The Writing on the Wall: Israel, the Security Barrier, and the Future of Zionism

Clive Jones. Mediterranean Politics. Volume 14, Issue 1. 2009.


On 9 July 2004, following a request seven months previously from the General Assembly of the United Nations, 15 judges sitting in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague delivered an ‘Advisory Opinion’ concerning Israel’s construction of a security barrier in the West Bank. In delivering this Opinion, approved by 14 votes to one, the Court declared that not only did its construction impose unnecessary hardship upon Palestinians in the Occupied Territory of the West Bank, but its very route, often cutting deep into Palestinian land was, the Court argued, dictated as much by political as security considerations (ICJ, 2004). As such, the Opinion concluded that the barrier violated Palestinian human rights, including the freedom of movement, the right to work as well as unfettered access to education and health (Montell, 2004). While considered by former Premier Ariel Sharon to be an inherently biased verdict that took little account of Israel’s right of self-defence, the Opinion was significant in that it determined that under international law, the West Bank and Gaza Strip remained ‘occupied’ territories and not ‘disputed’, the preferred nomenclature of successive Israeli governments since June 1967.

The Opinion of the ICJ represented both a diplomatic and moral victory for the Palestinians but in reality has done little to halt the continued construction of the barrier or indeed, dilute the support it enjoys among a polity where ‘security’ has become the organizing principle of society. In a biting critique of the ‘Wall’, Eyal Weizman noted that amid a narrative dominated by claims to security, the barrier itself ‘disguises the violent reality of a shifting colonial frontier’ (Weizman, 2007: 179). True, the Israel High Court of Justice has ruled in favour of Palestinian plaintiffs who argued that the route of the barrier imposes severe economic and social hardship on individual communities where the wall separates town or village from its adjoining land. In the case of the village of Beit Sourik, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered that 30 kilometres of the barrier be re-routed away from the village. Former Israeli Supreme Court President Ahron Barak and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz stated that the principle of proportionality, informed by security and not political concerns (my emphasis) should dictate the route of the barrier.

They also noted that while Israeli law should ultimately decide government actions in the Occupied Territories, Jerusalem could no longer dismiss the ICJ opinion as just another example of anti-Israel bias generated by the constituent members of the General Assembly towards the Jewish state (Alpher, 2005: 9). With an economic base that is increasingly interdependent with global markets, Barak and Mazuz were implicitly warning that unless the route of the barrier was proportionate with the threat faced, Israel could become vulnerable to a sanctions regime should the rationale of the barrier be driven by political expediency rather than security needs. Indeed, often overlooked in the ICJ opinion was that while it condemned the construction of the barrier inside the West Bank and on Palestinian land, it offered no opinion on its construction per se should this manifest itself along the length of the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. Even so, in the context of confronting a non-state actor, the ICJ refused to condone Israel’s right to self-defence against a fragmented Palestinian Authority.

The existential vulnerability of the Jewish state to international economic opprobrium remains nonetheless, a secondary concern to most of its citizens. For Israelis, the security barrier represents a hierarchy of values, foremost among which is the physical reassurance it provides against terrorist attacks. It also represents a visible panacea, at least in the short to medium term, over an issue that has long vexed the collective Zionist imagination: the demographic challenge presented by higher birth rates among Palestinians which, according to the demographer Professor Arnon Soffer, portend a Palestinian Arab majority between the Mediterranean and Jordan River by 2020 (Soffer, 2001: 17). This security narrative, grounded in the empirical reality of the al-Aqsa intifada has seen the governments of first Ariel Sharon and latterly Ehud Olmert impose unilateral separation upon a fragmented Palestine Authority, a process that de facto cuts to the very core of Zionism: defining the sovereign borders of the Jewish state.

Of course, this process fails to address Palestinian concerns, not least the obvious injustice entailed in the construction of the barrier on Palestinian territory that amounts in places to little more than a land grab. Several studies as well as evidence presented before the ICJ give substantial weight to such grievances (Dolphin, 2006; Palestine-Israel Journal, 2002; Tilley, 2005: 75-78; see also B’Tselem, ‘Separation Barrier’). But it is the impact that the construction of the security barrier has had upon identity politics within Israel that remains the focus of this article. Taking as its starting point the conceptual definition of Israel’s political landscape offered by political scientists Yoav Peled and Gershon Shafir which posits three distinct ‘citizenship discourses’ (Shafir and Peled, 1998), the article challenges the extent to which their categorizations remain satisfactory explanatory models for understanding and explaining current trajectories within Israeli politics in the shadow of the barrier. From the outset, the reader should note that terms used to describe the ‘barrier’ often reflect partisan positions, both moral and political. Palestinians claim that it is a wall; the eight metre high slabs of reinforced concrete that form a powerful visual impression certainly determined the lexicon of the ICJ opinion. By contrast, Israelis are quick to point out that to date, only 3.8 per cent of what they call the ‘security fence’ or ‘separation fence’ is actually walled, and has only been erected in those areas where Palestinian gunmen may possibly enjoy an elevated advantage (Embassy of Israel, London, 2005). While sensitive to the subjective nature of the adjective used, this article makes reference in the main to the barrier, an anodyne, though admittedly not always satisfactory designation.

