Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Effects of the Wall

Three decades ago, what is today Arab and Jewish suburbs northeast of Jerusalem were sweeping, sterile landscapes of rocky, wind-polished hilltops as far as the eye could see. Today's patchwork of Jewish settlements under Israeli civilian and military jurisdictions rubs up against Arab neighborhoods under control of various Islamic warlords and gangsters. Only two decades ago, these areas were united under the Israel's military civil administration. One decade ago, what is today a sliced, fenced, barricaded landscape was still relatively open to free travel.

The big fence peeks over the cliff side, looking over the Ramalla Bypass.

Gliding from city to city along the asphalt superhighways on the open, Israel inside the wall has never been easier. No checkpoints, no walls, no hassle. Most Israelis never travel beyond the concrete frontier.

But if you're going driving past the fence, you had better know where you're going. "Secure" roads like route 60, the Ramallah bypass, are protected by army patrols and about as safe as anywhere.

Then there are the "semi-secure" roads, like the road to Kalandia, through the Arab areas of southern Ramalla. If you're heading from the settlements to Tel Aviv, you can skip the Ramallah bypass and shave half an hour off your trip, and the odds are that you'll make it through in decent condition, but you're upping the ante. A few years ago the army attempted to close the road to Jewish traffic, it not being worth the bother of potentially having to extricate Jews from a violent confrontation. Meanwhile Arabs with Israeli citizenship traveling through Ramallah were allowed to continue using the road. Upset at the blatant, if typical, discrimination against Jews, the settlers protested the closure. The army, not wanting to deal with the nuisance of either, threw up its hands and turned it into an "at-your-own-risk" road.

The road through Jaba to the Kalandia checkpoint.

Some of the insecure roads are barricaded, perhaps to prevent lost drivers from leaving the road and appearing up on the evening news broadcast, perhaps to channel the population on the other side to travel through designated checkpoints and become subject to search. Of course, this is all conjecture. The army works in mysterious ways.

Welcome to Jaba. Please bring shovel.

So, this whole barricade and road system work?

If you ask the international community, they will give you a resounding "NO!" The UN and various other world bodies and NGOs (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, etc.) print reams of reports decrying how the fence has adversely affected the Arab population, allegedly increasing frustration which results in terrorism. Of course, construction of the wall iteslf was born of the realization that Israel can make no concession so great, no sacrifice so painful, that it would at last placate Arab rage. Given that the United Nations and these NGOs are opposed to Israel's very existence as a free and independent Jewish state, it stands to reason that their opposition may, in fact, be an argument in favor of the fence.

If you ask any of the settlers if the wall is worthwhile, the answer is also no.

"The sections that are wall," Yishai tells me, referring to the upright precast concrete panels, "work pretty well, but the parts that are fence are worthless. I drive through here, I see people climbing through it every day. All the time. Any terrorist can get through"

I myself have even seen from my own doorstep panels of the concrete wall pushed over, not to be repaired for days or sometimes weeks.

Two villagers from neighboring Hizma having snuck through the fence approach Pisgat Ze'ev.

The army is also initiating a plan to use a fast-trak like system used in bridge toll plazas in the united states, whereby residents of the settlements can glue a small computer chip to their windshield broadcasting their pre-approved status and breeze through the checkpoints without a search while everyone else has to wait in line. This would reduce the traffic burden and speed up movement through the checkpoint for everyone, but, "What if a terrorist steals a car with fast track? He would go right through."

But I remember living here during the Arab bombing campaign of second Intifada. As many as three buses per week were blown to pieces. Car bombs, shooting attacks, stabbings, you name it, Jerusalem became an arena of Islamic blood sport. As of today, as the wall envelops the city, there has not been a bus bombing in Jerusalem in well over a year, almost two. The relative calm, if not actual peace, which now prevales over Jerusalem and Israel as a whole, has resulted in the return of tourism, foreign investment, real estate development, and an economic boom.

The fence wasn't the cure-all many imagine it was. There was no magic bullet that killed terrorism, but a series of steps. The first was Operation: Shield Wall, carried out in 2002, in which the army re-invaded the major Palestinian Authority population centers from which it had withdrawn during the 90's. The army also retook control of route 60, allowing specialized units to dart into and out of Arab towns on a moment's notice to arrest or eliminate terrorist operatives. One must also weigh Israel's assasinationa of Hamas founders and leaders Achmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantissi, followed six months later by the death of Yassir Arafat. Closed societies based on the rule of charismatic tyrant are far more susceptible to loss of their leader than open democracies.

One could ask the political echelon, but their opinions are subject to review and censorship by their respective political parties. High officers in the Israeli military are similarly untrustworthy, as the achievement of rank is seen as a stepping stone to political office, so Generals craft their public statements and opinions accordingly.

Neve Ya'akov from the other side of the fence.

At the Pisgat Ze'ev Checkpoint.

Searching cars at the checkpoint. One of the soldiers spotted me with my camera, (pointing at me with her water bottle) and pretty soon she was on our bus, giving me a lecture about not taking photographs.

While there may be no way of really knowing how much the fence contributes to security, but no one dares talk about removing it. Despite the seeming deterioration of personal security, the beauty of the landscape, and general quality of life, it's important to remember that events move extraordinarily quickly in this part of the world. The suburbs northeast of Jerusalem, in the tribal region of Binyamin (Benjamin,) are about to undergo some major changes.

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