April 2002: the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) use military bulldozers to destroy civilian houses and carve new roadways through the refugee camp of Jenin and other areas under the Palestinian Authority, as part of the Operation Defensive Shield during the second Intifada. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his decision to implement the construction of a barrier running through the entire West Bank to separate Jewish settlements and Israeli cities from Palestinian towns and villages. The project was initially conceived as a ‘security area’, far from the fortified line, known as the Wall that we find today. The decision was approved by the government and in June of the same year, the Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Elizer cut the ribbon on the first segment of the wall – a 4 km long and 100-metre wide structure made up of concrete slabs, barbed wire and electronic fences with radars and cameras. Ever since, the Wall has been referred to and represented by the Israeli state as a ‘security fence’, primary goal of which was to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks attributed to the Palestinian militant groups.
A map of the Beit Surik area with the alternative walls drawn on it, used at the HCJ during the trial of the Wall. Illustration: Bimkom, 2004. (Source: The Least of All Possible Evils, Eyal Weizman)
The Wall provided Israeli citizens with a more peaceful existence: the number of Palestinian suicide bombings decreased from 40 in 2001 to 1 in 2007. The Israeli utopia was, at the beginning of the Wall’s construction, disrupted only by internal disagreements over the route of the Wall, based on a variety of factors ranging from the Zionists’ political ideologies to the concerns of real-estate investors. To accommodate these internal pressures, the planned route of the Wall was significantly radicalised under the Sharon government. As the plans currently stand, the barrier will be over 700 km long, almost five times the length of Berlin Wall and will enclose 9.4% of West Bank territory (including East Jerusalem and No-Man’s Land), with only 15% of the Barrier constructed on the 1949 Armistice Line (Green Line).
As the Wall grew, the devastating effects on Palestine became apparent. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report, by 2011 the Wall separated Palestinian rural communities from their land and water resources, isolated approximately 6500 Palestinians in the closed ‘Seam Zone’ with those aged 16 or above required to apply for ‘permanent resident’ permits from the Israeli authorities to be able to live in their own homes, and divided Palestinian neighbourhoods from each other and the urban center. By the end of the Wall’s construction, approximately 25 000 West Bank Palestinians will reside between the Barrier and the Green Line. The Israeli government established the security of its citizens at the expense of the Palestinians’ national security, treating the dramatically decreased level of Palestinian’s quality of life as a ‘lesser evil’. From this perspective, the project of the Wall is a physical, solid and material symbol of the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, undermining future diplomatic negotiations and the potential of peace between the two sides.
‘Beyond our understanding’: Use of barrier’s visual representations in the court room
Military lawyers and the team of Adv. Muhammad Dahla setting up presentations in the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem, a few minutes before proceedings begin. Photo: Bimkom, 2004 (Source: Weizman)
In 2004, Muhammad Dahla a Jerusalem-based Palestinian lawyer appealed against certain segments of the Wall’s route on behalf of the landowners from the Palestinian village of Beit Sourik, at the Israeli High Court of Justice (HCJ) in Jerusalem. The route of the Wall could leave the Palestinian landowners separated from approximately 300 acres of their seeking to beat the other’. Disagreements over the route of the Wall has produced a different form of Israeli-Palestinian warfare s the battlefield moved from ground into the court rooms. In this ‘war game’, both sides crucially used different visual representations of the Wall, its route, and the fields. Dahla described the trial as ‘a war game, with the two sides, playing on the same terrain, each land that it would affect from topographic maps, plans to aerial and satellite imagery, photographs and video documentation.
The images used by both sides constituted abstract depopulated landscape – ‘beyond our understanding’, they led to the judges’ frustration, who were unable to grasp all of the details of the case without physical small-scale models of the Wall.
The barrier’s ‘face’ in media and visual culture
Simon Norfolk. Israel/Palestine 2005. The illegal settlements of Gilo, a suburb of Jerusalem. To deter snipers from the adjacent Palestinian village of Beit Jala (seen in the distance), a wall has been erected. To brighten the view on the Israeli side, it has been painted as it might be if there were no Palestinians and no Beit Jala. (Source: Simon Norfolk Portfolio ‘Toward a Military Sublime’)
These abstract images bear a striking resemblances to Simon Norfolk’s photography of the Wall. Norfolk, who gave up photojournalism for landscape photography, is known fr his representations of the physical imprints of war, from Iraq to Auschwitz. In particular, Norfolk fixates on the ‘scars of war’ by focusing on the physical sites and ruins that came to look the way they do as a result of a particular conflict. In 2005, Norfolk photographed the segment of the Wall separating the Jewish settlement of Gilo from the Palestinian village of Beit Jala. Through his photography, we learn the Israeli side has been painted ‘as it might be if there were no Palestinians nd no Beit Jala’. This inevitably makes us think of the words of Israeli historian and activist Gadi Algazi: the Wall could ‘promise middle-class Israelis the luxury and security of gated communities, with the local Palestinian inhabitants barricaded out of sight’.
Norfolk’s works are not a documentary. The context in which his works are displayed, in art galleries museums – including Tate modern – and photo-books, inevitably aestheticises his subjects, thus creating in his own words ‘polar opposites’ between the visual aesthetic qualities of the image and the horror of its literal meaning. This aestheticisation has been a constant trend since the Wall’s construction. At the 2004 annual convention of Israel’s Architects Association, a well-known Israeli architect Gideon Harlap expressed hi disappointment over the fact that ‘no architect [had] been employed on the project of the Wall’ which looked ‘clumsy and ugly’ as a consequence, although it could be visually pleasing structure ‘potentially as beautiful as the Great Wall of China’.
Banksy. Graffiti on Israeli Separation Barrier. 2005
In 2005, Banksy made the headlines of international news by tagging the wall with his graffiti. .“How illegal is it to vandalise a wall”, Banksy asked his audience on his website dedicated to his work, “if the wall itself has been deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice?”. The composition of the images that Banksy drew on the Wall visually subverted the nature of the wall itself as a concrete barrier, creating an open-air prison for its inhabitants. Other Banksy’s Wall pieces drew the attention to the comfort that was denied to the Palestinian communities through the opposition between the reality of a wired fence and an imaginary landscape with a sea. The location for Banksy’s visual expression became itself part of his message, rendering his works site-specific.
In 2013, an 8-metre-high replica of the Wall was constructed in front of St. James Church in central London as part of “Bethlehem Unwrapped| festival. The replica purposefully blocked the view of the church’s façade to raise the public awareness of ‘what the people of Bethlehem are experiencing today’, according to the rector of the church.
Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square. Photograph: AP (taken from the Guardian)
A photograph where Pope Francis bowed his head in prayer and pressed his palm against the Wall during his visit to Bethlehem in May 2014 has been described by the Guardian as ‘an image that will defie Pope Francis’ first official visit to the Holy Land’. Instead of undertaking the same journey as other popes have made through Tel Aviv and then through to the Israeli border into Palestine, Pope Francis arrived in a convoy of Jordanian military helicopters from Amman and thus bypassed all Israeli border points. Pope Francis’ gesture on the photograph is thus very political despite the Vatican’s attempts to insist that the visit was “purely religious”.
Since the beginning of its construction, the dispute over the fate of the Wall has been transformed into a global campaign, where the main form of weapon used by all sides became visual representations, ranging from installation views and photographs to site-specific graffiti and topographic maps, in their attempt to shape the barrier’s route, 61.8% of which is complete, a further 8.2% is under construction and 30% is planned but not yet constructed.
The Wall recreated in front St. James church in London. 2013