Whatever the moral sagacity of the barrier, a barrier justified by a palpable terrorist threat and informed by a demographic challenge that cuts to the core of Israel’s proud claim to be both Jewish and democratic, its construction has clear implications over reconciling competing claims over identity and political institutions that have long shaped politics in Israel. In this regard, the importance of the barrier lies not just in defining the physical borders of the state but in shaping the intellectual boundaries of Zionism itself.

Defining Israel’s Political Arena

Despite the myriad parties and pressure groups that have defined Israel’s political landscape, Shafir and Peled have argued that most can be collapsed within what they term three main ‘citizenship discourses’, defined as ‘political and linguistic strategies of membership fashioned out of alternative combinations of identities and claims’ (Shafir and Peled, 1998: 409). These ‘citizenship discourses’ fall under three main headings—liberal, republican and ethno-nationalist—and are designed to be parsimonious, though not mutually exclusive in their application to contemporary debates in Israel over ethnicity and identity. To be sure, such rigid definitions have their critics. Oren Yiftachel (2006: 89-90), for example, argues that these discourses are premised on a ‘certain equality’ between them, something he believes negates the dominance in reality of an ethno-national discourse at the very heart of the Zionist project, a dominance that does much to negate the inclusive nature of citizenship implied by the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘republican’. Such observations do carry some conceptual weight as ideal types but, Yiftachel’s critique aside, Shafir and Peled’s definitions encompass an empirical reality that now shapes the Israeli political landscape.

The ‘liberal citizenship discourse’ places, as the term implies, emphasis upon the individual as the embodiment of ‘universal and equal rights’ and where conception of the individual good need not be diluted by responsibilities to the needs or demands of a wider community. In this regard, the role of the state has been reduced to the role of service provider, it being incumbent on the individual to fulfil only minimal political or civic duties in return. While utopian in its conceptual setting, it nonetheless remains an ideal that holds considerable appeal for those Israelis where the incremental power that has accrued to the religious parties over the last two decades appears inimical to Israel’s very own declaration of independence. The strident secularism of the now moribund Shinui party under its late leader Tommy Lapid and the Meretz alignment remain perhaps the most apposite political expressions of such views (Shafir and Peled, 1998: 410). The intellectual direction of such parties appealed to those Israelis who argue that any definition of citizenship can no longer be seen in ethno-national terms but rather in sovereign territorial terms, the unifying factor of what it means to be Israeli being a Hebrew culture (Avishai, 2005: 33-45). Seen very much as a manifestation of post-Zionism, it is an acknowledgement that at the very least, Israel remains a non-liberal democracy since the current emphasis on Jewish identity and values constricts Israel’s Palestinian citizens to second class status (Yiftachel, 1997: 506-10).

By contrast, the republican citizenship discourse is the expression of civic responsibility to the collective and remains the intellectual offspring of mamlachtiyut—Israeli statism. As such, politics remains a group activity which carries both benefits and obligations which vary according to the demands made by and upon the state in pursuit of the common good. In the case of Israel, this contract in the past has included not only high levels of taxation and military service, but also benefits accrued from the state in terms of health care, housing and employment. This is not to suggest that the relationship between citizen and state is either linear or indeed fair, but it is to suggest that the republican citizenship discourse played a central role in shaping affinity with and acceptance of the prevailing social and political order until at least the late 1980s. Finally, the ethno-nationalist discourse eschews any idea of citizenship based upon individual rights but regards citizenship in stratified, exclusionary terms with membership solely dependent upon what Shafir and Peled (1998: 411) term ‘membership in a homogenous descent group’ that goes beyond notions of political constructs and loyalties. Its adherents have been associated with nationalist and religious-nationalist parties, as well as the settler movement in the Occupied Territories. Representing a potent mix of Judaic piety and historical determinism that regards the West Bank as integral to the identity as well as security of the state, the ethno-national discourse exercised considerable influence over Israeli government decision making from 1974 to 1993 (Shafir and Peled, 2002: 159-83)

By the late 1990s these definitions of citizenship discourses had, according to Shafir and Peled, begun to fragment. In particular, the republican citizenship discourse no longer conflated with new global economic realities that impacted upon most developed countries where the role of the state in macro-economic management has been in continuous decline. This decline is important because of the traditional dominance that the republican citizenship discourse, embodied in the Labour alignment and to a lesser extent the Likud bloc, had exercised over the construction and perpetuation of a clear Israeli identity based on civic or collective values. Given that justification for the retention of the West Bank had been premised on security concerns the strategic impact of the first Palestinian intifada (1987-93) coupled with the promise of substantial Israeli territorial retrenchment under the Oslo Accords undermined the intellectual coherence of mamlachtiyut. Indeed, the logic of the argument put forward by Peled and Shafir led them to conclude that the debate over citizenship and identity in Israel had by the start of the millennium become a struggle between liberal and ethno-religious discourses over the future course and direction of Israeli identity. Memories in Israel remained raw over the assassination of Premier Yitzhak Rabin. His support for the Oslo process drew the ire of a religious-nationalist community whose vision of Israel was, in their eyes, being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Accordingly, academics such as Ilan Peleg (1998) wrote openly of Israel’s entering a Kulturkampf, with each discourse holding seemingly irreconcilable visions of the essence of Israel’s identity. The logic of the typology outlined by Shafir and Peled was that ultimately, Israel’s true security dilemma was internal rather than external.

