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The Separation Wall
Security, Grabbing Land, Strangling Palestinians

One month after Israel’s March 2002 launch of a large-scale military operation in the West Bank , the Israeli government approved the construction of a wall to isolate the West Bank from the Israeli territory along the Jordanian–Israeli Armistice Line of 1949 . The decision took place during the al-Aqsa Intifada , which ignited on 28 September 2000 and continued for a few years. When Israel announced its decision, it claimed that the main goal of the “security fence” was to protect Israelis from attacks by Palestinian militants.

The Initial Idea

The idea of building a wall was first posed in 1994, when Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin proposed a “national separation” between Palestinians and Israelis, following a bombing on an Israeli bus in Tel Aviv on 19 October. About two months later, the idea of national separation was again proposed after a second bombing in Netanya on 22 January 1995; this time separation would be maintained through a security fence that would separate both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip from Israel. At that time, the Palestinians did not attach much importance to such plans because the Oslo Agreement was supposed to give the Palestinians in the West Bank their full rights within five years. However, with the breakdown of confidence in the peace process, and then the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in late September 2000, the Israeli government, headed by Ehud Barak , decided in November 2000 to draw up plans for building a security fence that would stop the passage of cars. The proposed fence was to run from the northwestern part of the West Bank to its center in al-Latrun region.

The election of Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister at the beginning of 2001 led to the postponement of laying the groundwork for the wall, because of his long-standing opposition to the idea of separation between Israel and the West Bank. Since the 1970s, Sharon had believed that any kind of physical separation would undermine the expansion and proliferation of Israeli settlements into West Bank territory and would prevent them from being able to surround the Palestinian towns and cities and from turning the latter into isolated population centers. When he was handed the portfolio of the Ministry of Agriculture and assumed chairmanship of the Cabinet Committee for Settlement Affairs , during the first term of the Likud government headed by Menachem Begin (1977–1981), Sharon had drawn up a comprehensive plan to cut off Palestinian population centers from Israeli territory by seizing control of the largest area of land possible in the West Bank, especially agricultural land and land rich in water resurces.

The escalation of the Second Intifada during 2001 led to a change in Sharon’s position while Prime Minister toward accepting in principle the idea of building a physical barrier that would prevent Palestinians from entering the territories occupied in 1948. In June 2001, he decided to form a special committee to study the idea and put forward proposals aimed at preventing the “infiltration” of Palestinians into Israeli territory. On 18 July, the Cabinet Committee for Security Affairs approved proposals that were essentially similar to the plan that Barak had approved in November 2000 and added to it the notion that the barrier in certain locations would prevent the passage of Palestinians even on foot. In the following months, work began to construct metal barriers to block the passage of cars; placing obstacles that would prevent the passage of pedestrians was ignored.

Launch of the Project

With the rise in armed operations carried out by Palestinians inside Israeli territory, the Israeli government approved on 14 April 2002 a definitive plan for a separation wall, whose details and route were published by the Israeli Ministry of Defense. The task of construction was entrusted to the Army’s Department of Strategic Regional Planning , under the supervision of the seniormost engineers for security planning. They were led by Danny Tirza , a specialist in cartography, who in 1994–95 had been involved in the planning that divided the West Bank into three geographical fragments called Areas A , B , and C , in what came to be known subsequently as the Oslo Agreements .

The wall was designed to have a height varying from four to eight meters in some areas and to make use of barbed and electrified wire at times and reinforced concrete at other times. (Both were used in some areas.) There were trenches under the wall, in addition to watchtowers equipped with surveillance and motion-sensing systems to limit the possibility of a breach and infiltration by pedestrians into the Israeli territory. It was also decided that the zone of the wall would range in width from 50 to 160 meters on both sides, to include dirt and sand roads that would allow for the tracing and tracking of breaches with the help of search patrols and digital tracking systems.

