Israelis call it the "security barrier." For Palestinians, it is the "apartheid wall."
Since 2002, Israel has been building this massive concrete partition in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. For the Israeli government, the structure has been a way to limit the number of Palestinian suicide bombers that can enter Israel. But it has also divided villages in the West Bank - most famously, Bili'n - and separated Palestinians from huge chunks of their own land and Arab East Jerusalem.
Every Friday, for the past five years, hundreds of Palestinians have gathered in Bili'n, just west of Ramallah, to wage mainly peaceful protests against the partition. In late 2007, the protesters scored a significant victory when the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the partition needed to be rerouted, in order to give the villagers of Bili'n back more of their farmland. Last month, after two-and-a-half years, the Israelis began reconstructing that section of the partition, which is expected to return approximately 400 acres of land to Bili'n and other nearby villages.
However, this move by the Israelis is not enough to pacify angry Palestinian protesters in Bili'n and other areas of the West Bank who feel cheated and disenfranchised by the partition.
"I would be surprised if the Palestinians stop protesting," said former U.S. Ambassador Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., now the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. "The real goal is to bring [the wall] back to the Green Line," he said, referring to the border that separated Israel from the West Bank before the Israelis captured the territory in 1967. Indeed, sections of the partition have been built well east of the Green Line, in defiance of calls by the international community for the development of a two-state solution along Israel's pre-1967 borders.
Even with the new rerouting plan, the partition encompasses the majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank - also east of the Green Line - giving them a sense of permanence. "The barrier increases Palestinian anger by stealing more land and separating more Palestinians from their livelihoods, and further confining the Palestinians to an even smaller part of their former homeland," said Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University.
The Israeli settlements are considered a grave impediment to the development of a Palestinian state, and a violation of international law by the United Nations. In 2004, the International Court of Justice at The Hague pronounced the construction of the partition illegal under international law.
"The rerouting of the wall by Bili'n--I don't see it as that meaningful of a decision," said Philip Weiss, founder of the Mondoweiss blog, a project of The Nation Institute that analyzes Middle East issues. For Weiss, the rerouting does not address what he sees as the larger injustices caused by the partition. For example, the checkpoints the Palestinians must go through to get into Israel, he said, are "reminiscent of totalitarian Europe."
In a recent interview with Democracy Now, Jonathan Pollak, an Israeli human rights activist and founder of the group Anarchists Against the Wall, seemed to draw a similar conclusion. "While being a victory, this is only a partial victory," he said of the rerouting of the partition. "And, it should be clear that the resistance to the wall will continue wherever it is built, in Bili'n as well, until the wall is dismantled entirely."
But despite the outcry against the partition by Palestinians and members of the international community, experts say the Israelis appear to remain committed to the structure as a key component of their security, at least for the time being.
Experts also tend to think, in spite of their overall reservations, that the partition has made Israel safer on a day-to-day basis. "It almost certainly discouraged suicide attacks," Wilcox said. Weiss agreed, noting, "The wall has reduced suicide bombings, which is an important element of Israel's security."
However, while Israel's security has been further enhanced, the possibility of a viable Palestinian state has become increasingly remote. "There can't be a Palestinian state if the current trajectory of the wall is maintained because it cuts deep into the West Bank," Wilcox said, noting that Palestinians there have been cut off from blocks of vital farmland and water supplies.
With this larger issue of statehood in the balance, it remains unlikely that protests against the partition will end any time soon.
Khalidi, for one, believes the partition is a major obstacle to creating a Palestinian state, and that unrest will continue. How can a state be established "on a fraction of a fraction of Palestine, in isolated islands separated from one another by vast swathes of settlements?" he said. "How can anyone without Orwellian distortion or cynical cruelty call that a state?"
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