Erecting a Barrier to Peace

By Daniel Seidemann

Thursday, August 14, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Late last month the Israeli military posted seizure notices in Sur Bahir, a village in southeast Jerusalem.

The government is taking a narrow corridor a little less than two miles long and 40 to 70 yards wide, but the impact of this seizure will be huge: It portends the starkest change in the delicate and volatile ecosystem in East Jerusalem since 1967. If pending plans are implemented, a security wall/fence will, within as little as three months, sever not only Sur Bahir but all of East Jerusalem from its environs in the West Bank.

Right now, within a 12-mile radius of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, there reside 650,000 Israelis and 650,000 Palestinians, in two disparate but intersecting urban grids. The barrier will leave 300,000 Palestinians on the "Israeli" side of the wall. It will sever the delicate weave of arteries and veins that connect the Palestinian sectors in the Jerusalem metropolis.

Parents will be cut off from their children, children from their schools, sick people from hospitals and workers from the sources of their livelihoods. In Jerusalem, more often than not, the barrier will separate Palestinian from Palestinian rather than Palestinian from Israeli.

The barrier will affect people differently in different areas in and around the city. On the southern flank, an effective seal is already in place and at a relatively low humanitarian cost. But in the northern section of East Jerusalem, the urban layout and topography have created a situation in which the cumulative contradictions of 36 years of military occupation are now concentrated in one small geographical area.

Twenty thousand Palestinian residents of Jerusalem -- Israelis in the eyes of Israeli law -- live outside the fence, denied virtually all municipal and governmental services. Workers queue at 4 a.m. at the military checkpoint, girding themselves for the four-hour "journey" to go the three miles to their workplaces in Jerusalem.

Some 50,000 West Bank Palestinians are "trapped" on the Israeli side of the wall, and when they drive on the only major artery in their own neighborhoods, they illegally "enter" Jerusalem. In the north, an effective seal can be created only at an unbearable and ultimately unsustainable human cost.

On the east, a mini-Berlin Wall is being built. The path of the wall follows the municipal boundaries declared by Israel in 1967. Until recently this was no more than a dotted line on a map, known only to aficionados.

Now Israel's imaginary line is being laid down in concrete. But the human pressures on both sides of the wall are so great that the residents crawl over, under and around the wall, with the border police patrols more often than not turning a blind eye. The wall is effective enough to make the lives of innocent civilians miserable without preventing the infiltration of a terrorist.

The implications of this project transcend these stark humanitarian concerns and cut to the core of both Israel's security interests and the possibility of a political process between Israelis and Palestinians.

East Jerusalem has been remarkably quiet since the outbreak of the intifada. With rare (albeit devastating) exceptions, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem have not participated in the convulsive violence raging in the West Bank just outside the city. But as the barrier goes up, a creeping militarization of life in East Jerusalem has begun to take on many of the trappings of Ramallah and Bethlehem: security cordons, checkpoints, barriers, summary searches etc. There is already a moderate but troublesome rise in the numbers of East Jerusalemites actively or passively supporting terror, and the construction of the wall will in all likelihood accelerate this trend.

To put it bluntly, if Israel treats the residents of East Jerusalem as though they are residents of Ramallah and Bethlehem, it will succeed, and these residents will act accordingly.

Among the compelling underlying causes that led to the failure of the Oslo process was its failure to deliver on its promises. Oslo promised Israelis security -- and terror persisted. Oslo promised Palestinians a better life and an incremental end to occupation -- and delivered a plummeting standard of living and a tightening of Israeli hegemony. Acquiescence in the construction of the Jerusalem wall at the very moment that the road map process for Mideast peace is fighting for its life replicates the fatal flaw of Oslo: The blatant contradiction between flowery rhetoric and cruel reality delegitimizes the process in its entirety. It could be a fatal blow to the credibility of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's fledgling government.

As one who has encountered 10 terror attacks over the past three years within a 200-yard radius of his office in downtown Jerusalem, I need no convincing regarding Israel's legitimate security interests. The wall/fence can, in places, be an important tool in Israel's war against terror, and there are places, even in Jerusalem, where a fence or barrier can provide significant tactical advantages at a bearable cost.

But when the wall becomes a mantra, an ideological panacea, without regard for the complex realities on the ground, it will be not only ineffective but counterproductive.

None of this is mere theory. Large parts of the wall are already in place, and the remaining plans are about to be implemented.

Unless immediate and radical changes are made in these plans -- including abandoning significant segments of the barrier -- East Jerusalem and its environs will not be recognizable within three to six months.

The forces threatening to undermine the road map process are many.

But let there be no doubting this: Even if the current shaky cease-fire holds and the de-escalation between Israelis and Palestinians proceeds, the Jerusalem security wall/fence alone will condemn the road map to a premature death.

The writer is lead counsel and a founding member of Ir Shalem, an Israeli organization that seeks to make Jerusalem livable for all its residents.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company