A wall. A fence. A trench. However it's described, the vast barricade being erected along Israel's border with the Palestinian West Bank is rapidly altering the political, social and economic landscape of a struggle that has defied attempts at peace for a half-century.
As Jews and Arabs brace for elections in the Palestinian territories today, the planned withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and threats of civil war on both sides, the construction of the barrier is yet another issue that must be resolved for a lasting peace.
For Arabs and Muslims around the world, Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands is the central conflict between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic world. From their perspective, the wall is a powerful symbol of that domination. But to Israelis, the issue is just as stark -- the security of a tiny, narrow country surrounded by hostile neighbors.
The $3 billion, 437-mile phalanx of electronic fences, walls, trenches and patrol roads is the biggest public works project in Israel's history. About one-third of the structure is finished, with completion expected next year.
The barricade has strong support among American Jews and Israeli expatriates living in South Florida, one of the largest Jewish communities in the United States, and the source of millions of dollars in annual donations and trade with Israel. Leaders of Israeli settlements in the West Bank regularly make pilgrimages here to raise money for schools, synagogues, medical facilities and other projects in their communities.
The image of the Jewish state sealing its borders from an unprecedented wave of terror has galvanized local support. Spurred by the violence, local Jewish leaders launched an organization -- Nefesh B'Nefesh -- that has organized airlifts bringing more than 4,000 North American Jews to Israel. In 2004, immigration from North America to the Jewish state was the highest since 1983.
The wall project has drawn criticism from European leaders, increased tensions with Washington and created new hurdles to the U.S-backed road map to peace that calls for Israel to cease construction of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank.
Yet the sense of security that the fence has provided Israel is undeniable. Terrorist attacks inside the country have dropped dramatically. Restaurants, cafes and malls are again filled.
The structure, which runs along the 1949 cease-fire line established after the first Arab-Israeli war, has drawn harsh criticism from the United Nations world court because it cuts deeply through Palestinian lands in several areas. In Israel, however, the main concern is why the barrier hasn't been erected more quickly.
"Whether it's a fence or a wall, I don't care as long as it works," said Ofer Shtayer, whose son and in-laws were murdered in a terrorist bombing in the city of Haifa in 2003. "We need to build something as big as the Great Wall of China and leave it up for 100 years if that's what it takes. We just have to separate ourselves from these people [Palestinians] as soon as possible."
That sentiment is common among South Floridians who have close ties to Israel.
"Thousands of South Floridians who travel to Israel and have homes there [will] tell you that in the last year there's been a quantum improvement in security because of the fence," said Mark Medin, Florida regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Tourism is back and it's difficult to get a hotel room in Jerusalem. That's because of this fence."
At least 1,000 Israelis and 3,400 Palestinians have been killed in the terrorist attacks and fighting that have defined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the last four years. Suicide bombings in restaurants and on buses devastated the nation's tourism-heavy economy and killed a decade-long peace process.
"I travel to Israel every year and I've seen this fence, I've seen the barricades that have been built just so Jews aren't ambushed by snipers," said Irma Rochlin, a Hallandale resident who heads a local chapter of Parents of North American Israelis.
"The fact is that it's no different than the wall the United States has up at parts of the border with Mexico," said Rochlin, who has two daughters and five grandchildren living in Israel. "Any other country that was facing the same amount of terrorism would deal with it in the same way."
Israeli leaders say they hope the barrier forces the Palestinians to elect new leadership in the wake of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death, renounce terrorism and ultimately make peace with Israel.
Others foresee a grimmer scenario, in which the wall might hasten the collapse of Palestinian society and give rise to a militant Islamic government. Desperate Palestinians then will devise new terror strategies, such as the launch of missiles into Israeli cities -- a tactic already being used on Israel's southern border.
U.S. aids Israelis, Palestinians The regional implications of the barrier also could be profound. If Israel walls itself off from the territories, Palestinian pressure could be projected onto neighboring Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt, and into Europe, where increasing numbers of Arab refugees are fleeing.
Either scenario would involve the United States, which has given Israel at least $94 billion in foreign aid since 1949, and provides the Jewish state $2.5 billion annually in economic and military aid. The Palestinians receive roughly $20 million annually in U.S. humanitarian aid, and the Bush administration has promised $200 million more if the new Palestinian government takes steps toward peace.