Bringing the ‘State’ Back In

The concept of competing citizenship discourses remains a powerful critique of countervailing trends in Israeli politics and society. Even so, the collapse of the Oslo process, the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada and indeed, the strategic ramifications of the 2003 Iraq war and the 2006 border war with Hizballah have exposed the intellectual limitations of these constructs as explanatory models. Most notable among these has been the belief that the republican discourse, with its emphasis upon the collective sense of community, has been in terminal decline. True, global patterns of economic exchange continue to influence the de-regulation of the public sector in Israel. But as the public response to both the al-Aqsa intifada and the conflagration with Hizballah demonstrated, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) the single most important state institution, could still lay first claim on Israel’s most precious resource: its people.

For example, in the aftermath of the horrific seder massacre in Netanya on 28 March 2002 which killed 31 Israelis, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke of the Jewish state being at war with the Palestinians. The emotions stirred up by his speech reminded many of the national mood on the eve of the June 1967 war. Then, as in 2002, faced with the animus of its surrounding Arab neighbours, Israel’s very existence appeared to be at stake. This call to the barricades had a powerful resonance among a polity where defence has long been the dominant totem around which national life has been organized (Weymouth, 2002: 34-25). It was a resonance underpinned by the perceived rejection by Yasser Arafat at the Camp David meeting of September 2000 of proposals put before him by former Israeli Premier Ehud Barak. The widespread belief held in Israel was that these proposals would have led to the establishment of a Palestinian state in all but a small part of the Occupied Territories with a capital established in East Jerusalem. As such, Arafat’s unwillingness to entertain the Israeli proposals or any substantive counter-offer was seen as a recrudescence of a Palestinian atavism that denied Israel’s right to exist, irrespective of any peace process entered into (Malley and Agha, 2002: 46-8; Morris, 2002: 42-5). Arafat’s actions at the summit may well have occasioned the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada but the causation of the violence, to which Israel itself had contributed, remained hidden from many Israelis amid the carnage visited by Palestinian bombers on their streets. The idea that the al-Aqsa intifada and, indeed, the 2006 war with Hizballah were wars of no choice—en brera—allowed policy making in Israel to be driven by both military considerations and military solutions. This accorded with the traditional view of the IDF acting as both a physical and psychological bulwark for all Israeli citizens against the perceived animus of a predominantly Arab and Muslim Middle East. Not atypical were the remarks of the former Israeli Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General, Moshe ‘Boogie’ Ya’alon. In an interview with the daily newspaper Ha’aretz he spoke of a particular need:

I defined it from the beginning of the confrontation: the very deep internalization by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us, will not make us fold. If that deep internalization does not exist at the end of the confrontation, we will have an existential threat to Israel. If that is not burned into the Palestinian and Arab consciousness, there will be no end to their demands on us. … That’s why this confrontation is so important. There has not been a more important confrontation since the War of Independence. (Shavit, 2002)

If service in the IDF remains, therefore, the great exemplar of the Republican discourse and the true manifestation of civic values, the public response to the al-Aqsa intifada and the 2006 Lebanon war demonstrated that as an essential component of that discourse, mamlachtiyut maintains a powerful hold over the Israeli imagination. The practical impact of the al-Aqsa intifada also had intellectual ramifications for the more normative aspects of the liberal citizenship discourse. As Yossi Alpher noted, ‘the “post-Zionist” intellectual fringe that used to advocate concepts such as “a state for all its citizens” in order to embrace both Jews and Arabs in a secular Israeli identity has all but disappeared’ (Alpher, 2005: 5). Equally, those who advocated retention of the Occupied Territories on grounds of strategic necessity as well as historic association have not only had to deal with the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to sovereignty over that self-same territory, but with the changing geo-political landscape of the region associated with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The outcome of the conflict gave Israel the most benign strategic environment hitherto known in the Middle East. With the exception of Iran, few states in the region now have the capability, let alone intent, to challenge the military superiority of the IDF. Only Syria remains a symbol of the once proud collective Arab animus towards the Jewish state. Even here, however, it would appear that the political implications of the call by President George W. Bush for a new regional order has been sufficient to prompt Damascus towards tentative negotiations with Israel, albeit through Turkish intermediaries, over the future of the Golan Heights (Zisser, 2004). But with the removal of the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad, Washington and London removed at a stroke the strategic rationale for continued occupation of the West Bank: the retention of this territory as a buffer against any Iraqi incursion through Jordan aimed at the State of Israel. This argument had long been used as an umbrella under which settlement construction had been allowed to continue apace, creating a synergy between those in Israel—mainly associated with the Likud—who merged historic claim and strategic imperative in justifying Israel’s retention of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and those who on purely eschatological grounds refuse to abrogate their covenant with God by handing over land to an alien sovereignty in waiting (Friedman, 2003).