The guiding principles that accompanied the selection of the wall’s map could be summarized as follows:

- The wall would be inside the West Bank and not along the 1949 armistice line, so as to enable the Israelis to annex the largest possible area of land from the West Bank, including springs of water, farmlands, critical areas, and natural resources. The area located between the wall and the armistice line would be called the “seam zone.”

- Special attention was to be paid to the section of the wall in the “Jerusalem Envelope ” region, so as to expand the area of the so-called “Greater Jerusalem ” and make its status as the State of Israel’s capital immutable.

- The seam zone would be widened in order to take in the largest possible number of Israeli settlements (a total of 71 settlements, with a population of more than half a million settlers as of 2022). This would be done in coordination with the settlement councils, so as to ensure they were geographically contiguous with Israeli territory and annexed to the State of Israel as part of any future resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

- Issuing demolition orders for homes whose location coincided with the route of the wall or its vicinity. In an attempt to further constrict the Palestinians and annex even more land in the future, a “Wall Exclusion Strip" would be created by fencing off buffer zones around the wall and prohibiting construction within them.

The Wall Map

The blueprint for the route the wall was to take was finalized by the Israelis in the spring of 2002, and it was to be implemented in three stages:

Stage 1. The construction of the wall would begin in regions considered sensitive by Israel: Jenin , Tulkarm , and Qalqilya , with actual length ranging between 150 and 167 kilometers. starting from the village of Salem in the north and extending until Azzoun al-Atma in the south and including the Greater Jerusalem region.

Stage 2. The planned settlements for the Bethlehem region (the Gush Etzion bloc) would be expanded, and the wall would run from the south of Jerusalem until the southernmost part of the Hebron Governorate, to act as a buffer between parts of Bethlehem city and its neighboring population centers, thus isolating Bethlehem almost completely.

Stage 3. In the Jordan Valley region, a fence would be erected as a buffer between the West Bank and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan along the entire length of the Jordanian border, at a distance of approximately ten kilometers inside West Bank territory. This would transform the low-lying areas of the Jordan Valley, which is one of the West Bank’s most important agricultural regions, into a set of strategic security zones for Israeli military drills. It would also mean that Palestinians would be completely cut off from Jordan.

In the years that followed, the wall's route was altered a number of times. At the end of 2022, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated the actual length of the wall in the western part of the West Bank to be 713 kilometers, or more than double the length of the 1949 armistice line, of which only 13 percent is actually located on the armistice line while 85 percent of the wall is located inside West Bank territory (see map in the related content). Nearly 65 percent of the wall had been completed by the end of 2022, with plans to accelerate the completion of the remainder and fortify an already-constructed 45 km-long segment in the northern part of the West Bank in response to Palestinian resistance operations since the beginning of 2022.

Impact of the Wall

The wall has had a disastrous effect on all aspects of Palestinian life. In 2002–2003, approximately 280–300 buildings that came in the path of the wall were demolished. According to UN data from 2005, the wall isolated 49,400 Palestinians in the seam zone. On the one hand, they did not have the right to enter Israeli territory, and on the other, they were cut off from the West Bank and were not allowed to access their communities or to reach public services in West Bank cities and return to their homes, except with special permits and through gates built into the wall. This Israeli policy has forced many of them to leave their lands and houses and move further inside the West Bank. UN data for 2022 indicates that the number of residents remaining in the seam zone decreased to 11,000 (49,400 in 2005). At the end of 2022, there were 150 communities of Palestinians living east of the wall whose farmlands, grazing pastures, and sources of water are located within the seam zone, who also require “visitor permits” to access their land through the aforementioned gates.

Israel sets tough criteria for granting such permits and grants them to less than 20 percent of those in need of them. It controls the gates (which numbered 69 in 2022) so that they only open for crossing at specific times, and most of them only open during October and November. Moreover, farmers cannot bring certain tools or materials with them, such as agricultural tools, seeds, and fertilizers. All of these restrictions have led to a decrease or even loss of the crops that farmers were able to harvest before the construction of the wall (a decrease that has reached 60 percent, according to the UN).

The wall has blocked access to approximately 2,700 industrial and agricultural establishments and facilities, forcing some owners to shut them down due to the inability of their owners or workers to access them. The construction of the wall also damaged or destroyed approximately 5,500 other establishments located close to the wall, including industrial workshops, greenhouses, orchards, agricultural buildings, and artesian wells, as well as olive, citrus, and almond trees. The wall has surrounded 28 Palestinian population centers from three directions (whose population totals 125,000 people) and eight others from all four directions (with a population of 26,000), connected to the rest of the West Bank through a tunnel or a special access road. It is also worth noting that the construction of the wall has cut off more than 2,800 archaeological sites within the seam zone; it is no longer possible to visit or restore them, and in many instances they have been looted.

The social impacts of the wall result from restricted access to workplaces, public facilities, and services and from the arbitrary actions of Israeli soldiers and settlers alike. In the domain of mobility, the fragmentation of territorial connectivity has led to an increase in transportation costs and time spent commuting. For example, under normal circumstances, it would take only five minutes to travel between the two neighboring towns of al-Ram and Bir Nabala (north of Jerusalem), but the building of the wall has lengthened the distance between them so much that going from one to the other takes approximately one hour. On education, schools have been cut off from their students behind the wall, or even demolished, which has led to a rise in school dropouts. As to health, Palestinians' access to centers to obtain necessary medical care has been hampered, including the access of ambulance crews to them in cases of emergency. Regarding personal safety, the danger to people living in the vicinity of the wall has increased because of the violence, intimidation, and property destruction by soldiers and settlers. All of these factors, coupled with economic restrictions brought by the wall, have forced families to migrate or dispersed families and separated them from one another.

Shrinking of Available Farmland

Through the Separation Wall, Israel has managed to grab approximately 9 percent of the area of the West Bank and shrink the area of farmland there. In the 1970s, this farmland employed approximately 72 percent of the Palestinian workforce, but by 2020, this had dropped to less than 8 percent. The wall has annexed large swathes of fertile farmland, especially in the northern and western parts of the Tulkarm, Qalqiliya, and Salfit regions. The wall expropriated 37 square kilometers from the Tulkarm Governorate, 7 square kilometers from the Jenin Governorate, 77 square kilometers from the Qalqiliya Governorate, 105 square kilometers from the Salfit Governorate, 74 square kilometers from the Ramallah Governorate, 161 square kilometers from the Jerusalem Governorate, 71 square kilometers from the Bethlehem Governorate, and 20 square kilometers from the Hebron Governorate, in addition to lands confiscated from the Tubas and Jericho Governorates. The wall has also cut off nearly 320 springs of water, mostly spread over the Tulkarm, Qalqilya, and Salfit governorates, which has restricted the use of agricultural land and left some of them to eventually go fallow.

As is the case with the expansion of Israeli settlements and the construction of bypasse roads on Palestinian agricultural land, the wall has played a major role in inducing Palestinian farmers to change professions and work in Israel, especially given the relatively high wages they make compared to wages for laborers inside the West Bank. The number of Palestinian workers inside Israel in 2022 was estimated at almost 200,000 from the various governorates of the West Bank, up from 120,000 in 2000. At the same time, the decline in the use of agricultural land for farming has led to a decline in the volume of Palestinian agricultural produce in local markets. Local Palestinian markets have been flooded with Israeli produce from Israel and from the settlements established on West Bank land, which is sometimes sold at lower prices. This has led to a vicious cycle, compounding losses for Palestinian farmers and forcing more of them to abandon their land.

Since 2002, the Israeli government has succeeded in erecting large portions of the wall, and Palestinian struggle has only resulted in rerouting it slightly. The international community has been timid in its opposition, though the International Court of Justice in the advisory opinion it issued on 9 July 2004 considered the wall to be in contravention with international law.

Overall Chronology
E.g., 2024/04/14
E.g., 2024/04/14

The Oslo Process And The Establishment Of The Palestinian Authority

1994

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

The Al-Aqsa Intifada and the End of an Era in Palestinian Politics

2000

2001

2002

2003

2004