Talking to a Wall

Israel’s high court removes a legal brick from the world’s most infamous wall.


Earlier this year, when the International Court of Justice concluded three days of hearings on the legality of Israel’s West Bank separation wall, the Israeli government declared that it would ignore whatever decision the 15-judge panel handed down. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cannot just brush off the ruling delivered by the Israeli Supreme Court this week. While the high court declined to declare the wall illegal, as some had hoped, they did conclude that the planned route was unjust.

The decision — in which the court has ordered the
military to reroute

20 miles of the controversial wall
separating Jerusalem from
the West Bank — is a defeat for Sharon and a victory for Palestinian farmers who would have been cut off from their land by the wall. Just as importantly, it is an indication that the blanket justifications offered by Sharon are not as universally embraced as Israeli hawks might have thought.

The Supreme Court
sided with Palestinian villagers and residents of a
Jerusalem suburb who joined them, ruling that: “The route
that the military commander established for the security
fence … injures the local inhabitants in a severe and
acute way while violating their rights under humanitarian
and international law.” The justices went on to say that the
military’s “current balance between security considerations
and humanitarian considerations is disproportionate” and
that

“reduction in security must be endured for the sake of
humanitarian considerations.”

While the ruling focused on a small section of the wall, it has
set a precedent for more than 20 similar court cases
currently pending. Just about a quarter of the wall — which
is expected to stretch for some 480 miles — has been completed. By, in effect,
shredding the argument that Israel’s security needs give the military a
blank check to build the wall anywhere it sees fit, the Court’s decision will force the military
to alter some of its planned construction. As

Mohammed Dahleh, the lawyer for the Palestinian
villagers put it:

“This decision is more important than the
one at The Hague because this one will be followed… It
says that the wall as it is being built is illegal and there
is another way to build it that will give security to Israel
but won’t violate Palestinian rights.”

Indeed, soon after the
Court ruling,
the military issued a statement that:

“The defense establishment respects the judgment of the
Supreme Court concerning those sections of the security
fence that require replanning. The replanning of these
sections will be based on the proper balance between
security and humanitarian considerations.”

The Court did not rule that the construction of the wall
was itself illegal. It avoided that question, arguing that
both sides did adequately address it, and that it would
inappropriate for the Court to rule on the matter. The justices rejected the contention of the
Palestinian residents that the wall was illegal
under international law because the reasons for its
construction were political, siding with the military’s argument that
its construction was security-driven. The government has also
pointed out that the court sided with the military in justifying the seizure
of land for the wall’s construction. But
as the Israeli newspaper


Maariv
points out, “Justice Barak was quoted throughout the
deliberations as saying that he would like to enlarge the
deliberations to the greater question of the legality of the
entire security barrier.” And that can’t be good news for
the government.

The wall, known as the fence, known as the security
barrier, has become the world’s most controversial barrier
since the Berlin Wall. The Israeli government insists that
is necessary to secure Israel from suicide bombers from the
West Bank, but those affected by it, say that it destroying
communities and playing into the hands of extremist groups
like Hamaas. The wall has already divided villages, towns,
farmers from their farmland, and family members from one
another. In this month’s issue of

Mother Jones, Chris
Hedges documents the devastating impact the wall’s
construction on the town of

Qalqiliya:

“Qalqiliya is a ghetto. It is completely surrounded by the
wall, with one small Israeli manned checkpoint to let its
residents pass into the West Bank or return home. Only those
with special Israeli-issued permits can enter the town.
Before the wall was built, 42,000 people lived here. Mayor
Marouf Zahran says at least 6,000 have left since the
Intifada. The unemployment rate is close to 70 percent. …
Qalqiliya feels like a plague town, quarantined, which may
not be far from the truth. After suicide bombers slipped
into Israel from here, Israeli officials reportedly began to
refer to it as a ‘hotel for terrorists…’

There are hundreds of acres of farmland on the other side of
the wall, some of the best in the West Bank, and that land
now is harder and harder to reach given the gates,
checkpoints, and closures. The 32 farming villages on the
outskirts of Qalqiliya are cut off from their land. Olive
groves, with trees hundreds of years old, have been
bulldozed into the ground. The barrier is wiping out the
middle class in the West Bank, the last bulwark here against
Islamic fundamentalism. It is plunging the West Bank into
the squalor that defines life in the Gaza Strip, where
Palestinians are struggling to survive on less than $2 a
day. It will create perhaps 80 ghettos.”

The outcome of the deep poverty and daily humiliation
that the residents of the new ghettos created by the wall
are subjected to, should not be a mystery to the Israeli
government. Yet Sharon keeps insisting
that Israel can somehow seal itself off from suicide
bombings, be it via the wall or plans to unilaterally
withdraw from the Gaza Strip. The fiction that Sharon
perpetuates is that peace can be achieved not by negotiating
with the Palestinians, but by acting as if they are not
there at all. It is a fiction that many, including


Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer
— who
recently declared that the “Palestinian intifada is over”
and that Israel won — perpetuate. This alleged victory,
according to Krauthammer, came about because Israel carried
out a series of “targeted assassinations” on leaders of
extremist Palestinian groups (though not so targeted when
you consider the number of civilians killed in the process)
and of course, by building the wall.

Krauthammer
argues
that:

“Arafat failed, spectacularly. The violence did not bring
Israel to its knees. Instead, it created chaos, lawlessness
and economic disaster in the Palestinian areas. The
Palestinians know the ruin that Arafat has brought, and they
are beginning to protest it. He promised them blood and
victory; he delivered on the blood.

Even more important, they [the Palestinians] have lost their
place at the table. Israel is now defining a new equilibrium
that will reign for years to come — the separation fence is
unilaterally drawing the line that separates Israelis and
Palestinians. The Palestinians were offered the chance to
negotiate that frontier at Camp David and chose war instead.
Now they are paying the price.”

PLO’s missteps and its rampant corruption must be acknowledged,
but the Israel is only
boosting Arafat’s popularity by keeping him secluded in
Ramallah and throwing out thinly-veiled assassination threats against him. Israel has
made martyrs out of the extremist leaders it assassinated,
boosting the recruitment efforts of Hamaas & Company. The wall — inadvertantly — is serving
the same function. Krauthammer’s declaration of intifada’s end is incredibly premature, as is
his insistence of Israel’s “victory.”

The Sharon government has made it clear that is above
negotiating with the Palestinians, but in its ruling, Israel’s
Supreme Court has made it equally clear that Sharon is not
above the law. By recognizing that the country’s security
considerations do not outweigh the humanitarian ruin
inflicted by the wall’s construction, the Court marked a victory for
Israeli democracy. It can only be hoped that the Court’s ruling will force Sharon government’s to
move beyond its obsession with unilaterism, which is proving
as effective as talking to a wall.