Or fence, if you will. That seemingly banal reality of suburban life is being used to separate Israelis and Palestinians. Disregard for a moment how much of a misnomer calling the separation wall a fence is: for long stretches it is twenty-five feet high, topped with sensors and barbed wire. Not quite your average picket fence. Understandably, the wall raises concerns for the lives and livelihoods of Palestinians and the prospects for peace in the region. Just a few days ago, the International Court of Justice ruled it violated the rights of Palestinians, a verdict rejected by the Israeli government. There is a broader reason, however, why the wall is such a crucial phenomenon: it is a massive social experiment in the containment of a disadvantaged, recalcitrant population. And riding on its success or failure are the possibilities that such social control can be used elsewhere. In other words, the wall may be coming to your neighborhood.
Granted, it would not be entirely new. Gated communities abound, particularly in California, a contemporary segregation complete with armed guards to keep the predatory public out. Vast prison complexes house more than 2 million Americans, half of them first-time offenders, who are introduced into an environment of violence, sexual abuse and mental privation. While gated communities separate, prison disciplines. But as the prison population and the number of the unhappy poor rise it becomes more difficult to police both the prison and the spaces of poverty. Discipline is expensive and hard to maintain: prison officers can rarely protect prisoners from each other. Separation is relatively easier to achieve: build a mammoth obstacle that is nearly impossible to breach,
and station heavily armed men on your side of it to shoot anyone who does.
Sound like anything you've been hearing recently? The wall is the answer to the increasing difficulty of policing large unruly
populations: don't bother. It effectively unites the worst of segregation and incarceration in a ghoulish intersection of separation and anarchy. It no longer matters what happens on the wrong side of the wall, as long as no one gets out. Echoes abound of the Kurt Russell film "Escape from New York", where a wall is built around Manhattan and criminals are abandoned within the barricaded island. The wall updates that concept, only now, along with any miscreants, families and young children will be locked up and the key thrown away. Modern government has historically aimed to administer and better the lives of its population. The philosopher Michel Foucault called this biopolitics, or the politics of life. The wall instead enforces a politics of death, or in the chilling term of South African political scientist Achille Mbembe, necropolitics. The wall in Palestine is thus more than security, more than land grab, more than humiliation. It marks a momentous, and monstrous, social experiment that explores the very limits of how one group can make another disappear without actually killing them. The imbalance in forces is so marked as to be laughable. The Israeli military is among the strongest in the world; the Palestinian leader couldn't get out of his compound when it was under siege. Israel has nuclear weapons; the Palestinians use donkeys to bomb civilians (and PETA then protests the donkey's death). Three times as many Palestinians than Israelis have died under the occupation. It seems a fait accompli that the wall will be a success; Ariel Sharon is already hailing it as lowering the incidence of suicide bombings and improving Israel's security. That success will inspire more of the powerful to lock in the powerless and leave them to their own devices.
And that is why it is essential that Israelis and Palestinians lead a broad-based movement to destroy the wall with peaceful protest and civil disobedience. The problem is not just the Palestinians' as the model and its technology are already international and easily exportable. In place of the gulag archipelago, the police state of permanent discipline that characterized the twentieth century, the new millennium's geography of power will be wide seas of affluence fencing in small islands of anarchy. You really
should care; it could happen to you.
Arjun Chowdhury is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota.