Ariel Sharon was once opposed to the building of a separation barrier in the West Bank. The idea of constructing a physical wall to separate West Bank Palestinians from Israeli Jews had long percolated in Israeli political circles, but Sharon was fearful that a barrier would become a permanent border, scuttling his dream of a Greater Israel.
When Sharon was elected Prime Minister in 2001, amidst the bloody Second Intifada, he changed his tune. One year later, he earned his nickname, “The Bulldozer,” by sending bulldozers to the West Bank to begin building the separation barrier, which was ruled illegal under international law in 2004 by the International Court of Justice. Sharon may be gone now, but the apparatus of separation he is responsible for remains.
The decision to build the barrier was sold to the Israeli public and the world as a surefire way to prevent the suicide bombings rocking Israel. But the route of the wall made clear that there were other important purposes that the barrier–consisting of a 25 foot high wall in some places along with fencing, trenches, thermal imaging and sniper towers–would fulfill. Sharon’s barrier snaked through the occupied West Bank, winding its way around some of the major settlement blocs Israel intended to annex eventually. In one fell swoop, the separation barrier added to Israel’s matrix of control by staunching the flow of Palestinian movement between the West Bank and Israel, creating a de facto border Israel would never give up and bolstering the Jewish demographic majority the state is so obsessed with.
The demographic reasons for building the separation barrier usually go unremarked on, but it was a crucial part of why it was built. (Demographics were also a part of why Israel “disengaged” from Gaza; too many Palestinians, too little land.) As Rene Backmann points out in his book A Wall In Palestine, Sharon was encouraged to build the separation barrier by Arnon Sofer, the top Israeli expert on demography who has been warning about the perils of too many Palestinians in the territories Israel controls for decades. After Sharon’s election in 2001, Sofer met with the new Prime Minister with his maps in hand. Sofer’s idea was that the West Bank should be divided into three cantons. Israel should unilaterally redraw the border to include 80 percent of Israeli settlers, with a fence encircling the three Palestinian “sausages,” according to Sofer. Two years after Sharon’s election, with the separation barrier’s construction in full swing, Sofer told Yedioth Ahronoth that the route of the barrier corresponds to his map.
The idea was to incorporate the Israeli Jews who live in the settlement blocs into Israel proper. That would bolster Israel’s Jewish demographic majority, and allow it to hold on areas it sees as giving it strategic depth to counter armed attacks. The settlement blocs also slice and dice up the West Bank, turning the landscape into a Swiss cheese block–Israel being the cheese, the holes being Palestinian areas in the West Bank, as the Alternative Information Centre’s Mikhael Warschawski put it.
Along the way, the separation barrier ran into problems: some settlers were left outside the wall’s route and it sparked Palestinian resistance. The barrier has also wreaked havoc on Palestinian lives, displacing families, cutting off farmers from their land and creating bizarre “seam zones” of Palestinian villages located on the Israeli side of the barrier.
Construction of the wall remains incomplete. Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel, for instance, are two settlement blocs that have yet to be surrounded by the wall.
But bulldozers could easily be sent to those areas if Israel ever decides to sign a peace agreement, with the barrier as the border. Indeed, that idea has become the prevailing sentiment among Israeli politicians.
Tzipi Livni, the official in charge of current negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, has repeatedly demanded that the barrier become the border. She should thank Sharon for making that idea a very real possibility.