A FENCE, by definition, looks different from its opposite sides. Here in Israel the Sharon government is constructing what it calls a "terrorism prevention fence," a high cement barrier that will run hundreds of miles along a circuitous route dividing Israeli and Palestinian areas. From the side of Israel, the dull gray construction glimpsed mostly from a distance can appear as an affront on the landscape, and as an unpleasant reminder of the garrison character of a state under siege, but it is seen also as a remedy to Israeli borderlessness and a necessary bulwark against suicide-murder. The problem the fence aims to solve is real, but it causes new problems. Israel's Supreme Court will hear arguments against the fence soon, and in the Israeli press it is fiercely debated. The government is now considering adjustments to its route. But even many Israelis who regret the paralysis of the peace process can see the fence as a signal of security.
From the Palestinian side, the construction is a wall pure and simple, and objections have been registered with the International Court of Justice.
Seen up close, as the barrier is by the villagers upon whose territory it intrudes, it is a looming monstrosity that offends in numerous ways. First, it is a running monument of destruction, as bulldozers obliterate property, olive groves, farmland, wells, and playing fields. The wall interrupts roads and bisects towns and cities. Members of families are separated, workers are impeded from getting to jobs, pregnant women and other patients find themselves cut off from doctors and hospitals. Because the wall meanders along a serpentine path designed to protect as many Israelis as possible, its loops isolate dozens of Arab villages and create numerous Palestinian enclaves, effective cages.
Most disturbingly, the wall veers far from the original 1967 border in numerous places, and thus represents a unilateral Israeli appropriation of disputed land, a repudiation of the hope for a negotiated resolution to the conflict over territory. The wall can kill the peace process once and for all.
The 1.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank already endure unprecedented levels of impoverishment and social collapse, with rampant unemployment among adults and shocking malnourishment among children. The wall promises to make all this worse -- and perhaps permanent. The Palestinian people have been grotesquely betrayed by a corrupt leadership. In despair, Palestinians have broadly tolerated the nihilist violence of their most extreme elements. But the Palestinian people did not create the disaster within which they live, and the wall is a further symbol of that powerlessness. They can see it only as a new source of rage and despair, which are the root cause of the very terror the Israeli "security fence" intends to protect against.
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There is a certain kind of American narcissism that sees every world problem as originating in Washington, but still a visitor here sees connections. George W. Bush has thrown up a wall across the world, exacerbating an "us versus them" bipolarity that grips this and other places. Bush sponsors the illusion that deep sources of terror can be ignored in favor of a civilizational "clash" that efficiently feeds those sources. The failure of this approach is on full display in Iraq, which is quickly becoming the rallying point for whole new jihadist belligerence as Islamic extremists take up Bush's challenge.
As for the crisis here, there is deep significance in the fact that it did not merit even a mention in the president's recent State of the Union address. Washington has done nothing real to support the emergence of moderate Palestinian leadership, and Palestinian Muslims as a whole, perceiving a rising tide of hatred of Islam in the West, are understandably inclined to regard America as the enemy. The Sharon government, meanwhile, sees itself as waging the frontline battle of the war on terrorism, but that war's futile strategies were drawn up in Washington. Bush's example has reinforced the most self-defeating impulses of the Israeli government.
But there is a big difference between Israel and America. Israelis, unlike Americans, confront mortal danger on a daily basis, with buses and cafes as occasions of threat, children as targets. No American has the right to judge Israeli responses glibly. But even less should Americans ignore how Washington's abdication makes things worse for both sides here.
Having walked away from this conflict, Bush betrays a longstanding American commitment to advance a negotiated peace. He leaves Israelis and Palestinians both to their increasing desperation, an indifference that betrays America's ideal of justice and its foundational friendship with Israel.
The wall rises in Palestinian groves and villages because Israelis and Palestinians cannot resolve their conflict alone. But Israelis and Palestinians, alas, are together on the wrong side of the wall that George W. Bush has built.