Five years ago this July, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague handed down its advisory opinion on Israel’s separation wall in the occupied Palestinian territories (see p. 32). Both the Israeli government and the Palestinians had been preparing for the decision since December 2003, when the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution requesting an ICJ advisory opinion.
On July 9, 2004, the ICJ ruled 14-1 that the wall was illegal in its entirety, that it should be pulled down immediately, and that compensation should be paid to those already affected. The judges also decided 13-2 that signatories to the Geneva Convention were obliged to enforce “compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law.” Less than two weeks later, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution 150-6 supporting the ICJ’s call to dismantle the wall.
Exactly one year and one day after the ICJ had issued its opinion, Israel’s cabinet approved the final details for the wall in Jerusalem, a route expected to include Ma’ale Adumim. In the five years since the wall was deemed illegal by the ICJ, Israel has pressed on with construction to the extent that it is now one of the most defining components of its occupation. As of last year, two-thirds of the wall’s planned route of more than 450 miles had either been completed or was under construction (a figure rising to 77 percent in Jerusalem). Across the occupied West Bank, the wall’s economic and social impact already is disastrous: the World Bank has estimated that 2 to3 percent of Palestinian GDP was lost annually due to the wall.
This existential threat to the very survival of many Palestinian communities (not to mention the broader political implications and breaches of international law) has spurred on various kinds of resistance to the wall: popular resistance by Palestinians living in the occupied territories; cases brought in Israeli courts; and, outside of Palestine, the international legal arena and activists’ campaigning.
As soon as work on the wall began in 2002, Palestinians organized themselves to resist. This was a relatively slow process, starting in a handful of villages, before spreading to others also destined to lose huge tracts of farmland and olive groves. Particular villages have become famous for their insistent, creative nonviolent demonstrations against the Wall: Jayyous, Budrus, Bil’in, Ni’lin and Aboud, to name a few.
In Jayyous, demonstrations began in 2002, with close to 150 demonstrations over the following two years. Between 2004 and 2008, however, protests stopped, after Israel used the leverage of the permit system–allowing limited access to farmland isolated by the wall–”to apply pressure on the village. In November of last year, the weekly demonstrations resumed.
Mohammad Jayyousi, the son of a Jayyous farmer, is youth coordinator for the Stop the Wall Campaign. While justifiably proud of the protests to date, he also is frustrated by what he sees as a kind of resignation among older Palestinians who, he says, have sometimes told the youth that no one can stop the Israelis from building where they want to.
“For us as a new generation, it’s we who will suffer,” he says. “In my opinion, you need to mobilize the youth, and educate them to understand the consequences of the apartheid system–the wall, settler roads, settlements, etc.–for them to see that for a better future, there will need to be a cost.”
Although Jayyous and other villages like Bil’in and Ni’lin have active committees of all ages involved in resisting the Wall, active Palestinians are a minority. Palestinians don’t participate in the popular resistance, Jayyousi explains, “because they don’t want to be in trouble with the occupation.” His own father stopped going after the first demonstration for fear of losing the family’s only permit to visit and work their farmland.
These weekly demonstrations, a strategy adopted for various periods of time by other West Bank villages, serve a few purposes. One is to empower the villagers to be able to do something to defend themselves; to express their refusal to surrender. Another is to slow down the physical construction of the wall as much as possible. Finally, the protests are also designed to attract local and international media attention to the wall and its consequences.
The Israeli military’s response to this popular resistance has been harsh: “troublesome” villages have been subjected to raids, curfews, and mass arrest campaigns. The protests themselves are routinely met with force: 18 Palestinians have been killed, and hundreds injured, by the Israeli military during anti-wall protests.
The IDF apparently does not consider the possibility that the anti-wall protests could inspire, and develop into, a wider movement.