The result has been a crisis within the Likud and between the Likud and organizations such as the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization that represents all settlements in the West Bank (and until the summer of 2005 the Gaza Strip). The decision by Ariel Sharon and his supporters within the Likud to form the breakaway Kadima with its self-declared centrist agenda seemingly at odds with Likud’s attachment to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) is the most open manifestation that the ‘ethno-nationalist’ discourse had begun to fragment. This crisis has become most acute for the religious-nationalist community and in particular among those settlers whose inversion of classical Zionist thinking had led them to assume that the state was there to redeem the land. The decision by the government of Ariel Sharon to press ahead with the evacuation of all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 was not only seen as an act of betrayal but, for the Hardal (ultra-Orthodox religious nationalist community), it represented ‘[A] crisis of religious faith as well as a crisis that punctured an entire worldview’. Not only was divine intervention conspicuous by its absence but equally it did not produce the national trauma settler leaders hoped would prevent future evacuation of settlements in what Israelis refer to as Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) (Ben-Meir, 2005a: 2-3).

Therefore, given the impact of the al-Aqsa intifada, and the changing regional environment, the relative weight of the three main citizenship discourses as explanatory paradigms of Israeli politics requires substantial revision. In particular, recourse to the civic values of the state in response to the al-Aqsa intifada demonstrates not only the continued relevance of mamlachtiyut but the hegemonic role it is now assumes in determining the intellectual as well as physical boundaries of Zionism itself. Herein lies the true importance of the Security Barrier.

Realigning the Discourses

Between September 2000 and January 2005, some 3,529 Palestinians and 1,030 Israelis had been killed in violence related directly to the al-Aqsa intifada (MacKinnon, 2005). When broken down into specific periods of time, the figure given for Israeli fatalities demonstrated a specific learning curve in the tactics and strategies used to counter Palestinian terror attacks. According to research conducted by Nadav Morag, the first year of the intifada resulted in approximately 200 Israeli deaths. From September 2001 to September 2002, around 400 fatalities occurred, dropping back to under 300 in the following period. Between September 2003 and July 2004 only 24 Israelis were killed (Morag, 2005: 310).

While Israel waged a war of attrition against the various Palestinian militias through its controversial use of targeted assassinations, the construction of the security barrier, particularly in and around the northern West Bank came to be credited with the dramatic decline in the number of successful suicide attacks inside Israel proper (Or, 2005). Approbation for the construction of the fence was particularly forthcoming, as Jonathan Rynhold (2004: 59-61) noted, from those whose previous support for the Oslo process had been exposed as naïve amid the carnage of the al-Aqsa intifada. Certainly, the case could now be made that, from a purely military point of view, the construction of the fence, coupled with the proliferation of Israeli checkpoints across the West Bank allowed Israel to continue its policy of targeted assassinations with impunity since the ability of Palestinian bombers to reach their targets in retaliation for such strikes had now been severely disrupted by the construction of the barrier.

According to figures released by the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, the total length of the fence will be 723 kilometres. Of this, 56.6 per cent had been completed by the end of 2006, a further 9.1 per cent was under construction, government approval given to the route of another 34.3 per cent. The amount of land inside the West Bank that Israel will annex in constructing the barrier remains a bone of contention; the Israeli government has cited the figure of seven per cent, B’Tselem 10 per cent, but both are agreed that the barrier will enclose the main blocs of Jewish settlements adjacent to the old Green Line. This approach knowingly de-couples any final peace agreement with the Palestinians from the establishment of Israel’s final borders, a move which, despite the continued entreaties of Jerusalem, denies any meaningful role for the ‘Road Map’ in facilitating a bilateral agreement between Israel and the Palestine Authority. Israel has publicly endorsed the so-called Road Map, but Ehud Olmert’s commitment to realizing its central tenets—a ceasefire to be followed by the withdrawal of the IDF from in and around the main Palestinian conurbations—is best described as more diplomatic motion than movement.

This much is self-evident. After all, as one prominent commentator of border security in the Balkans noted, the protection and maintenance of frontiers ‘represents the empirical manifestation of a state’s adaptation of its external environment’ (Hills, 2004: 5). But in Israel’s case, the barrier has come to perform a secondary role: shaping the internal contours of identity politics within the Jewish state. In this process, Ariel Sharon, once the reluctant convert, truly had his Damascene moment when confronted with the reality of demographic projections vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Once lauded by those identified with the ethno-nationalist discourse for his proactive support for territorial entrenchment in the West Bank and Gaza, few believed that this champion of the settlement project would advocate a policy of unilateral withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. In what perhaps with hindsight proved to be a landmark speech, Sharon announced before the annual National Security conference in Herziliya in December 2004 that strategic primacy now had to be accorded demographic realities on the ground. Having devoted his political career, both in opposition and government to perpetuating Israeli rule over all the Occupied Territories, this was a seismic shift in Sharon’s thinking (Alpher, 2005: 5-6).

