Speaking during a 2016 visit to a newly completed security barrier along Israel’s border with Jordan near the southern Red Sea city of Eilat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to one day see the entirety of the Jewish nation fenced in.
“In the end in Israel, as I see it, there will be a fence like this that surrounds the whole country,” Netanyahu said.
“I’ll be told, ‘this is what you want, to protect the villa?’ The answer is yes. Will we surround all of the state of Israel with fences and barriers? The answer is yes. In the environment we live in, we need to protect ourselves from wild beasts.”
“Wild beasts” – also translated as “predators” – was, for many, a phrase targeted at both Palestinians and the citizens of surrounding Arab states. It was, too, a choice of words in keeping with this controversial statesman who has enjoyed jousting with his Middle Eastern neighbours in a colourful career that also sees him currently facing accusations of corruption at home.
Yet, 70 years after the state of Israel was established, questions have been raised over the long-term viability of its penchant to erect barriers and its future plans to further insulate itself in the region.
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Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, said the 708km West Bank wall – which most Israelis claim is a security barrier against “terrorism”, but which is seen by Palestinians and others as a segregation fence – “is a product of the [Israeli] occupation”.
“Israel has put itself behind fences instead of reaching peace agreements. It has confined itself to quite an isolated life in the region,” Mekelberg told Al Jazeera.
“The region is not an easy region. Israel has legitimate security concerns. But the way that it deals with [them], exaggerates and exacerbates [matters] at the same time.”
The construction of the West Bank wall was given the green light in 2002. Critics contend that far from being a legitimate Israeli security tool, the wall has simply acted as a land-grab that has annexed Palestinian territory inside the occupied West Bank, confining Palestinians to a ghettoised life.
The West Bank wall is widely seen as the inspiration for President Donald Trump’s pledge to erect an impenetrable barrier between the United States and Mexico. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump declared: “We have to build a wall. Walls work. Just ask Israel. Walls work. They work.”
Other Israeli barriers include the fence along the border with Egypt, which was completed in 2012 in order to deter the flow of African migrants.
“How could we have guaranteed a Jewish-democratic state with 50,000 and after that 100,000, and it would have reached 1.5 million [African immigrants]?” declared Netanyahu in defence of the barrier earlier this year.
It is also currently constructing a cement separation wall along its northern border with Lebanon – which Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council has deemed an aggressive act – while continuing its blockade of the Gaza Strip, despite Israel’s “disengagement” from the Palestinian territory in 2005.
‘Animals in the jungle’
Haggai Matar is executive director of Israeli-based 972 – Advancement of Citizen Journalism, a non-profit publisher that opposes the occupation and provides first-hand reporting and analysis of events in Israel and Palestine. He said by fencing off a besieged Gaza and presiding over a wall in the occupied West Bank Israel “can avoid making tough decisions”.
“‘The notion that ‘we’re the villa in the jungle’ and we need these walls to defend ourselves against the animals in the jungle around us – that Israel is the front line of Western civilisation or the European island in the Arab Middle East – are metaphors [for how Israel sees itself],” Matar said to Al Jazeera. “And the walls are the embodiment of these metaphors.”
The one-time Israeli conscientious objector, who spent time in jail for refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), continued: “The walls signify us not being part of this area – of being foreign, of being eternally a foreign object in the Middle East. The walls are there to maintain that notion to help [Israelis] reconceptualise themselves as foreign and superior to everything around us.”
Advocates of Israel’s various barriers, fences and walls point to the need for the state to protect itself against outside threats in a “hostile environment”.
Richard Verber, senior vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told Al Jazeera that “Israel faces many challenges – from a security perspective above all.”
“You’ve got Hamas, which is a terrorist organisation in Gaza, [the Palestinian movement] Fatah, which under [Mahmoud] Abbas is, at best, holding in there, while his successors are jostling for power, Hezbollah, in Lebanon, with thousands of rockets they have from Iran and unrest in Syria. It’s a very dangerous neighbourhood.”
But others argue Israel’s security concerns as a sovereign state go hand-in-hand with the political choices it has made over its short existence. For instance Gaza, largely by way of Israel’s unrelenting air, land and sea blockade, has been variously described as the largest outdoor prison in the world.
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“What’s happening in Gaza, in my mind, is something that is unacceptable,” said Mekelberg. “Even if Israelis are not the only culprits in what is happening in Gaza, it’s definitely playing a major, major part. The blockade hurts the Gazan people severely.”
Many of those who have accused Israel of assuming a walled-in approach to nationhood – both physically, in the stark terms that Netanyahu set out, and mentally – see an ominous future for the state in its current form.
“This was exactly against what the founding fathers of the state of Israel and the Zionists wanted,” contended Mekelberg. “They wanted to liberate Jews out of this mentality of living behind borders and being isolated from the world.
“This siege mentality is, I’m afraid, becoming more and more ingrained [in Israeli society].”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi