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A portion of the Separation Wall by Qalqiliya. Photo: Reinhard Krause, Reuters, 7 July 2003
From the field

The Separation Barrier

In June 2002, the Israeli cabinet decided to construct the Separation Barrier. The decision was made following a long string of attacks perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis. The declared objective was preventing Palestinians without permits from entering Israel from the West Bank. However, the establishment of the barrier was also intended to serve other, undeclared aims. A key factor in determining the barrier’s route was the location of settlements, thereby laying the groundwork for the de facto annexation of most of the settlements and much land for their future expansion. The barrier thus became a major political instrument for furthering Israeli annexationist goals. It serves for Israeli takeover of almost 10% of the West Bank, to minimize the number of Palestinians living in the confines of the area between the barrier and the Green Line [the boundary between Israel’s sovereign territory and the West Bank], and also inflicts collateral damage on Palestinian communities living east of the barrier which, in effect, cuts them off from their land.

In constructing the Separation Barrier, Israel broke up contiguous Palestinian urban and rural blocs and severed inter-community ties that had been forged and cemented over the course of many generations; it imposed an arbitrary reconfiguration of space based on settlement boundaries and for the convenience of Israeli security forces.

About 85% of the barrier’s meandering route winds through the West Bank. In other words, it runs through the occupied territory, and is not located along the Green Line or in Israel proper (i.e., west of the Green line). This is in keeping with Israel’s longstanding policy of using the West Bank to serve its own needs and purposes, while disregarding the needs and rights of the local Palestinians. In constructing the barrier, Israel broke up contiguous Palestinian urban and rural blocs, severed inter-community ties that had been forged and cemented over the course of many generations, and abruptly imposed an arbitrary reconfiguration of space based on settlement boundaries and to suit the convenience of Israeli security forces.

The Separation Barrier was built in the style of a border barrier. For the most part, it consists of an electronic fence with paved paths, barbed-wire fences and ditches flanking it on either side. The barrier is about 60 meters wide on average. In urban areas – such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Qalqiliyah and Tulkarm – Israel constructed an eight to nine meter high concrete wall instead of this type of barrier. The concrete wall is a total of about 70 kilometers long.

The route of the barrier – including the sections already built, those under construction and those awaiting construction – is 712 kilometers long. That is more than twice as long as the Green Line, which is 320 kilometers long. If construction is completed along the entire planned route, 52,667.7 hectares of land – an area that is equal to 9.4% of the West Bank and includes the territories that Israel annexed to the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem – will be cut off from the West Bank.

According to figures provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of September 2017 some 460 kilometers (about 65% of the planned barrier) had been completed. Another 53 kilometers (about 7.5%) were under construction, and construction has yet to be started on some 200 kilometers.

When it erected the barrier, Israel cut off residents of some 150 Palestinian communities from their land – including farmland and pastureland – leaving the communities east of the barrier and their land on the other, between the barrier and the Green Line. By so doing, Israel blocked thousands of Palestinians from freely accessing and cultivating their land. Israel did install 84 gates in the completed sections of the barrier to theoretically enable the owners access to their lands. In practice, however, the gates obstruct access to the land and are largely there for the sake of appearances, making a show of enabling life to go on undisturbed as before. According to OCHA figures for 2016, only nine of these gates were opened daily; ten were opened only a few days a week and during the olive harvest season; and 65 gates were only opened for the olive harvest.

As a result of not having free access to their farmland, Palestinian landowners have been forced to abandon lucrative branches of farming that require daily, year-round cultivation, and many have replaced them with olive trees, one of the most durable crops in the region. Yet even olive trees suffer without regular cultivation. The trees grow sick, yield less fruit, and harvesting even these meager crops is greatly impeded by the thorny weeds whose wild growth among the trees cannot be checked by the farmers who do not have regular access to the land.

Israel refuses to grant permits to all of the Palestinians who wish to access their land. For example, the Civil Administration [the branch of the Israeli military designated to handle civil matters in Area C of the West Bank] does not allow extended families – ranging from great-grandparents to their great-grandchildren – to cultivate their plots together, which is the tradition in rural Palestinian areas. Instead, permits are issued only to the landowners, notwithstanding that they are often the most elderly members of the family. Requests for permits for younger, more able-bodied relatives are denied. Israel also imposes restrictions on bringing agricultural vehicles to the farmland, making it even harder to tend the crops efficiently and profitably.

When Israel does issue “farming work permits” to relatives or farmhands, it does so based on undisclosed eligibility criteria. Nor does it take into account individual needs or the particular agricultural conditions of that year. According to OCHA, only 58% of Palestinian applications were approved in 2016. For the most part, when applications were denied, the grounds cited were either alleged lack of security clearance or not meeting the standard of proof set by the Israeli authorities for the applicant’s ownership of the land or the applicant’s kinship to the landowner.

It is not only land that the Separation Barrier severed from the rest of the West Bank and its residents. There are some 11,000 Palestinians living in 32 communities that are now trapped between the Separation Barrier and the Green Line. This number does not include Palestinians living in areas annexed to the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. Virtually all aspects of life for the residents in these communities – including those in the enclave of Barta’ah a-Sharqiyah in the northwest of the West Bank, areas to the north and south of Tulkarm, areas to the north and south of Qalqiliyah, and small areas west of Hebron – are contingent on getting permits from the CA. Nearly all Palestinians over the age of 16 must obtain “permanent residency permits” in order to continue living in the homes that their families have lived in for generations. The permits are valid for a fixed period, ranging from a single day to two years. Permits must be constantly renewed before they expire so the permit-holders can keep living in their own homes. In contrast, Israeli citizens or non-Israeli Jews are allowed to enter these areas and stay in them freely, even if they have never previously set foot in the place.

For most of these communities – trapped between the Green Line and the Separation Barrier – the primary focus of their daily living remains east of the barrier, where work, health services, trade, culture and recreation are to be found. Therefore, in order to keep up any accustomed routine – including getting to work, visiting friends and family, or even going shopping – residents must cross checkpoints on a daily basis. Such restrictions on freedom of movement limit the access of rural populations to hospitals in neighboring cities; education suffers as many teachers who work in schools located in the enclaves live on the other side of the barrier; and important personal relationships must endure the strain of friends and relatives not being able – with very rare exceptions – to receive permits to pay a visit. Consequently, Palestinians living in the confines of the areas trapped between the barrier and the Green Line are very rarely able to host family and social gatherings in their own communities. Instead, they are compelled to hold celebrations such as weddings and birthday parties outside their communities, on the other side of the barrier.

The Separation Barrier in Jerusalem has completely sealed off the city from the rest West Bank, thereby stepping up East Jerusalem’s isolation from the areas of the West Bank that were not annexed to Israel. This end was achieved by planning the route so that it follow the municipal boundaries that Israel drew around Jerusalem in 1967 – which had virtually no practical implications until the barrier went up – in order to cement Israeli control over the annexed areas. In keeping with the same goal that governed the drawing of the city’s boundaries in 1967 – to annex as much land and as few Palestinians as possible – the route deviates from Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries in five areas: The barrier cuts off two areas which lie within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem – the area of Shu’fat Refugee Camp and the area of Kafr ‘Aqab – which are currently home to some 140,000 Palestinians. In three areas, the barrier extends beyond the municipal boundaries, de facto annexing undeveloped land, settlements and their environs to Jerusalem. As a result, the barrier’s route winds tortuously through the urban expanse, amounting to some 202 kilometers in the area of Jerusalem.

The route of the Separation Barrier extends into the West Bank, thereby fragmenting the West Bank, separating neighboring communities from each other and cutting them off from their land. The strain this puts on their survival, coupled with the blocked potential for sustainable development, serves to further entrench the annexation of the areas west of the barrier to Israel. In some of these areas – and the resultant enclaves – the number of Palestinians has dwindled as a result. The barrier has also impinged on longstanding trade ties forged over the years between Palestinian communities near the Green Line and Israeli citizens.

Israel’s Supreme Court gave its seal of approval to the construction of the barrier within the West Bank in its rulings on more than 150 petitions that challenged the very legality of the entire barrier as well as the lawfulness of particular sections. The justices accepted the state’s argument that the barrier is temporary, and that the route was planned based on security considerations alone. In doing so, they chose to ignore statements made by various officials concerning Israel’s geopolitical goals served by the barrier. Their rulings facilitated the violation of the rights of tens of thousands of Palestinians, in breach of international law. In two major rulings – one in the Beit Surik case in June 2004, and the other in the Alfei Menashe case in September 2005 – the Court clarified its position that erecting the barrier within occupied territory is lawful and raises no issues of authority. The Court held the main concern to be the question of proportionality: Does the planned route of the barrier cause disproportionate harm, in the Court’s eyes, to the rights of Palestinians? Most of the petitions in this matter were denied and, as a rule, the justices sanctioned the planned route, after establishing that the harm caused to the Palestinians was not excessive. Only in the case of several petitions did the Court order that certain alterations be made to the planned route.

On 9 July 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is seated in The Hague, gave its advisory opinion on the question of the legality of the Separation Barrier and its route. Unlike Israel’s Supreme Court, the ICJ determined that construction of the barrier within the West Bank is unlawful. Two of the reasons the ICJ gave for its decision were the attendant violation of the Palestinians’ human rights, and the fact that the settlements – which the route of the barrier is designed to aid in their annexation to Israel – were established in breach of international humanitarian law. In conclusion, the Court found that Israel must cease construction of the barrier, dismantle the parts of the barrier that were built inside the West Bank, and compensate the Palestinians who suffered losses as a result of the barrier.

The construction of the barrier within the West Bank has violated multiple human rights of the Palestinians who live on either side of it. Among other things, it curtails their freedom of movement, consequently impinging upon their rights to work, education, medical care, family life, earning a living and an adequate standard of living. The Palestinians’ collective right to self-determination is also violated, as the winding route of the barrier cuts into Palestinian space and breaks up the population living there.