The former Israeli premier was reportedly influenced by the findings of Professor Arnon Soffer, an academic at the University of Haifa noted for his right-of-centre political leanings and deputy chairman of its Centre for National Security. Under its auspices, Soffer wrote a paper which on demographic grounds alone warned that the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state was in doubt in light of the disparities in population growth between Arabs and Jews and the concomitant pressure on increasingly scarce resources, most notably in the form of ‘ecological deterioration’. Basing his forecasts on both existing figures for per annum birth rates and projected rates of growth over the next two decades, Soffer (2001: 21) argued:

The rate of natural increase among the Muslim-Palestinian sector (of the population in Israel and the Occupied Territories is estimated at 3.5-4% per year: 3.5% among the Arabs of Israel and Judea and Samaria (The West Bank), and 4.5% among the Bedouins and in the Gaza Strip (thereby doubling these populations in 15-17 years time). This is the highest rate of natural increase in the world … In contrast, the rate of natural increase of the Jewish population of Israel is 1% per year; if we add to this the growth of the Jewish population through aliyah (migration to Israel) then together the Jewish growth rate is 2%. … Against this background of gaps and polarization between the two societies, an explosion may be expected as a result, among other things, of an overflow of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria into the Jewish areas.

As such, the position now adopted by Sharon represented a conflation of the Liberal citizenship discourse with its Republican counterpart; the former comprising those actors across the centre left who have been disabused of the sagacity of the Oslo process; the latter comprising those who regard the unilateral state action as the most effective method of securing and maintaining a Jewish Israeli identity. To the extent that competing discourses now define Israel’s political landscape, it is more accurate to posit competition and coercion between a state-liberal discourse on the one hand, and the ethno-national discourse on the other. To be sure, neither discourse is consistent in its membership or marked by intellectual clarity. On the Palestinian side at least, some have questioned the continued sagacity of pursuing a two-state solution. The practical reality of Israeli expansion across the Occupied Territories has meant that the very spatial requirements of sovereignty increasingly deny meaning to a viable Palestinian polity, according to Professor Sari Nusseibeh (Eldar, 2008). But consensus over the security and demographic imperatives remains and has produced acknowledgement that the security barrier serves a necessary goal: the ability of Israel to remain both a Jewish democratic state, at least in the short to medium turn.

It is among those associated with the ethno-nationalist discourse, however, that the construction of the security barrier has had the most impact. While warning that its unilateral imposition upon the Palestinians would only ‘increase their motivation to fight Israel’, Baruch Kimmerling (2006) argued that the barrier ‘smashes to smithereens the ideology of the Greater Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) and knocks the ideological and political infrastructure out from under the feet of Jewish fundamentalism’. A crisis of identity certainly pervades those whose worldview, grounded in a particular eschatological determinism, regards maintenance of all Jewish sovereignty over all the Occupied Territories as central to the realization of a messianic era. But while pictures of settlers demonstrating over the evacuation of their homes in the Gaza Strip in August 2005, or of violent confrontation between settlers and Israeli security forces in Hebron and the illegal outpost of Amona in January 2006 made world headlines, the settlers themselves, let alone those who argue for retention of the West Bank on security grounds, remain far from a homogenous bloc. It is these divisions, and in turn how they have been exacerbated by the construction of the security barrier, that are shaping the intellectual as well as physical boundaries of Zionism.

The total number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is now in excess of 250,000. The very term settler, at least outside Israel, has become synonymous with an ideological type, unwilling to compromise over the partition of land deemed to be their patrimony. But as Yehuda Ben Meir (2005b: 2) reminds us, ‘The residents of Ma’aleh Adunim, Ariel and Alfei Menashe are different from the residents of Elkana, Efrat and Paduel who in turn are different from those of Itamar, Har Bracha, Yizhar and Tapuah’. While undoubtedly sympathetic to the security rationale behind their construction, the inhabitants of the first three settlements attach relatively little religious importance to the process of settlement. Lying some 30 kilometres inside the West Bank from the old Green Line, Ariel is the largest settlement in the West Bank. Indeed, with a developed infrastructure and a population fast approaching 30,000 the term settlement, with it connotations of flimsy structures and prefabricated buildings, hardly seems appropriate. It remains a predominantly secular enterprise, and while religious piety may be observed, the structure and growth of Ariel is a reminder that the majority of those living in such settlements do so out of socio-economic consideration, most notably access to affordable housing beyond Israel’s densely populated coastal strip.

Debate over the future contours of the barrier and the position of Ariel highlight two important points. First, despite its location deep inside the West Bank, no Israeli government, given the size of population, has the political will to enforce its evacuation. Second, it highlights the hollowness of declarations by the Israeli Supreme Court that the direction of the fence must remain a function of security. As Shlomo Brom (2004: 4) noted with reference to Ariel:

If the fence does ultimately include Ariel, it will necessarily plunge many kilometres into Judea and Samaria and will perpetuate a situation whereby the area where the Palestinians live is chopped up into small enclaves with no links between them. Yet from security reasons [sic], the addition of Ariel is superfluous.

