02 October 2003
Call it "a wall", "a fence", "a boundary" or even just "a barrier" if you want, but however you describe it, the "security fence" the Israelis are erecting around Palestinian territory marks the end of hopes of a negotiated Middle East settlement.
It is difficult for anyone outside the region to understand just how malevolent and humiliating the wall is to the Palestinians, and indeed is meant to be. To the Israelis it is a logical reaction to violence, a security barrier intended to keep the bombers and the Palestinians out of Israel, and to separate the two people, ensuring that the Arab population within the fence always remains a minority.
To the Palestinians, however, it is both a symbol of Israeli military domination and a "fact on the ground" which will ensure that Israel keeps control of the water resources of the region, protects its illegal settlements and guarantees that the Palestinians can never achieve a viable state.
Hence the sensitivity over whether the extension agreed by the Israeli cabinet yesterday would include a 20-kilometre curve into Palestinian territory to protect "Ariel" and other adjoining Israeli settlements. Sharon and his cabinet want the loop. The Americans, who are threatening to withhold aid from Israel if the wall does annex Palestinian territory, are opposing it. The result yesterday was a compromise in which the wall will be extended but the sensitive bulge separately fenced and patrolled.
It's a compromise that should fool nobody. Ariel Sharon wants a wall that ensures, in his own terms, a secure and unassailable Israel, able to control the movement of its neighbours in and out of its territory, limiting the number of potentially hostile Arabs within its borders and in doing so making certain (incidentally or deliberately) that a Palestinian state would be incapable of thriving as a separate entity.
There is no great secret in this. Ariel Sharon has never denied his objective to integrate the settlements into Israeli territory or to remove as many Palestinians as possible from its wider boundaries. Even if he did deny it now (which he doesn't), enough has been leaked in the Israeli press of the proposed course of the wall to make it clear that its intention to incorporate as much as 40 per cent of Palestinian territory.
You can defend this if you so wish as essential to Israel's security - although the planned route of the wall would indicate wider territorial ambitions. You can even argue that it is something brought upon the Palestinians by their own actions in sending over suicide bombers. But what you cannot do is to pretend that it is compatible with any desire for a peace settlement or willingness to see a viable Palestinian state. To all, intents and purposes the wall means the end of the road-map to peace, and it is dishonest of the Israeli government to pretend otherwise.
The road-map was probably doomed in any case. It was never built on any degree of trust between the parties. Instead it was entirely dependent on the commitment of the Bush administration's willingness to put the squeeze on Jerusalem. Now even that has gone.
Condoleezza Rice, the woman in charge of US policy on the road-map, and her master, George Bush, are none too happy with the wall. But the talk in Washington is now all of "disengagement." Bush won't even discuss the issue as long as Arafat is there, and re-election politics don't encourage him to do so. The failure of the road-map can be easily blamed on the Palestinians, despite the provocations of Israel's assassination policy (and the Palestinians are their own worst enemy on this score).
As for the other members of the quartet that brought the plan into being - Russia, the UN and Europe - they could not even produce a statement after their last meeting in Washington while, to all outward appearance, the UK has simply gone to ground on the issue.
It shouldn't. For without the road-map the Middle East is embarked on a road of bitterness and despair among the Palestinians that can only end in another cycle of terrorism which keeps the whole of the Arab world on edge.
In the short term, of course, the wall may increase Israel's security. But each day it exists and each kilometre it extends, it creates new resentments on the ground of communities divided from each other, of workers who cannot get to work and farmers whose olive groves have been uprooted. And as the Palestinian dream becomes more unattainable, so the educated leadership will drift abroad leaving behind a simmering cauldron of young unemployed men and women ready for martyrdom.
There's not a great deal that the outside world can do about this. Ariel Sharon is the elected leader of the Israelis just as Yasser Arafat is the elected leader of the Palestinians. Peace will only come when there is a groundswell on both sides wanting it.
But the wall is an obscenity, an act not only deeply destructive in its own terms but also contradictory to any effort to produce some lasting settlement between Arab and Israeli. Europe, and with it Britain, has every right - the duty indeed - to say to the Israelis that it cannot progress trade relations with Israel, let alone EU membership, so long as it exists. Nor indeed will it recognise it as forming any kind of frontier for the future.