Israelis occupy the West Bank and have built a great big wall to keep it out of sight. Both Wall and Occupation are invisible to Israeli society, another part of the longstanding regime of separation it was founded upon.
On May 27, 2022, as part of a panel about the Wall Israel built in the West Bank, I was asked to relate an Israeli perspective. The following is a lightly edited version of what I said.
I was asked to share with you how we experience the Wall on the Israeli side. While preparing, I asked some Israeli friends what they thought, too. The answer was simple, and matched my own impression: we don’t experience the Wall at all!
Most of us don’t live close to the wall, because it was built deep in the occupied West Bank, far from most Israelis. Actually, I grew up in Jerusalem, and the Wall passes through my home city. But it was never an issue for us. The government likes to say Jerusalem is “our united eternal capital”, because it is united under Israeli control. But Jerusalem is still divided: East and West, Arab and Jewish — and the wall does not cross through any Jewish-Israeli neighborhoods.
So in West Jerusalem, like in any Jewish town in Israel, we live a relatively normal life. The wall might as well be on another planet.
There is a pretty phrase in Hebrew: me’ever le-hararei hakhoshekh, literally “beyond the mountains of darkness”, meaning “in far-away lands.” It is often used ironically to talk about the parallel world half an hour’s drive away from central Tel Aviv: The world where the laws are made by military officers and it’s impossible to get a permit to build a new house or drill a new water well. The world where soldiers wake up a family in the middle of the night to take pictures of everyone, and remind them they are not free. The world where if you were born to the right nation, you enjoy full political and social rights; and if you were born to the wrong nation, not even your basic human rights are respected.
So it seems like the Wall is doing its job: the Wall is those “mountains of darkness”, turning our own military occupation into a far-away land, a place that has nothing to do with us, a place we can forget all about.
Thanks to the Wall, Israelis can violently dispossess and control another people without suffering the consequences: the inevitable resistance. But as we have seen again and again, recently too, that is not possible: One way or another, our violence comes back to bite us.
Separation and peace
When I was a child, before the Wall was built, I believed we needed a big wall. I remember saying things like “we can stay over here, they can stay over there, and with a wall they can’t come here and bomb us.” Or even that if we had a wall, whenever they attacked us, we could simply bomb their side of the wall mercilessly until they stopped.
In those years, it was hard to ignore the occupation, because attacks carried out by Palestinian resistance affected our everyday life within Israel. I remember the fear in those years. Taking a bus to school, worrying it would be the next one bombed… Being terrified of anyone on the bus who looked a little Arab…
I just wished that danger could be taken away, separated from my life.
I was not the only one. There was an Israeli “Peace Movement” which was very big for a while, in the nineties, and my parents were part of it too. And this was what that Peace Movement proposed: separation as a recipe for “peace”:
“We stay here, they stay there.”
“Two states for two nations.”
Many Israelis hoped that if we could just agree to split the country, we could stay separate, and Israelis would enjoy quiet and safety. Most of us were not so concerned what would happen with the Palestinians.
The meaning of separation
The word for separation in Hebrew is hafrada.
The word for separation in Afrikaans is apartheid.
Israeli politicians call the West Bank Wall things like “security barrier” or “separation fence”. I prefer the name “Apartheid Wall”. It makes clear what “separation” really means.
The State of Israel started building the Wall in 2002, but separation has always been part of how the State of Israel works.
Separation means there are “Jewish towns” and “Arab towns”, “Jewish schools” and “Arab schools”. In 1948, as soon as the State of Israel was founded, the Arab towns were placed under martial law and the Arab schools under control of the secret police, the Shin Bet. These systems of domination were loosened right before the Israeli military conquered the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and it went on to apply the same martial law, the same secret policing, in the Occupied Territories.
Separation means there are people who have a right to a good, peaceful, happy life and people that should be happy if they get to live at all.
Separations means the moment you are born, your life is set on a separate path: will you have all the rights and privileges of the “chosen people” – or will you be treated as inferior, foreign, and dangerous?
When you turn eighteen, will you be given military training, advanced weapons, and a license to kill? Or will those young soldiers be licensed to kill you?
The air we breathe
West of the barrier, in the territories Israel took in 1948, we don’t experience the Apartheid Wall — but we experience apartheid everywhere. It is invisible, like the air we breathe.
It is the most normal thing in the world for Israelis: this is “our” country, our state, our army and our wall. The only problem is those people, who insist the land is theirs.
But we have a right to security, a right to take land, a right to take lives. And we have to, because we have to keep them away. Keep them down. And if that doesn’t work, we will have to deal with them somehow.
The idea of separation as the solution to the violence is not considered extreme. The extremists call for much worse “solutions”. Under the slogan of “Jewish sovereignty” they call to displace more Palestinians, and to kill all those who resist.
They are getting louder and more powerful than ever.
Their spokesmen have become regular guests in political talk shows. They have representatives in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and a recent poll gave their party almost 12% of seats. They are allied with Likud, the major right-wing party, and there is a good chance they will form a government together some time soon.
Meanwhile the moderates, the so-called Zionist “left”, call for more separation. In a system built on ethnic cleansing and separation, the moderates call for more separation, while the extremists call for more ethnic cleansing. And together, they demand that the world support our “security”.
Beyond the slogans
Separation, sovereignty, security… All of these slogans come down to one thing: we live on land taken from another people using deadly violence, people we try to keep under control by using deadly violence every day – and we wish to do this without experiencing any violence at all in return.
When I was a child, I believed the solution was as simple as a big wall. Tragically, it is not so simple.
It certainly does not help that the wall was built deep in the West Bank, splitting neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and separating villages like Bil’in from their agricultural land. It does not help that the wall twists and turns through Palestinian land not to maximize maximize Israeli safety, but to maximize land-grabbing.
But a better Wall would not solve the problem, either. Ultimately, our two peoples live together in one country, and there is no way any wall could cleanly separate us like I imagined as a child. And no amount of wishful thinking, no amount of guns, and no amount of walls will convince an occupied people to give up and accept a second-class status in their own country.
Human beings suffering dispossession, occupation and apartheid will fight back, one way or another.
We have had the Apartheid Wall, the Security Barrier, for twenty years – but still Israelis do not have security. And we never will have security, we never will have peace, if we continue to practice apartheid, separation, and dispossession by force
Please help end Israeli apartheid and occupation. Thank you.