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A tractor installs barbed wire during the construction of the separation barrier somewhere between Qalqilya and Tulkarm Photo: Yehezkel Lein / B'Tselem, 2003.

A view of parked construction vehicles next to the route of the separation barrier, as seen from the roof of a resident of Ash Sheikh Sa'ad, East Jerusalem area
Photo: Eliezer Moav / B'Tselem, 2004.

Construction of the security fence in the North
Photo: Israeli Ministry of Defense, 2003.

FENCE [noun]
1. Archaic: a means of protection
2. A barrier intended to prevent escape or intrusion or to mark a boundary; especially: such a barrier made of posts and wire or boards

FENCE [verb]
1. To enclose with a fence
2. To keep in or out with a fence; to ward off
3. To provide a defense for

WALL [noun]
1. A high thick masonry structure forming a long rampart or an enclosure chiefly for defense; a masonry fence around a garden, park, or estate
2. An extreme or desperate position or a state of defeat, failure, or ruin
3. Something resembling a wall (as in appearance, function, or effect); especially: something that acts as a barrier or defense

WALL [verb]
1. To provide, cover with, or surround with or as if with a wall
2. To separate by or as if by a wall

BARRIER [noun]
1. Something material that blocks or is intended to block passage
2. A medieval war game in which combatants fight on foot with a fence or railing between them
3. Something immaterial that impedes or separates

BARRIER [military]
A coordinated series of obstacles designed or employed to channel, direct, restrict, delay, or stop the movement of an opposing force and to impose additional losses in personnel, time, and equipment on the opposing force. Barriers can exist naturally, be manmade, or a combination of both.

A gate with razor wire in the separation barrier
Photo: Mats Svensson, 2004.

Construction of the security fence in the North
Photo: Israeli Ministry of Defense, 2003.

The construction of the security fence near Salem roadblock, adjacent to the Megido Junction
Photo: Amos B. Gershom / Israeli National Photo Collection, 2003.

"[The barrier] gives order to space... Giving order to space, is a central issue in how people relate to places... Open, undefined space is threatening."

"[The barrier] is something that will apparently last for many years ... becoming the 'reference line' [for any peace talks]."
Col. Dany Tirza, Ariel Sharon's top adviser on the barrier, 2003.

Construction of the security fence in the North
Photo: Israeli Ministry of Defense, 2003.

Ash Sheikh Sa'ad
Photo: Nidal K'anana / B'Tselem, 2003.

A view of the separaion barrier near Jayyus
Photo: Yehezkel Lein / B'Tselem, 2003.

The misleading term 'fence'

Israelis still use the convenient and misleading term 'fence' to describe the system of fortifications that is currently being erected on Palestinian lands in the West Bank. Even 'wall,' the term more commonly used in foreign-language reports, is insufficient to describe what is really being built at this very moment: A concrete wall eight meters high, wire fences and electronic sensors, ditches four meters deep on either side, a dirt path to reveal footprints, an area into which entry is forbidden, a two-lane road for army patrols, and watchtowers and firing posts every 200 meters along the entire length. These are the components of the 'fence.'

Amira Hass / Haaretz, July 16, 2003.

Construction of the security fence in the North
Photo: Israeli Ministry of Defense, 2003.

Israeli soldiers on patrol next to the newly built separation fence on the outskirts of the West Bank Palestinian city of Tul Karem
Photo: Ahikam Seri, 2003.

Most frequently used terms for the "barrier" on the Internet

Term used to describe barrier Steven Klein's Google search
XII. 24, 2003
% Electronic Intifada's Google search
III. 2, 2004
% Open Society Archives' Google search
VI. 10, 2004
Security fence 25.300 29 92.300 32 95.700 39
Security barrier 14.100 16 41.900 14 27.500 11
Apartheid wall 13.300 15 44.600 15 40.300 16
Security wall 12.300 14 40.400 14 28.600 12
Separation wall 8.730 10 30.800 11 26.700 11
Separation barrier 7.330 8 17.500 6 12.600 5
Separation fence 5.990 7 19.300 7 11.600 5
Terror prevention fence n/a n/a 664 n/a 240 n/a
Anti-terrorist fence n/a n/a 1.050 n/a 1.660 n/a
Totals 87.050   290.800   244.900  

Steven Klein: "The Security Fence – Hopes and Fears: A Drama in Six Episodes"
The Jewish Agency for Israel /

Nigel Parry: "Israel's West Bank Barrier: Semantics on the Internet"
The Electronic Intifada /

Open Society Archives /

A piece of the 8-meter high concrete wall is being put into its place in the village of Abu Dis
Photo: Jim Hollander / MTI / EPA, 2004.

Warning notice on the separation fence
Photo: Amir Terkel / The Rebuilding Alliance, 2003.

A gate of the separation barrier next to Jayyus, leading to residents' farmland
Photo: Yehezkel Lein / B'Tselem, 2003.