In short, by incorporating Ariel, as well as the majority of settlements established just over the Green Line (such as Elkana, Sha’are Tiqva, Etz Efrayim) and East Jerusalem, the barrier acts as a regulating mechanism between the state and those settlers whose attachment to the territories is economic, rather than overtly national or ideological. Moreover, even in settlements where adherence to the ideology of Eretz Yisrael was the basis for their establishment, high levels of socio-economic affluence have dimmed the ardour of religious nationalism. This is not to suggest that such settlements—Efrat is an apposite example—view the barrier with favour but it is to suggest that they have come to accept, however reluctantly, a new contract with the state: it will not evacuate them from their settlements but equally, they must accept that the attainment of Eretz Yisrael no longer equates with regional realities. By definition, therefore, the security barrier is a political boundary, not just in demarcating Israel’s external boundaries with the Palestinians, but by setting the limits of political discourse within Israel itself. If the security barrier had followed the Green Line, this would not have been possible. Rather, the settlers of all political and ideological hues would have comprised an insurmountable obstacle, unmoved by recourse to moral argument or international opprobrium as justification for ideological retrenchment.

The security barrier therefore represents the triumph of the state-liberal discourse. The intellectual hegemony it now exercises over Israelis is best seen in public reaction to the withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005, the national election results of March 2006, and the subsequent fissures within the ethno-religious discourse that threaten irrevocable splits from the state. Contrary to some of the more alarmist prediction, Israelis were not ‘traumatized’ by the withdrawal of just over 8000 settlers from Gaza. While many expressed sympathy with the pain of those losing their homes, the sight of some of the inhabitants of Gush Katif, the largest settlement bloc in Gaza, bedecked in orange (the colour of the Jewish municipal council in Gaza) and sporting the Star of David drew the ire of many Israelis who resented the moral equivalence with the Holocaust. What trauma did exist remained confined to those settlers with a belief in divine intervention—be it in the form of widespread refusal among the Israeli security forces to implement the evacuation or by some more perceptible act of celestial intercession—which remained conspicuous by its absence (Ben-Meir, 2005a: 2-3).

The fact that the withdrawal from Gaza, as well as the evacuation of four smaller settlements in the north of the West Bank was completed without severe civil disorder has placed the leadership of the settlers in an invidious position. Organizations such as the Yesha Council which, despite being dominated by religious nationalists, purports to represent the interests of all settlers singularly failed in their stated objective of using peaceful protest to prevent the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. This has led to accusation that the leaders and rabbis of the Yesha—such as Pinhas Wallerstein—had been too weak in mobilizing opposition to government policy, and that more proactive measures to demonstrate the strength if not the scope of opposition among the settler population were now warranted. This call to the barricades has had a particular resonance among the ultra-Orthodox religious-nationalist or Hardal youth, all too ashamed at the apparent timidity of their elders in the Yesha. Inspired by rabbis such as Dov Lior from the settlement of Kiryat Arba and Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh, these young settlers have been more confrontational in their dealings not just with the Palestinians, but increasingly with the IDF in the Occupied Territories.

Given their increasingly vexed relationship with the state, the Hardal are best described as ‘insurgent citizens’, claiming allegiance to the Jewish norms of the state but willing to confront it by extra-legal means when it denies efficacy to religious claims over land and resources. Under the umbrella organization Maginei Eretz (Defenders of the Land), the Hardal have formed themselves into several groups, most notably Ne’emanei Eretz Yisrael (Faithful of the Land of Israel), Komemiyut (Sovereignty) and Halev Ha’Yehudi (The Jewish Heart). It remains hard to discern the relative strength of such groups, not least because membership is often shared between them, but the emphasis on a Jewish as opposed to an Israeli identity is something that marks them off from mainstream Israeli society as well as from the older generation of settlers. Vitriolic language remains, for the most part, the preferred form of protest, with the epithet ‘Nazi’ now a frequent term of abuse heaped upon IDF soldiers guarding the small Jewish enclave in the centre of Hebron by those selfsame residents (Harel, 2006).

There have, however, been more violent incidents. The most notable to date was the forced evacuation and destruction of nine prefabricated buildings established illegally on a hillside in Amona, close to the larger and well-established settlement of Ofra. Its destruction had been ordered the Israeli High court of Justice. When, on Wednesday 1 February 2006, the border police and IDF troops moved in to enforce the court’s decision, they were met by a hail of stones, burning cinder blocks and buckets of paint from Hardal youth. The reaction of the security forces was the direct antithesis of the restraint, indeed tears, so publicly shed in front of the international media the previous August. Using mounted police wielding truncheons, the security forces evicted the protestors from their redoubts, but not before over 200 were injured, several seriously. Interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the violence, the Rabbi Avi Gisser from the settlement of Ofra noted that the seeds for such violence were sown not only in the growing estrangement of settler youth from the institutions of the state, but also from the Yesha. As he concluded, ‘Amona is the price the Yesha Council paid for the loss of Gush Katif’ (in the Gaza Strip) (Rapoport, 2006).

