Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…
      (from “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost)

Tel Aviv

It used to take ten minutes to ride from the village of Azariya to the Old City that divides West (Jewish) and East (Arab) Jerusalem. Following the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, Israeli soldiers set up a checkpoint across the main (only) street that links the West Bank with Jerusalem. As the cycle of violence increased, with Palestinian suicide bombers striking at Israeli civilians in Jerusalem buses and cafes, the Israeli army built a six-foot-high wall across the street. That stopped cars from crossing, but enterprising Palestinians placed boulders on both sides of the wall, enabling men going to work, youth going to school, old men with canes and women with shopping bags to climb back and forth. People would pass babies over the barrier like an old-time bucket brigade. Entrepreneurial souls even set up makeshift stands to sell goods and produce on both sides of the wall, a spontaneous Middle Eastern souk. Taxis took travelers to one side of the wall, they climbed over, and were picked up on the other side by another taxi to continue on their way. Sometimes bored soldiers stood alongside the wall and spot-checked people, but more often than not there was just the wall, and a semblance of normal life continued.

A few weeks ago the residents of Azariya suddenly awoke to discover that a hulking, twelve-foot-high granite wall was emerging in place of the six-foot obstacle. It wound its way up and down hills like a gloomy medieval dragon, casting a dark shadow over the area. An outsider could immediately sense the dispirited pessimism that overtook Azariya. All the stores on both sides of the wall closed, almost overnight. It was like a scene from a novel by García Márquez.

This granite monstrosity–there’s nothing even slightly aesthetic about it–is part of the “Jerusalem envelope” built to protect the citizens of Jerusalem, Jewish and Palestinian, since both are random victims of the suicide bombers.

And now the wall is going to The Hague, to the International Court of Justice (the World Court), with hearings beginning on February 23.

Originally a fence/wall was proposed by Labor Party members as a temporary security barrier until negotiations for a permanent settlement could resume and reach fruition. The idea was that it would run more or less along the Green Line that separates the State of Israel from the West Bank. The right, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was opposed to the idea, because it implied recognition of the pre-1967 borders as the eventual dividing line between Israel and a future Palestinian state. However, as Sharon proved unable to provide the “peace and security” he promised in his election campaign, the idea of a security barrier began to look more appealing, particularly when compared with a political initiative that would require genuine and “painful” (his words) compromises. The settler lobby insisted that the barrier should include as many West Bank settlements on the Israeli side as possible, so the barrier kept moving eastward, encompassing more and more settlers and Palestinian villagers–tens of thousands of them. It cut off farmers from their lands, children from their schools and workers from their sources of livelihood, uprooting ancient olive trees in the process.

The Israeli government is clearly concerned about the fact that the UN General Assembly has asked the World Court for an advisory opinion on the issue. The government submitted an affidavit to the Court arguing that it has no legal authority to rule on the issue but decided not to send representatives to participate in the deliberations. Meanwhile, two Israeli NGOs have submitted petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court arguing the illegality of a separation barrier in occupied territory, the declaration of the adjacent area as a closed military zone and the access permit system, which “gravely infringes the rights of thousands of Palestinian residents, and could potentially destroy the social fabric and compel the residents to flee their homes.” Says Association for Civil Rights in Israel spokesperson Yoav Loeff, “We believe that Israel has the right to defend itself, and wouldn’t be opposed to a separation barrier if it were located along the Green Line.”

Regardless of how the World Court and the Israeli Supreme Court rule on the issue, the Israeli government is already on the defensive. With the specter of the beginnings of a South Africa-type international boycott looming over the horizon, Sharon has begun to waver. And “Sharon-gate”–the police investigation into bribery charges against his sons, in which he himself is implicated–hasn’t helped matters. Thus his sudden readiness to reconsider the route of the separation barrier, to make it coincide more closely with the Green Line. Thus also his surprising announcement that all of the 7,500 Jewish settlers who live among 1.4 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip will eventually have to return to Israel. However, as most Israeli pundits note, with Sharon the question is always, Will his words be followed by deeds? So far, it’s only words.

Najat Hirbawi, circulation manager of the Palestine-Israel Journal, lives in Azariya. She says there are three ways of coping with the new walled-off reality. She and her family have moved to East Jerusalem, to guarantee access to work; those who can afford it choose this option. A second option open to bearers of foreign passports is simply to leave–to Canada, the United States, Europe or Latin America. Left behind are the poor, the less educated, less mobile, many of them depressed and very angry.

The irony is that one can see a mirror image on the Israeli side. A growing number of the young, the ambitious, the more highly educated and the mobile are thinking of leaving. Are we, both Israelis and Palestinians, in the process of turning back the clock to the days when Mark Twain visited almost 150 years ago and saw only a miserable and backward population, described in The Innocents Abroad–with the modern addition of unhealthy doses of religious fundamentalism on both sides of the divide? Or will we, with the aid of the international community, rediscover the life force necessary to generate an equitable solution to our bloody conflict?

The Hebrew University’s noted military historian Professor Martin van Creveld says that walls for security purposes have worked–in Berlin, Cyprus and Korea. Yet when a few Knesset members recently returned from a visit to China they described how their guide took them to visit the Great Wall and proudly noted that it is the only man-made structure visible from space. “However,” he said as a lesson to would-be wall-builders, “it didn’t succeed in keeping out the Mongols.”