In 2002 Israel began building a fence, ditch and wall combo between its internationally recognized territory and the Palestinian West Bank, arguing this was the best way to protect Israel’s heartland from Palestinian suicide bombers. In fact, the barrier was a desperate last-minute attempt to resolve a thorny security problem of Israel’s own making. Ever since the late 1970s, Israel’s aggressive colonization project had exponentially increased traffic flows across the Green Line, making it all but impossible to separate legitimate from clandestine travelers. Many of the 400,000 Jewish settlers travel across the Green Line daily, as do thousands of occupation soldiers. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem has given tens of thousands of Palestinians Israeli identity cards, allowing them to cross the line at will. Until recently, there were dozens of potential crossing points, as well as long stretches of unguarded frontier. As a result of these and other Israeli policies, the boundary between “Israel” and “Palestine” had almost disappeared, enormously complicating efforts to filter out suicide bombers. The barrier was thus built to stanch a self-inflicted wound, creating an impregnable obstacle to channel all travel between Israel and the West Bank through a few heavily policed gates.
Many liberals oppose the effort, arguing that since it does not faithfully follow the Green Line, it is a de facto land grab in advance of an Arab-Israeli accord. The wall divides many Palestinian communities in two, cutting Arab East Jerusalem from the West Bank, and will eventually leave 250,000 Palestinians stranded on the wrong side. Yet many occupation opponents view the project more positively, arguing that it is tangible proof of Greater Israel’s demise.
The optimists’ logic is simple. For years, Israel banned any sign of separation from Palestine, erasing the Green Line from official maps and instructing young Israelis that the Land of Israel stretched to the river Jordan. In 2002, for the first time, an Israeli government led by redoubtable hawk Ariel Sharon reversed course, building a borderlike structure that signals, perhaps, the end of the settlement era. Palestinian suicide bombers appeared to have accomplished in just two years what decades of political protest and diplomacy failed to do.
Eyal Weizman, the author of Hollow Land, believes the optimists are wrong. He says Ariel Sharon never conceived of the wall as a dividing line between Palestine and Israel but rather as the last line of defense in a permanent Jewish control matrix stretching across the West Bank. Weizman is a young Israeli architect whose studies of the “architecture of occupation” have won him renown in some quarters and notoriety in others. He has a keen eye for design, space and structure, bringing a refreshingly new perspective to a topic hitherto ruled by journalists, historians and social scientists. The result is one of the most original books on Israel to appear in years.
To reach his pessimistic conclusions, Weizman returns to a bitter debate between Israeli generals after the 1967 war, when IDF troops squared off against Egyptian forces along the Suez Canal. The dominant school of thought, led by then-Chief of Staff Haim Bar Lev, wanted a massive, linear, trench-and-wall barrier along the Israeli side of the canal. The plan was to build with sand, hoping that when Egyptian artillery rounds landed, the barrier would be further compacted. This scheme was opposed by Sharon, then a popular young general, who argued that linear fortifications were passé; a single breach of the line, Sharon warned, would trigger the entire front’s collapse. Instead, he advocated a matrix-like system of “defense in depth” composed of multiple hilltop fortifications stretching back for miles. Engineers would build roads linking smaller front-line forts to larger rear bases, creating a dense thicket of defensive hubs rather than a single brittle line. (The Gaza Strip, which has descended into internal war, was never integral to Israel’s long-term planning. Home to hundreds of thousands of refugees and their descendants, the Strip is essentially a fenced-in prison where rival gangs battle for control. The “disengagement” has made it easier for the Israeli government to transform it into a military frontier like Lebanon.)