Issue 44 - Article 2

The Barrier: implications and prospects

October 6, 2009
Ray Dolphin, OCHA

In mid-2002, following a campaign of suicide attacks by Palestinian militants, the Israeli government approved the construction of a Barrier to prevent suicide bombers from entering the country. Five years on, approximately 58.3% is complete, a further 10.2% is under construction and 31.5% is planned. The Barrier is made up of fences, ditches, razor wire, groomed sand paths, an electronic monitoring system, patrol roads and a buffer zone. Around 30km consists of 8–9-metre-high concrete slab segments which are connected to form a wall, notably in urban areas such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem. When completed, approximately 85% of the route will run inside the West Bank and East Jerusalem, rather than along the 1949 Armistice Line (the Green Line). Although the Israeli authorities state that it is purely for defensive purposes, the Barrier encircles 80 Jewish settlements, physically joining them to Israel. The total area between the Barrier and the Green Line amounts to 9.5% of the West Bank. The estimated cost of the complete Barrier is $3–4 billion.

The ICJ opinion

The Barrier intrudes deep into the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). It was the legal implication of this intrusive route, not the Barrier itself, which was the subject of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion of 9 July 2004.

In its opinion, the ICJ recognised that Israel ‘has the right, and indeed the duty, to respond in order to protect the life of its citizens [but] the measures taken are bound nonetheless to remain in conformity with applicable international law’. The ICJ stated that the sections which ran inside the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, together with the associated gate and permit regime, violated Israel’s obligations under international law. The ICJ called on Israel to cease construction of the Barrier ‘including in and around East Jerusalem’; dismantle the sections already completed; and ‘repeal or render ineffective forthwith all legislative and regulatory acts relating thereto’. The ICJ also called on Israel to ‘make reparations for the requisition and destruction of homes, businesses and agricultural holdings’ and ‘to return the land, orchards, olive groves, and other immovable property seized’. The court also obligated member states not to recognise the illegal situation created by the Barrier, and to ensure Israel’s compliance with international law. Although this is a non-binding advisory legal opinion, on 20 July 2004 the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved Resolution ES-10/15, which demanded that Israel comply with the ICJ opinion.

The Barrier’s impact on urban areas

Continuing construction of the Barrier inside the West Bank is not only contrary to the ICJ advisory opinion, but is also having a devastating humanitarian impact on Palestinian cities, towns and villages. The West Bank population depends on East Jerusalem for specialised medical and educational services; for work, social and family relationships; and for worship at the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy sites. The Barrier has become a de facto border, severing historic religious, social and economic ties between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Neighbouring Bethlehem is cut off from Jerusalem, restricting its potential for residential and industrial expansion. If construction goes ahead as planned in the western part of the governorate, the rural hinterland will be cut off, further reducing Palestinian access to land and water resources.

‘Seam Zone’ communities: living in a closed area

One consequence of what the ICJ described as the Barrier’s ‘sinuous route’ is that approximately 35,000 West Bank Palestinians will be located between the Barrier and the Green Line, in addition to the majority of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. Some 10,000 Palestinians in the northern West Bank have been in a bureaucratic and social limbo for five years, since the area between the Barrier and the Green Line was declared closed by military order in October 2003. Palestinians residing in the closed area (or ‘Seam Zone’) require permanent residence permits just to continue to live in their own homes, a requirement which is not imposed on Israeli settlers living in the area.

As their centre of life is located on the ‘Palestinian’ side of the Barrier, children, patients and workers have to pass through checkpoints to reach schools, medical facilities and workplaces, and to maintain family and social relations. These checkpoints generally close at night, posing problems in the case of medical emergencies and for expectant mothers, who often leave the area weeks before delivery to ensure access to proper care. Social and family life is also affected, as relatives and friends who want to visit Palestinians in the closed area require difficult-to-obtain visitor permits.

Visitor permits

Tens of thousands of farmers have land and water resources located in the closed area between the Barrier and the Green Line; since the imposition of the closed area in October 2003 in the northern West Bank, they require visitor permits to access their land. To obtain a visitor permit, applicants must satisfy the security considerations necessary for all Israeli-issued permits. They also have to prove ‘connection to land’ in the closed area by submitting, amongst other official papers, a valid ownership or land taxation document. This is an impossible requirement for many West Bank Palestinians, since the majority of land has not been formally registered and has been handed down by traditional methods which do not require formal inheritance documentation. These requirements also run contrary to customary farming practices, whereby extended families participate in planting, harvesting and maintaining the land. Tenant farmers and landless labourers are particularly penalised by a permit system where the onus is on the applicant to provide documentary proof of land ownership.

In a 2007 UN survey of 67 affected rural communities in the northern West Bank, village representatives reported that fewer than 20% of those who used to work land in the closed area before completion of the Barrier were being granted permits. Even in this restricted allocation distribution is irregular, with some families having more than one permit-holder, others having a single successful applicant – not necessarily the most able-bodied or appropriate – and many families having no permit-holder at all. Those suffering repeated refusals are discouraged from reapplying. The short validity period for permits – generally no more than six months – results in farmers’ forced inactivity between the expiry of the current permit and its (hoped-for) renewal.

Barrier gates

For the fortunate few granted visitor permits, access is channelled through one of the 60 or so gates which the Israeli authorities have installed along the length of the Barrier. Of these, only 12 open on a daily basis, generally for short periods in the early morning, noon and in the late afternoon. Another ten gates open on two or three occasions throughout the week, in addition to the annual olive harvest. The vast majority of gates only open during the olive harvest itself, which is inadequate for essential year-round activities such as ploughing, pruning, fertilising and pest and weed management. This regime is incompatible with irrigated agriculture and greenhouse production, where the produce requires daily care if it is not to fall victim to disease and rot.

Barrier gates constitute some of the most restrictive checkpoints in the West Bank. Permit-holders must queue for their documents to be inspected and their persons and belongings searched before they are permitted to cross. There are restrictions on the vehicles and materials which are allowed into the closed area. Considered ‘visitors’, few farmers are granted 24-hour permits to remain in the closed area overnight, and must leave their land before the gate is locked in the late afternoon. To make the best of the limited time available, permit-holders work in summer when the sun is at its height, and in winter queue in the dark and cold before the first gate opening. As the gates are closed and unstaffed between the scheduled opening times, farmers cannot return immediately to the ‘Palestinian’ side in cases of accident or emergency. The opening hours also penalise ‘part-time’ farmers, who might otherwise cultivate family holdings after work for domestic consumption or supplementary income.

Restricting access to land and livelihoods

Restricted allocation of visitor permits and the limited number and opening times of the Barrier gates have severely curtailed agricultural production. Greenhouses are dismantled and land is converted to lower-maintenance, less perishable but also lower-value crops such as wheat. The Barrier also isolates grazing land, undermining herders’ livelihoods. Signs of displacement from rural areas – a concern recognised by the ICJ – are apparent, with young men, particularly the university-educated, moving to other West Bank cities or emigrating entirely. In January 2009, the closed area designation was extended to Ramallah, Hebron and parts of the Salfit, Bethlehem and Jerusalem governorates, raising concerns that the experience of the north will be replicated throughout the West Bank.

The way forward

In recent years, the Israeli authorities have taken administrative steps to address some of the humanitarian concerns outlined above. In the northern West Bank, a number of gates which previously operated only during the annual olive harvest now open on a limited basis throughout the week, to allow for seasonal activities such as ploughing and fertilizing. Additional permits are also issued to farming families during the olive harvest. However, the requirements for agricultural workers to obtain visitor permits have become more stringent over the years, limiting the number of Palestinians overall who can cultivate their land. The extension of the closed area and permit regime to other West Bank governorates in January 2009 risks further restricting access to land in the central and southern West Bank.

Regarding the question of the route of the Barrier, which is at the core of the ICJ advisory opinion, the Israeli authorities have relocated certain closed area communities to the ‘Palestinian’ side of the Barrier. However, these amendments, which are in compliance with decisions issued by the Israeli High Court of Justice rather than the ICJ advisory opinion, leave the rerouted sections of the Barrier within the West Bank, rather than running along the Green Line or in Israel. In any case, the impact of these realignments is negligible compared to projected Barrier construction around the major settlement blocs, in particular the Qedumim and Ariel ‘Fingers’, which will further fragment the Qalqiliya and Salfit governorates; the encirclement of Ma’ale Adummim settlement, which will compound the separation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank; and construction around the Gush Etzion bloc, which will sever the Bethlehem urban area from its agricultural hinterland.

While Israel has a duty to ensure the safety and security of its citizens in response to attacks by Palestinian militants, this must be in accordance with international law and should not cause long-term harm to the local Palestinian population. The ICJ advisory opinion called on Israel to cease construction of the Barrier, including in and around East Jerusalem, and to dismantle the sections of the Barrier already completed. In line with the advisory opinion, Israel should stop all Barrier construction and dismantle or reroute the constructed sections to the Green Line. Only then will the Palestinian urban and rural communities cut off by the Barrier be able to exercise their rights to freedom of movement, work, education and health and an adequate standard of living. This will also ensure that no Palestinian land and water reserves are isolated between the Barrier and the Green Line.

Ray Dolphin works with OCHA in the occupied Palestinian territories as the Barrier Specialist. He is the author of The West Bank Wall: Unmaking Palestine (London: Pluto Press, 2006). His email address is:


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