A different (though sometimes complementary) strategy employed by a number of Palestinian communities is to take their fight to the Israeli courts, an approach that has brought mixed results. In Jayyous, Mayor Mohammad Taher Jabr told me that he felt this legal avenue was “a waste of time”:
“I went in November to the Israeli High Court,” he said. “The judge asked me if I accepted the change to the route, and I replied that when the Israeli army made the wall in the first place, they didn’t ask us. The army works on the ground without talking to the court.”
Suhail Khalilieh, head of the Urbanization Monitoring Department at the Applied Research Institute–”Jerusalem (ARIJ), points out that “at the end of the day, the West Bank is governed by the Israeli army and the civil administration, so it’s subject to military law. The Israeli army can simply override any court decision by saying they are doing it for military or security purposes.”
That said, there have been limited successes for individual villages. Bil’in, a village famous for its popular resistance, also secured an apparent “victory” in the Israeli courts in September 2007, when the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered a one-mile change in the wall’s route.
Yet it wasn’t until April 2009, some 19 months later, that a new route was finally submitted in compliance with the court order. The wall’s new path isolates 1,000–rather than 1,700–dunams of Bil’in’s land.
The case for taking the battle to the Israeli courts is arguably supported by the recent slow progress of the wall: in 2008, it grew by just seven and a half miles. In February of this year, a spokesperson for Israel’s Defense Ministry “blamed the lack of progress on High Court of Justice rulings,” as well as “pending petitions.”
While individual villages are grateful to regain sections of land they thought lost, this is small consolation when compared to what is still being confiscated. Worse still, Israel, while ignoring the ICJ opinion, can use these rulings as propaganda cover, claiming to respect Palestinian rights within “security” constraints.
Internationally, the wall has been taken up by human rights organizations and Palestine solidarity groups as a focus for their work and campaigns. This has often been highly effective, to the point of overcoming Israel’s propaganda push about it being a temporary, legitimate, “security fence.”
Pictures of the concrete sections of the wall in urban Palestinian areas resonate strongly in the West, where the memory of the Berlin Wall still lingers. While Western media outlets almost always feel obliged to cite Israel’s security excuse as “balance,” there have been numerous reports on the suffering experienced by Palestinians affected by the wall.
The wall has changed not just the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, but also the dynamic of the Palestinian struggle. The reality created inside the occupied territories (a process begun during the Oslo accords) by Israel’s colonies, Areas A/B/C zoning, the permit system, separate roads–and now the wall–has led to the creation of a Palestinian enclave-state in waiting, and thus the death of a genuine “two-state solution.”
These three methods of resistance (popular struggle, Israeli courts, and international advocacy) have had both successes and failures. On the anniversary of the ICJ opinion, however, it is perhaps worth emphasizing the inability thus far of the Palestinian leadership to really make a case for what is a significant legal endorsement of the Palestinian position.
Many of those affected on the ground by the wall feel disappointed that the ICJ ruling has not been fully exploited. Sameeh al-Naser, deputy governor of Qalqilya, told me that he feels the Palestinian Authority, while perhaps restrained by its relationship with donor countries, has not used the ICJ decision in the right way.
Mohammad Jayyousi concurs: “I know the Palestinian leadership is under huge pressure from the international community, but the ICJ ruling has started to become like all the U.N. reports–”like tissue paper to be buried. I really hope the PLO wakes up and works with the ICJ decision.”
As Prof. Iaian Scobbie, international law specialist at SOAS’s School of Law, pointed out to me, “If the Palestinians are not pushing for a solution by making specific proposals and representations to other states, then states might well not see the need or have the inclination to do anything.”
ARIJ’s Khalilieh also emphasizes the international dimension: “The conflict with the Israelis now is not about what you do on the ground, it has to do with international pressure–”without that we will not go very far.”
Jayyous’ Mayor Jabr suggests that he may well have given up altogether on successful resistance of the wall by Palestinians alone:
“As Palestinians, we are asking all the time for a peace process, a real one,” he says. “What we want from the PA is that if with all these negotiations and meetings with the Israelis there is no peace, then stop all of that. And we ask the rest of the world to getjustice for us.”