The scenes of violence at Amona have, if anything, served to delegitimize the settler movement in the eyes of the state-liberal discourse since its very ideology, let alone its actions, brook little compromise. In the aftermath of Amona, one protestor from the settlement of Beit Al, Asaf Baruchi, was reported to have stated that ‘It’s now a war between cultures. The Left is trying to liquidate religious Zionism the only alternative’. Another, describing confrontations with the security forces, this time in Hebron, claimed that ‘This is an army of Israelis who hate the Jews’ (Burston, 2006). While care must be taken to place such statements within their emotive context, they remain of a piece with the more sober (yet no less profound) pronouncements emanating from those close to Hardal feeling. Therefore the refrain that ‘[I]f the State of Israel withdraws from the Land, then we are withdrawing from the State of Israel’, is not uncommon when describing prevailing sentiment among religious nationalist youth (Ben-Meir, 2005a: 6). The logic of this position has found expression in calls for a separate state of Judea, where, free from the lassitude of a corrupt, secular polity, the messianic era can be realized.

This expressed desire for a Jewish state parallel to the State of Israel remains a pipe dream. The number of settlers involved, let alone paucity of resources that only the state could provide, determine as much. However much theological and emotional turmoil the construction of the security barrier may cause among those settlers attached to the integrity of Judea and Samaria, for the majority, with their relative economic affluence, the knowledge that their homes will not be dismantled, and their continued existence within the boundaries of a predominantly Jewish dispensation protected from the threat of Palestinian terrorism has been enough to reconcile all but the most extreme to the security barrier and the logic of finite borders (Elizur, 2003: 118). As Rabbi Gisser noted somewhat wearily in an interview with Ha’aretz:

For Israeli society, the conflict [with the Palestinians] and the price we pay for it has become intolerable. For 100 years the agenda of [Israeli] society here has been belligerent, combative. The Israeli public wants a different agenda, a civil one. The old world has collapsed. Today, the three largest parties (Kadima, Labour and the Likud) are talking about two states for two people. Twenty years ago that was the mantra of the New Communist List … We [the settler movement] did not submit to the people of Israel a sufficiently realistic political plan because we found it emotionally difficult to mark borders in the heart of the land of our forefathers, in the heart of the religious, idealistic and Zionist destination … I always knew that a realistic political plan would include the marking of borders, and that’s why I was deterred from it. It stood and stands in opposition to our ideological being. I see it as very bad, but if you have to choose between utter destruction of the settlements and leaving some of them, I will certainly choose the lesser evil. (Rapaport, 2006)

Between the Metro and the Retro

One year after Ariel Sharon delivered his landmark speech in Herziliya, his successor, Ehud Olmert, addressed the same forum and, reaffirming his commitment to continuing construction of the security barrier, stated that ‘the most important and dramatic [step] facing us [is] shaping the permanent borders of Israel. We must create a clear border that reflects the demographic reality that has been created on the ground as soon as possible’ (Benn, 2006). After five years of the al-Aqsa intifada it is a position that enjoys widespread public approbation and even, as the comments of Rabbi Avi Gisser imply, reluctant acceptance among many of the settlers. The cost of the barrier remains high. It was already estimated to have cost over $1 million per kilometre in December 2003 when only 145 kilometres had been completed and while its final contours, and as such its cost, have yet to fixed, it will certainly be in excess of over $750 million (di Giovanni, 2003: 30). Whatever the pecuniary imposition on the Israeli Finance Ministry, it is a cost that most Israelis appear willing to bear, not least in light of the emergence of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, in the January 2006 elections as the dominant actor in Palestinian politics.

To be sure, opposition to the fence continues to be regarded by those associated with the ethno-national discourse as an area where political capital can be gained. Even so, the steadfast opposition of Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu or the former Minister of the Interior, Uzi Landau, relies less on ideological fidelity and more on the damage, real or imagined, the construction of the barrier has had upon Israel’s deterrent capability. The triumph of Hamas in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, Likud argued, was a direct result of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, demonstrating a lack of resolve among the decision-making elite that only emboldened Palestinian extremists. Yet aside from proposing full employment of Israel’s military superiority Likud had little to offer in the way of alternatives to ensure the security of the citizen while warding off the demographic threat. Moreover, the evidence to date suggests that fences have indeed proved effective in preventing armed groups infiltrating into Israel. Even though far from completed, the barrier was credited with helping to reduce the Israeli death toll to some 56 fatalities between September 2004 and September 2005 (Orr, 2005).

Other critics of the barrier doubt that it can ever act as a total panacea in Israel’s search for security. The late Israeli sociologist, Baruch Kimmerling (2006), may well have been correct in his observation that the barrier ‘smashes to smithereens’ the ideology of Eretz Yisrael but, as he also wrote, its route, involving unilateral land expropriation and imposition ‘[W]ill never be a recognized border but will only exacerbate and prolong the conflict between us and the Palestinians’. Kimmerling is undoubtedly correct in expressing the existential animus of the Palestinians towards the barrier, its route and direction, particularly as it envelops East Jerusalem. Yet it also misses the point: with the Palestinians circumscribed militarily and facing international political ostracism over the refusal of Hamas to recognize Israel, the expectation among many Israelis is that they already reap tangible benefits from its construction. In this regard, the lack of diplomatic recognition of Israel’s unilateral action, either from a bifurcated Palestinian Authority or the wider Arab world, is but a small price to pay for peace on Israel’s terms.

