How Israel's Security Barrier Affects a Final Border

The barrier is the most drastic change in the territorial landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the erection of Israeli settlements and may well eventually be the most consequential

barrier slide.001 post.jpg

The Atlantic's new special report "Is Peace Possible?" is featuring multimedia presentations on the four core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Borders, Security, Refugees, and Jerusalem. These are complex issues, so post your questions in the comments section of each chapter, send them via email (to, or tweet them to us at @IsPeacePossible.

What is the Israeli security barrier/fence? How does it relate to drawing a border? What challenges does it present? How much of it is along the 1967 lines? How and why has the route changed?

9-11 Ten Years LaterDuring the height of the second intifadah (uprising), which lasted from 2000 to 2006, scores of Palestinian suicide bombers made their way largely uninterrupted into the heart of Israel, moving with relative ease from the West Bank into Israel's main cities. Growing Israeli public pressure to address the situation forced then-Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon - who historically objected, on ideological and political grounds, to the concept of separation between Israel proper and the West Bank - to initiate construction of a physical barrier in and around the West Bank. A similar barrier has surrounded the Gaza Strip since 1994.

The vast majority of the Israeli barrier is comprised of an electronic fence surrounded by a detection path, patrol road, ditch, and barbed wires, spanning approximately 65-165 feet (20-50 meters) in width. In those areas where the barrier enters an urban setting, it turns into a stark concrete wall, which requires less land (only a few meters wide) and avoids the wide footprint of the fence.

The barrier is fully built and operational in those areas that are generally along the 1967 lines, and are therefore less controversial, as well as around East Jerusalem. (In total, the barrier has been constructed on or nearly two-thirds of the 1967 lines.) Around the large settlement blocs, where the route is more intrusive into the West Bank, the barrier largely remains in planning stages, unbuilt; construction there is frozen for a variety of reasons, including the relatively quiet security situation, lack of funding, objections by international actors, and Israeli court rulings. (Approximately 30 percent of the planned route has not been constructed yet.)

The drop in terrorism from the West Bank is attributed to various factors: effective action by the Palestinian security forces, heightened Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, a decision by parts of the Palestinian leadership to reject violence as political tool, and a drop in the motivation of Palestinian militants to engage in terrorism. But undeniably, the large, constructed segments of the barrier have proven to be an effective impediment to many terrorists.

The basic premise of physical separation between Israel and the Palestinians is overwhelmingly supported by the majority of Israelis and remains uncontested, even if at times unpopular, by mainstream international and domestic actors. There is no real argument against a country that aims to prevent terrorists from entering its territory by means of physical barriers along its perimeter. The controversy surrounds the route of the barrier, which deviates from the 1967 lines (the only lines of Israeli sovereignty recognized by the international community) and includes the three large settlement blocs and their surroundings. (The barrier around the Gaza Strip follows the 1967 lines there.)

In terms of area, 8 percent equivalent of the Palestinian territories is located on the Israeli side of the projected barrier. (As a point of comparison, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered to annex only 5.9 percent of the territories in 2008, as shown in the "Is Peace Possible?" borders presentation.) In demographic terms, roughly 250,000 Palestinians (mostly in East Jerusalem) and 440,000 Jews (in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem) remain on its Israeli side, while roughly 75,000 Israelis in 74 settlements remain on its Palestinian side.

The barrier's projected route generally corresponds with Israel's border proposals during both the 2000-1 and the 2008 negotiations. Those segments that do not fall along the border that is eventually decided in a final-status agreement will need to be moved within Israel's new borders. One clear place this will be required is in and around East Jerusalem, where the barrier currently follows the Israeli-declared municipal line of the city, and includes on the Israeli side tens of Palestinian neighborhoods and villages that will make up the Palestinian capital if a peace agreement is reached. Other segments that will likely be rebuilt following a peace agreement are those areas that are currently located on the 1967 lines but that would move into what today is Israel proper in the context of land swaps. (Click here for more information on the theory and reality of land swaps.)

Many of the deviations of the barrier from the 1967 lines to include the large settlement blocs indicate political motives in the route's original plan. As described by former Israeli intelligence officer Yossi Alpher:

The first and worst mistake, by Sharon and the defense establishment, was to look upon the fence idea as the opportunity for a land grab: a chance to link as much of the West Bank as possible to Israel and expand the territory under the control of specific settlements. This was a clear violation of the primary intent of those Israeli security experts who advocated the fence in the first place: a green line fence that would separate potential Palestinian terrorists from the heartland of Israel. ... Next came the mistake of building the fence/wall (here much of it is a wall) around Jerusalem on the basis of ideological/religious rather than security considerations.

In some instances - like in the Etzion bloc, the Ma'ale Adumim area, Zufim-Sal'it, and others - pressure by international actors and rulings by the Israel High Court of Justice, aided by advice of Israeli security experts, challenged some of the segments of the barrier that deviated from the 1967 lines and forced the Israeli government to change the route.  These cases revealed that the more expansive routes were often less secure, and failed to balance security needs with maintaining a reasonable livelihood for the affected Palestinian population. So while the barrier - as a physical defensive element - has had legitimate security motivations, they have become inextricable intertwined with political agendas as well.

The barrier is the most drastic change in the territorial landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the erection of Israeli settlements and may well eventually be the most consequential. The barrier was conceived at a time when there was not an Israeli consensus about the creation of a Palestinian state - and ironically, may have been one of the driving factors in conditioning the Israeli public to the idea of partition; despite its controversial route, the barrier was an implicit statement that any settlements outside the barrier would not be part of Israel.
For more information about the barrier's ever-evolving trajectory and political implications, visit borders and security expert Shaul Arieli's website, where you can find relevant presentations, maps, data, and articles. The Open Society Archive has created an impressive multimedia site called "The Divide," which explores numerous facets of the barrier from both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives through official documents, photos, maps, data, articles, and personal stories.