Why Does Israel’s Illegal Separation Wall Still Stand?

In his new documentary, “Broken,” Palestinian-American filmmaker Mohammed Alatar looks for answers

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony on November 5, 2014 in Jerusalem

The 400-mile wall meant to divide Israelis from Palestinians along the West Bank features concrete slabs that rise to more than 25 feet tall in some sections and exists as a fence in others. Construction started in 2002 by Israel for "security," but according to the international community and law, its existence is illegal, given that the overwhelming majority of the "separation barrier" stands not inside Israel's borders or even on the Green Line that splits Israel from occupied territory, but inside the West Bank.

"Israel made great efforts to loop the barrier around settlements and strategic areas of the West Bank that it wished to keep on its side under any future peace deal," the New York Times said. "Most of the barrier ended up east of the pre-1967 line, inside West Bank territory, prompting international criticism and creating humanitarian problems for thousands of Palestinians trapped in enclaves between the barrier and Israel proper."

To Palestinians and their international supporters, it is an "apartheid wall." Neighborhoods were arbitrarily sliced, families were isolated from each other and people were cut off from their work, education and resources. Palestinians, who work in Israel or in the settlements, have to line up hours before their shifts each day to trek through a series of checkpoints. In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled 14-1 that this wall violated international law because of its confiscation of occupied Palestinian land and the way it severely restricted the movement and self-determination of Palestinians.

In "Broken," a new documentary to be released in June, Palestinian-American filmmaker Mohammed Alatar examines the groundbreaking court ruling and why 14 years later, the wall still stands. Over an intense three-year process, Alatar traveled to Germany, Holland, Jordan, the U.S., and around Israel and Palestine to interview key figures in this decision, and to obtain footage from the trial and the UN hearings leading up to the court ruling and its aftermath.

 

Alatar talked to one of the wall's architects, members of the Palestinian legal team, a former legal adviser to the Israeli foreign ministry and several of the judges from ICJ who ruled on the case, including the lone dissenter. The result is an impressive, multidimensional exploration of the timeline of events of the case from the voices who decided it, a feat that proved highly challenging to Alatar.

"Almost all of the characters of the film were very reluctant to talk on camera, especially the judges," Alatar told Salon. "It's not customary for the judges to talk about their cases, especially a case like the wall, which is loaded with political implication."

But for the filmmaker, who's made documentaries about Jerusalem and on topics like education, he wanted to look back at the case with the benefit of hindsight.

"Because many people around the world are aware of the ICJ ruling and many people thought that the ruling was a historic turning point in the bloody conflict," he said, but the follow-through or lack thereof is far less examined or scrutinized.

The film opens with Dr. Dany Tirza, an Israeli army veteran and architect of the wall, who tells Alatar that after negotiations collapsed in 2000 between Israel and Palestine, terrorist attacks by some Palestinians began. And with more than 100 Israeli deaths, he said, citizens of Israel demanded action from the government. Tirza doesn't address how many Palestinians were killed during this era.

"That period of time was one in which the illusion of the proximity of peace was being dashed," George Bisharat, professor of law at UC Hastings, told Salon. He writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East. "I think from the Palestinian perspective, they had entered into the Oslo Agreements on the understanding, on misunderstanding — a misperception I think it turns out — that the negotiations would lead within a relatively short period of time to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state," Bisharat continued. The separation wall was "the physical manifestation of the dashing of that illusion."

Alatar interviews John Dugard, professor of international law who served as the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in occupied Palestine between 2001 and 2008. When he traveled to the West Bank in 2003, he was alarmed at how most of the wall was being built in occupied territory, which he outlined in a report to the UN. "Israel was using security as a pretext for annexing land," Dugard says in "Broken."

Based on Dugard's report, the UN General Assembly voted in favor of having the International Court of Justice, the UN's principal judicial organ, deliver an advisory opinion on the wall's legality. But only one legal team argued before the World Court. Instead of participating, Israel submitted 130 pages arguing that ICJ had no jurisdiction over the case.

"It was, I think, a calculated move — a political calculation that it would be more costly to be involved and have a negative judgment than it would be to boycott the whole thing and then question the legitimacy of the process," Bisharat said. "I think, had they had solid, substantive arguments, it would have made sense to contest the case."

In footage from the court proceedings shown in "Broken," one lawyer for the Palestinian team declares, "The issue here is not whether Israel has the right to build the wall, it is whether it is has the right to build the wall in the occupied Palestinian territory."

"Broken" is generally technical in its presentation of information, incorporating interviews with the cases's central figures and archival footage to ground the film's retrospective analysis. Some artistic choices can be distracting, especially the music, which vacillates in tone between overly sentimental and upbeat as a means to underscore tension or climax. Yet "Broken" is a master class in this landmark case, packed with history, fact and footage. And remarkably, as so much of the world is tuned in to Israel/Palestine given the protests in Gaza, the film includes enough pretext and context that one needs little prior knowledge to follow it.

But what makes the film profound is Alatar's gaze. He lives in Ramallah in the West Bank; he is a witness and perhaps immediately affected by the wall's impact on Palestinian mobility and sovereignty. And while he exhibits a genuine yearning in "Broken" to understand this history, even from the most oppositional characters involved, he still manages to balance the jargon-heavy international legal details and proceedings with an unwavering focus on the wall's effects on human life. Footage of Palestinian workers lining up in a tight tunnel like cattle to cross the border is particularly chilling.

Alatar's principle question is why the international legal victory for Palestine meant nothing in practice. "Maybe it’s naive on my part to think this way, but before I started working on 'Broken' I used to think that international law is very powerful, untouchable and immune to politics," Alatar said.

For Bisharat, the decision was still momentous. "The effort itself and the litigation was brilliantly executed by the Palestinians, and was one of the most significant accomplishments through the UN system, dating back to the '70s," he said, when Palestinians secured a number of victories and resolutions via the UN General Assembly and the Security Council. However, Bisharat, who is Palestinian-American and grew up in the '60s in the U.S. amid the civil rights and anti-war movements, said he's become "increasingly cynical" about the success of legal strategies that are abstracted from broader social movements. "That's what the ICJ decision proves."

Noura Erakat, human rights lawyer and assistant professor at George Mason University, told Salon, "Any time you see the international community turn its attention in a way that feels righteous, people get excited," she said. "But it's a false hope. And not because the law cannot be useful. The law can be useful, but not on its own. The law doesn't apply itself. It needs mobilization. And international law in particular is as strong as the political will underpinning it."

"Broken" ends on a contemporary moment, with President Donald Trump announcing that the U.S. would relocate its American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This became a reality last week, and 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers on the Gaza border during protests, among them children and disabled people. Thousands more Palestinians were injured. In this political climate, the film feels particularly relevant as it questions what methods, if any, are acceptable for Palestinians to use when it comes to advocating for self-determination and sovereignty.

"If they use legal tactics, they call it law fare," Erakat said. "That it's a form of warfare using the law. If they use grass-roots, nonviolent tactics, like Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, they call it the second most lethal threat to Israel after nuclear capable Iran. ... If they protest, as they protest on Gaza's border, they're called provocateurs, inciters, and can be shot dead in a massacre."

"The question of Palestine has been demonized and every form of protest has been demonized," Erakat added. "And that's part of the struggle."

 

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Rachel Leah reports for Salon.