As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met in Washington with US President George W. Bush on Tuesday, construction continued on a 800-kilometer barrier separating Israel from the occupied West Bank that threatens to undermine any progress on the “road map” to Middle East peace. The wall impedes the peace process on all fronts: politically, socially and economically.
Bush must maintain his opposition to the so-called “security fence” or risk seeing progress on the road map jeopardized by future conflict over the barrier, arising from the economic devastation the structure has wrought and its use by Israel to absorb large swathes of Palestinian land. By contrast, Sharon’s recent release of a token number of prisoners and his removal of a few roadblocks were cosmetic concessions designed to ease the pressure from Washington.
In a speech following his meeting last week with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Bush told the world that the “wall” was a “problem,” making it “very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and the Israelis.” One thing Bush should start by doing is not let Sharon manipulate the language used to describe the barrier.
Much lies in a name. The controversy over how to describe the barrier underscores the problems inherent in its construction. The language used in the Middle East conflict is consistently manipulated by Western politicians and media to obscure the reality of the situation. Those opposed to the barrier call it a “wall,” with all the sinister memories that may evoke; the Israeli government uses the far more sanguine, if controversial, term “security fence.” Palestinian supporters call the edifice the “Apartheid wall,” a name ripe with significance, but which the Western media refuses to employ without quotation marks. Apartheid wall is not a neutral term, but neither is security fence. Would anyone call an electronic-barbed-wire-cement barricade, one not unlike the Berlin Wall, a fence? The press, when using such terminology, effectively buys into Israel’s propoganda machine. And while parts of the barrier are fence-like, the trenches and concrete elements costing $2 million per kiometer demand a more accurate description than “fence.”
Benign words like “security fence”, bantered about in the Western press, have a profound and lasting impact on the outside perceptions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and foreign policy decision-making. The Palestinians and their sympathizers lack the influence and means that the Israelis enjoy to get their message out in the West. Thus the ability of the Palestinians to set the tone for discussion of the Israeli barrier has been limited, as demonstrated by Bush’s alternating use of the terms “wall”or “fence”, depending on whom he’s talking to.
Calling the barrier a security fence implies that Israel is a victim in need of protection. True, the Palestinians have carried out suicide bombings and attacks against Israeli targets, but the barrier has not deterred them. Indeed, it risks inciting more violence, largely because it has wreaked havoc on the daily lives and livelihood of thousands of ordinary Palestinians. According to a World Bank report, Israel could annex up to 12 percent of West Bank land once the wall is completed, much of which is arable farm land. The wall has also restricted Palestinians’ freedom and dignity. Closures of areas and long waits at checkpoints have made movement within the Occupied Territories and into Israel a monumentally degrading, tedious and demanding process. In this context, the new structure has undermined confidence-building measures.
The wall’s construction has compounded the economic hardships of Palestinian families, already suffering from the Israeli occupation. Olive trees, worth up to $1,000 each, have been uprooted by Israeli bulldozers, often without compensation to their owners. The barrier has bisected villages and farms, cutting Palestinians off from their arable lands, preventing transport of goods and people to and from markets. And the situation will only worsen.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s Peter Hansen has documented this economic devastation. He stated that construction of the wall and checkpoints “tear at the very economic and social life of Palestinians,” and he called on Israel to use “reasonable means within the boundaries of international law” to maintain security. Israel’s use of tear gas and rubber bullets against Israeli settlers and Palestinians protesting the barricade’s construction on Monday was not an acceptable way of dealing with those opposing the wall’s construction.
What can Washington do? Bush should make clear to Sharon that there is a penalty if construction of the wall does not cease, such as a decrease in security or military aid to Israel. Such pressure can work. Former President George Bush successfully used the threat to suspend loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 to force former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to attend the Madrid Conference.
If, as Sharon insists, the barricade is essential for security and really provides such great protection, then maybe Sharon doesn’t need the $600 million in military aid the US provides it with every year. If Israel doesn’t play by the rules, it shouldn’t get the prize.
Posted By Courtney Radsch (Lebanon)
Posted Apr 9th, 2007