These terms include the expropriation to date of at least 23 square miles of territory inside the West Bank, the construction of at least 4,000 new housing units inside the main settlement blocs of Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel, and the migration of at least 14,000 Israelis to these settlements since the beginning of 2005. As Dror Etkes of the Israeli peace group Settlement Watch explained, ‘It’s a trade off: the Gaza Strip for the settlement blocs; the Gaza Strip for Palestinian land, the Gaza Strip for unilaterally imposing borders’ (McGreal, 2005). Problems undoubtedly remain with the future political contours of the barrier. Its projected route to the east of Arab Jerusalem and encompassing Ma’ale Adumim will, at a stroke, place the Palestinian residents of the city, believed to number at least 200,000 well within the confines of the future border. Here at least, the logic of demographic separation falls foul of Israeli mythology: Jerusalem, despite its heterogeneous population and political composition must remain the unified capital of the Jewish state.

Even so, the course of the barrier appears set to define the physical borders of Israel and, as such, bring about a realignment of politics within Israel itself. The barrier represents the resurgence of the state, and as such, the triumph, at least for the moment of the state-liberal discourse. It is not, as Yossi Alpher notes, a coherent political ideology as such. But with its emphasis upon demographics, innovative if finite attitudes towards the Occupied Territories and the drive towards unilateral action, this discourse presents Israelis with a means of escaping the incubus of occupying (though still dominating) another people. It also suggests that the Kulturkampf, the struggle over Israel’s very identity and, in particular, the increasing role played by Judaic piety in the construction of that identity will be decided within finite intellectual boundaries.

The Kulturkampf remains a schism at the core of the Israeli body politic and one that is likely to be intensified, rather than ameliorated by the construction of the security barrier. A key difference, however, will be that ideologically the symbiosis of religious fervour and pursuit of the redemptive process through settlement in all the Occupied Territories can no longer carry the emotive weight it once did. The future before those settlers whose religious convictions once propelled them towards the Occupied Territories will be determined by forging closer ties with the mainly non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox community, and by intra-communal retrospection over the failure of their narrative to appeal to mainstream Israel. Redemption through settlement remains, for the foreseeable future, in abeyance (Wurmser, 2006: 7).

With the old left-right divide over territory a declining currency of ideological exchange, the direction of Israeli politics is being shaped by what has been termed a struggle between the ‘metro’ and the ‘retro’; the former being defined as Israelis, largely urban-based and stridently secular, the latter as Jews whose religious observance defines identity (Peri, 2005). Amid such categorizations which, admittedly, are dangerously akin to caricature, there remains one irony that, for the moment, remains obscured by the dominance of the state-liberal discourse. Having set the barrier as the solution to one demographic problem, it may serve to inflame another. With their preponderance towards having larger families than secular Israelis, the demographic weight of religious Jews, not to mention the projections for growth among Palestinian Israelis who now constitute 18 per cent of the population inside Israel, may yet determine the future of character of Israel beyond the state-liberal hegemony (Weiss, 2006).


In leading the newly formed Kadima to victory in the March 2006 elections, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made establishing the final borders of Israel the central tenet of the party platform. While in his victory speech on the evening of 28 March he stated a preference for establishing these borders in conjunction with the Palestinian Authority, the length and scope of the security barrier suggests that unilateralism will remain the leitmotif of the governing coalition. For a man who once argued for Israel’s retention of all of the West Bank on historic as well as strategic grounds Olmert’s acceptance of the path trodden by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon is truly ground-breaking in its realignment of the hitherto dominant political discourses in Israel. The majority of the Israeli public now accepts the logic of partial withdrawal from the West Bank, not just because of the immediate threat of terrorism, but because the strategic concerns that have long dominated the political horizon no longer accord with new regional realities. The most pressing remains the demographic threat to Israel’s proud claim to be both Jewish and democratic, something that remains inimical to occupation over another people. The ethno-national discourse, despite its support among the Hardal, offers little in the way of reconciling these claims. In the longer term it remains to be seen if in advocating the construction of the barrier those political parties associated with the state-liberal discourse have not sown the seeds of their own downfall, as within these defined boundaries the birth rate of religious Jews continues to outstrip their secular counterparts. Perpetuating a clear Israeli identity in this regard remains the real challenge at least for those, such as the author Amos Oz (2005), who wish to construct a moral modern society free from ‘Rabbinic dictates’.

Such debates will undoubtedly dominate the cultural and political horizons of Israelis for years to come. But they remain horizons shaped by the immediate presence and construction of the security barrier that now captures the majority of Israelis within defined boundaries. Whatever the moral sagacity of the barrier, a barrier justified initially by the exigencies of a palpable terrorist threat and projected demographic asymmetries, its construction now determines the future of Israelis as they reconcile themselves to the new physical, as well as intellectual limits of Zionism.