The effects of Israel's West Bank barrier: Hopelessness, shattered lives and distrust, says Cornell scholar

The Israeli-West Bank barrier that Israel has been constructing since 2002 is damaging Palestinians' culture, education and economy, says a Cornell scholar who recently returned from four months as a Fulbright scholar studying the social impact of the separation barrier.

"There's a human disaster building up there, and a lot of people are not aware of it," says Christine Leuenberger, a senior lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, who seeks to understand the perspectives of the Israelis and the Palestinians. "Sometimes it's like a gestalt switch: You understand ... why each [side] does what they do."

Leuenberger previously studied the Berlin Wall and finds commonalities with the Israeli-West Bank barrier. In papers and a book, she is examining the impact of the barrier and is planning a conference with Israeli and Palestinian colleagues.

Like almost everything else in the region, terms used to refer to the barrier are politically charged. "On the Israeli side, they most often call it the security fence or anti-terrorist fence or some refer to it as the separation fence or demographic wall," Leuenberger says. "On the Palestinian side, the apartheid wall, because they consider it racist. The colonization wall, because they see it as a mechanism of colonizing their land. Another term they often use is the annexation wall."

Whatever it's called, the barrier and its associated checkpoints has negative implications for people on both sides, says the scholar. Palestinian education is suffering and its economy is shattered, she says, while Israel is faced with implementing a costly occupation that many experts believe affects the social and moral fabric of Israeli society. When very young soldiers have complete control over another population, "the potential for abuse is high," she says, noting that nongovernmental and human rights organizations report humiliations occurring at barrier checkpoints. In addition, the social consequences of checkpoints are of greater public concern to Israelis than the barrier, which has a larger effect on Palestinians' freedom of movement.

Also, she adds, "social networks built through family networks are falling apart because of barrier closures. People are becoming more alienated and society more fragmented." The barrier drives Palestinian immigrants into urban centers, where overcrowding, violence and criminal activity are creating a new generation of deracinated young people with few economic prospects.

"The state of hopelessness is astonishing. The [Palestinian] refugee camps are some of the most depressing things I've ever seen," Leuenberger says. "The [refugees] have nothing to lose and nothing to look forward to. A lot of them really feel like they're in a gigantic prison."

Israelis, Leuenberger says, "have good reasons to construct this barrier. It was built in response to horrendous suicide bombings that took place all over the country. Public perception is that it has improved security and feeling of safety." The barrier also carries out longstanding Israeli attempts to separate and disengage from the Palestinians while also maintaining a solid Jewish majority within Israel, which is crucial for the survival of Israel as a Jewish state.

From the Israeli perspective, the various closure mechanisms within the Palestinian territories -- including 558 gates, roadblocks and checkpoints -- are vital for Israel's security. Palestinians often experience them as even more intrusive than the barrier, which once completed will be much longer than the internationally recognized border known as "the Green Line," the 1949 armistice line marking the boundary between Israel and the West Bank.

The barrier at times veers deep into Palestinian land partly due to topographical and security concerns for the 250,000 Jewish settlers in the territories, at times cutting off Palestinians from their own land, towns and villages, says Leuenberger.

Leuenberger also heard tales of critically ill Palestinians who had to travel 60 kilometers to a hospital in Ramallah rather than to the Israeli hospital in East Jerusalem five minutes away.

On the other hand, the bombing rate has decreased as Palestinian movement into Israel has become more difficult, Leuenberger notes. Nevertheless, "locals have ways of crossing into Israel without going through checkpoints, such as schoolchildren, who go through the sewers to get to school."

Extremists on both sides hinder the peace process. "One of the unfortunate side effects of the barrier is that it embodies Israelis' mistrust of the Palestinians and comes to represent Palestinians' misgivings of the Israelis," Leuenberger says. "There is a decline in the possibility of interacting with each other, of getting to know each other, which means there is also an increased possibility of people stereotyping and demonizing each other.

"As an outside observer, you wish that these things that have become so politicized -- land, territory, water -- could be taken out of a political context and distributed in an equitable way for both populations," says Leuenberger. "But I have no illusions that you can talk about anything there without it being thrown into the political sphere."

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George Lowery