The enormous sums given to both sides have done little to reduce the conflict. Even the terms used to describe the barricade are loaded with political meaning.
To Israelis, the structure is a "separation fence" -- a moderate, chain-link border control that has resulted in an 80 percent drop in terrorist attacks where it has been erected.
To Palestinians, it's an "apartheid wall" that snakes monstrously through a beautiful landscape -- encircling villages, slashing through towns and farmland and leaving a native people sealed off without rights, livelihoods or a country.
When finished, about 95 percent will feature multiple lines of heavily fortified fence. But the rest will include 26-foot-high concrete walls, with watchtowers, cutting through the most populated areas along the so-called "Green Line," the pre-1967 border of Israel before it captured the West Bank of the Jordan River in the Six-Day War.
Some have likened it to the Berlin Wall, built to contain an oppressed people. Others compare it to Hadrian's Wall or the Great Wall of China, built to keep the barbarian hordes out. Israeli officials counter that its security fence is no different from other barriers erected on unstable borders around the world. Saudi Arabia is building a barrier along its border with Yemen to block smuggling, and India is designing a wall on the border of Pakistani-controlled portions of the disputed state of Kashmir.
But in July, the International Court of Justice in the Hague issued a sweeping condemnation of the barrier, siding with Palestinians in declaring the structure a violation of international law.
Estimates differ over how much Palestinian territory will be taken over by the fence; the United Nations says about 11 percent, while Israel says only 3 percent. But in places the fence will cut deeply into the West Bank to cover large settlements that are home to tens of thousands of Israeli Jews.
"This wall is a very real symbol of the occupation," said Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian labor minister. "If it just followed the route of the Green Line, then they could justify it as security, perhaps. But how do you do that when it's swallowing up farmland and being used to permanently bring settlements into Israel?"
Nowhere is that image more potent than in Qalqilya, a Palestinian town of 42,000 on the border of the West Bank and Israel that is encircled by a fortified fence and huge walls to protect Israeli towns and nearby Jewish settlements.
To ease travel for Arabs, Israel has spent several million dollars to dig three 100-foot-long underpasses beneath an Israeli highway to connect Qalqilya to a dozen Palestinian villages to the north.
But creating new rights of way hasn't lessened the economic burden the wall has placed on the Palestinians. Qalqilya is littered with shuttered businesses that once depended on Israeli customers. With unemployment running at about 50 percent, there are few Arab customers to replace those who were lost.
Before the 4-year-old Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada began, Israelis would shop and have auto repairs done in the town. They also bought cheap produce and flowers from area farms and greenhouses.
Bassam Mansour imported an Italian-made car wash for his service station just as the uprising began in 2000. The machine now sits rusting beside gas tanks dusty from disuse.
"The business here was great. Israelis were our main customers because the prices were good, the service was great," said Mansour. "Now, I've got a wall blocking off the road into Israel. No one here has any money to get a car fixed, much less washed."
Down the road, Omar Elbaz farms okra alongside the wall that has cut his farmland in half. He must contend with frequent flooding of his land, caused by water pooling along the wall.
"They took land from my father, they've taken land from me, and someday, I'm sure, the Jews will take land from my sons," Elbaz said, barely containing his anger. Like many other Palestinians, Elbaz said Americans -- Israel's most consistent ally -- are to blame. "America is behind all of this," he said. "They give Israel the money, the guns, the tanks to steal our land -- in the name of democracy, peace and civilization!"
Jerusalem's delicate balance In Jerusalem, the route of the wall weaves in and around densely populated areas of the eastern, primarily Arab half of the city.
It cuts through the heart of some Arab neighborhoods and towns, often dividing families. Israelis say the route of the fence was chosen for strategic reasons based on the topography of the land. But the result has upset Jerusalem's delicate demographic balance.
Since 1967, Arab Jerusalemites have carried blue identification cards granting them health and social security benefits comparable to citizens of Israel. Israel annexed large portions of the West Bank into municipal boundaries and sought to maintain the city's population at roughly 75 percent Jewish and 25 percent Arab.
