmoud Abbas, who still represents Israel’s only viable partner in any peace negotiation.
But there is a profoundly disturbing irony here that is often overlooked. Jews have a long and tragic history with walls. What are we to make of a people once coerced to live in communities enclosed by walls but who now feel compelled to enclose themselves from their neighbors? Could those who fled Europe, escaping or surviving persecution and the Holocaust to settle in Israel, ever imagine the Jewish state building a wall to keep itself safe and secure? This would have been too awful to contemplate. We do not equate the Warsaw ghetto wall with the barrier separating Israel from Palestine but the latter conjures the horrifying return of a Jewish nightmare despite the persistent refrain of “never again” and expresses the grim political reality.
The presence of the wall reflects the chronic failure of both sides to meaningfully address the sources of their conflict. But it also represents a failure to recognize the shared humanity that transcends the divisions expressed by any wall or separation barrier, one that yearns to live in peace with safe and secure borders and with dignity and hopeful aspirations for the future. It is a humanity that lies fractured by the physical wall that, in turn, reflects the presence of many walls separating Israeli from Palestinian and Palestinian from Israeli. Who on either side will have the vision and the courage to assert that humanity and defy what continues to separate and condemn both peoples to endless, pointless violence?
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
The Editor of Delano