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Separation Barrier or Security Fence?: The Wall Divides Israelis Too

From any high point in Jerusalem you can see the wall. Like the spine of a snake, it coils along neighborhood streets, shopping avenues, and the backs of sun-bleached ridges.

To the eyes of a newcomer, it looks haphazard, even arbitrary, as though a child has taken a crayon and scribbled at whim across a city map. The partition is as convoluted and colossal as the decades-old conflict that constructed it, and also as undeniably significant.

The wall – formally called either the security fence or the separation barrier, defending on your perspective – fissures the Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem and beyond. It marks the border between Israel and the Palestinian West Bank along the still disputed lines left over from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

An emblem of a segregated land, the wall is not only physically dividing Palestinians and Israelis; it’s also dividing Israelis ideologically. Between extreme right to extreme left on the political spectrum, there are 7 million different lenses through which to view the wall: one for every individual Israeli.

The separation wall was built in 2002 to stem the flow of Palestinian militant suicide bombers during the second intifada uprising. For those who lived through the daily threat of bombings in cafes and on busses, the threat of terror justified the wall’s construction.

“We were scared to come out from our houses,” said Natanel Ben-David, 25, a Jewish-Iranian merchant. “12-13 years ago, no people were walking in the streets. I don’t think it [the separation barrier] is bad, because it stopped the bombings.”

Most Israelis are convinced of the correlation between the construction of the separation barrier and the decrease in suicide bombings in the early 2000s. For those who view the wall as a security fence, it has become synonymous with safety, and its absence with vulnerability.

10 years later, there is still an underlying fear that, if the wall were taken down, attacks would begin again.

“It’s caused a lot of inconvenience, but it’s saved a lot of lives,” said Naomi Tsur, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, in a private dinner overlooking the walls of the Old City. “It can come down, but it won’t until we can be assured of not having terrorist attacks – and unfortunately, we’re not there yet.”

Not everyone agrees. Yaniv Mazor, a Jewish-Israeli with Ir-Amim, an activist non-profit organization, questions the purpose of the wall in the first place and its correlation to security.

“Did the separation barrier cause increased security?” he said. “It’s one of many factors. Another is that Yasser Arafat [prime minister of the Palestinian authorities] was replaced by a moderate leader in 2004 who urged political, not violent, protest.”

Mazor also challenges whether, ten years later, the wall is still being maintained, and expanded, for the purpose of security alone.

“There are over 100 legal entry permits,” he said. “And around 20,000 people cross illegally to work and make money in Israel, and they are not suicide bombers.”

Mazor argued that the wall’s continued presence is not only for security, but for political reasons as well, and that it’s a hindrance, not a help, to the peace process.

Shlomit Leibowitz, 30, a Jewish-Israeli student pursuing her masters in conflict resolution, has similar views. She lived as a child through the second intifada, what she called a “terrible time”. But now, although she believes the separation barrier was acceptable as a short-term solution, she doesn’t agree with it as a long-term one.

“I believe that if you fight, like two kindergarten children, you have to say sorry. You can’t build a separation wall in the middle of the playground, ” she said. “The government is busy scaring people, ‘we have to build more’. But we have to make peace by meeting and talking. Otherwise you’ll just have segregation, not peace.”

Every Jerusalemite you meet offers another name for and view on the metal structure winding its way through East Jerusalem and beyond the borders of their city. But whatever you call it – separation barrier or security fence – the wall is a fault line not only dividing Arabs and Jews, but all Israelis.

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