But that percentage has fallen to its lowest in 30 years, with aging Jewish families now at 67 percent of the city's 693,000 residents, while Arabs make up 33 percent. Over the years, younger Palestinians purchased homes in West Bank neighborhoods. They intermarried with West Bank Arabs, many of whom moved in to work in East Jerusalem. There was little risk of running afoul of Israeli laws, as long as Arabs stayed in East Jerusalem.
But with the wall going up, Palestinians have been scrambling to move homes, businesses and other property to one side or the other.
In the West Bank village of A-Ram, the wall will run down the middle of the main street. The village of 40,000 is a mix of Jerusalemites and West Bankers, whose businesses fall on both sides of the wall.
Salah Ayad, who has a West Bank identification card, has lived in Jerusalem for 40 years. His family can trace its lineage in Jerusalem back 700 years. His home of 50 years lies on the Jerusalem side of the border and sits alongside the new wall.
His wife, a school principal in an Arab suburb of Jerusalem, must climb over the small stone wall the Israelis have erected at the end of one street to get to work each day. Ayad's family-owned hotel, near the family home, has been confiscated and may be taken over by Jewish settlers because they are non-Jerusalemite "absentee owners," Ayad said.
"We have land in Jerusalem, we have land in the West Bank, and I don't know what's going to be the future for us with this wall cutting off everything," said Ayad. "How can you plan, how can you save, how can you look forward to any kind of future?"
Israeli officials insist that all owners receive offers of compensation for land taken by the wall, but many refuse to accept it.
"We're trying very hard to minimize the cost to Palestinians, because, of course, all Palestinians are not terrorists," said Nezah Mashiah, the Israeli Defense Ministry official heading the barricade's construction. "We are making walls so it will not disturb the land, because it is in Jerusalem. Secondly, if we made a fence in the city, then every kid could disturb the fence and it wouldn't be effective."
Like other officials, Mashiah says the barricade is designed to be torn down easily if political leaders can forge a secure peace.
"This wall is temporary; you can even see the holes in it where the cranes can pull it down," said Mashiah. But he added: "I'm not thinking it could come down soon, or even a year from now because most Israelis are shaken up by this terror. But it is temporary if the situation changes. The people who have been killed by terrorism -- that isn't temporary. They are not coming back."
To many, the barricade is more than a security measure; it's also a solution to the demographic crisis that Israel is facing. Palestinian populations are growing at a faster rate than Jews in the areas controlled by Israel. By the end of the decade, Jews will be a minority in the territory controlled by the Jewish state.
That raises the specter of apartheid -- minority control based on race, religion and ethnicity -- which could weaken Israel's image as the only democracy in the Middle East. The solution is a policy that has been called unilateral separation --extricating Jews from Palestinian-dominated lands to preserve Jewish hegemony in Israel.
Effects of withdrawal But politically, withdrawing from lands conquered in one of Israel's greatest moments -- the Six-Day War-- would be tough for the strongest Israeli politician. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to withdraw Jewish settlers from Gaza already have brought threats of armed resistance, military mutiny and the threat of a civil war, of Jew vs. Jew.
And Gaza isn't nearly as important from a Jewish religious perspective as the territories of the West Bank, which includes the eastern half of Jerusalem and Hebron, a divided city that is home to 600 Jewish settlers and 120,000 Arabs. They contain the most important religious sites in Judaism.
Yet if Israel does not withdraw from the West Bank, it faces a future of costly military deployments to protect enclaves of Jewish settlements, some experts say.
Even with the barricade erected and fully operational, and Gaza abandoned, some Israelis foresee a bleak future of violent, prolonged conflict. If economic and political conditions continue to deteriorate on the Palestinian side of the barrier, militant groups may merely refine their tactics in attacking Israel. According to demographer Arnon Soffer, the earnings gap between the West Bank and Israeli economies is already on the order of 1 to 17, compared to 1 to 4 between Mexico and the United States.
Soffer, a leading strategic adviser to Sharon who is widely viewed as the father of the separation plan, told The Jerusalem Post last year that Israel eventually will have to pull out of the West Bank and brace for a time when missiles are fired over the fence into Israeli cities.
"When 2.5 million people live in closed-off Gaza, it's going to be a human catastrophe ," he said. "The pressure at the border will be awful. It's going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day."
Tim Collie can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4573.