Construction of the security fence in the North
Photo: Israeli Ministry of Defense, 2003.

The security fence in the Tulkarm district
Photo: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2004.

Boy waiting for the opening of the Southern Gate in the Annexation Wall near Qalqiliya
Photo: Anne Paquier / Al-Haq, 2003.

Construction of the security fence in the North
Photo: Israeli Ministry of Defense, 2003.

British Mandate souvenir: the famous "Pillbox" used by the British Army
Photo: Amir Terkel / The Rebuilding Alliance, 2003.

The Israeli version of the British "Pillbox"
Photo: Amir Terkel / The Rebuilding Alliance, 2003.

Acquiescence is not a journalistic virtue

When the so-called "separation wall" or "security fence", that is being illegally built by Israel within the West Bank and around occupied Jerusalem, finally became an issue a few months ago, the US media initially demurred (but did so only ever so briefly) on what to name the new edifice: was it "a wall", "a barrier", or "a fence", and was its purpose to bring about "separation" and "security" or the "Balkanization" and the "de-facto confiscation" of Palestinian land?

Since then, many US media outlets (and, shockingly, the British media as well) seem to have settled their equivocations: the edifice is now routinely called "the security fence" or "the security barrier". Indeed, three giants that define the standards for lesser US media outlets — CNN, The Washington Post and The Associated Press — all continue to call it "the security fence/barrier".

Which is just fine with the Israeli government, since that is precisely the terminology it prefers and uses. Israeli officials object to the use of "the wall", since that brings back echoes of the Berlin wall and Ronald Reagan's admonition, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall", and they, of course, vehemently object to any modifier that tries to capture the basic fact that Palestinians will be segregated into Bantustan enclaves ("Apartheid wall"), with swaths of their land effectively confiscated ("colonization wall").

And so, the ideal expression, "security fence" was settled on: it is a "fence" and not a "wall", the argument goes, given that portions of the edifice are nothing more than barbed wire, and it is nothing more or less than a "security fence", since the main reason it was established was to keep suicide bombers out of Israel.

The Palestinians, of course, reject the term "security fence": they refer to it as the "expansionist wall", "the apartheid wall" or "the colonization wall". Now, imagine if the US media had decided to at least listen to the Palestinian argument: first, large portions of the edifice are not mere barbed wire but a wall sometimes more than eight feet high; since wherever there are large populations what we see is a gigantic wall and not barbed wire, the edifice should be called a "wall" and not a "fence"; and second, since the job of the media is not to divine the impenetrable intentions of any actor, but rather to describe actions and their consequences, the wall — given that it does penetrate deep into Palestinian territory, given that it does segregate people based on their ethnicity, and given that it does divide Palestinian land and traps whole populations into isolated pockets — should be described as an "expansionist wall", an "apartheid wall' or a "colonization wall".

In all this, as usual, third parties to the conflict are simply ignored. Why won't the US media, to conserve its independence from any one side, adopt, say, the terminology proposed by the United Nations, which calls the edifice simply, "the West Bank wall"? Or, if the UN is not deemed objective enough, how about what Israeli human rights group Gush Shalom calls it: "the separation wall", or what the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem calls "the separation barrier"? Or how about what Human Rights Watch calls it, "the West Bank barrier"? Or how about adopting the catchall expression used by Amnesty International: "the barrier/fence/wall"?

Ahmed Bouzid / The Jordan Times, December 18, 2003.

House in Al-Gharbiya, an Arab-Palestinian village inside Israel, West of the Green Line. The top of the house was taken over by the Israeli army. Image taken from Nazlat 'Isa, from the Palestinian side of the wall
Photo: Noa Olchovsky, 2004.

In the Middle East, Even Words Go to War

Qalqiliya, West Bank – The Israelis have built a barrier that encircles this town as it runs along the northern West Bank for more than 80 miles. But what does one call it?

Israel labels it a "security fence" built to keep Palestinian bombers out. The barrier does not imply a future border, Israel insists. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has even invoked Robert Frost's reassuring notion that "good fences make good neighbors."

The Palestinians call it an "apartheid separation wall," conferring a sense of odious intent, and of permanence. "Wall" also evokes the famous barrier that sliced Berlin in half for decades – and more.

"The wall has turned this town into a ghetto," said Maarouf Zahran, the mayor of Qalqiliya, linking it verbally to the restrictions and periodic persecutions once faced by European Jews.

This linguistic skirmish is part of a war of words that Israelis and Palestinians have waged ferociously for decades. At almost every point of contention in the Mideast conflict there is a new mini-vocabulary – and people on each side who vigorously protest to diplomats, journalists and anyone else who fails to adopt their preferred terminology.

"Language is absolutely part of the conflict, not only between us and the Palestinians, but inside Israeli society," said Ruvik Rosenthal, who writes a language column for the Israeli newspaper Maariv and is the author of "The Language Arena," which deals in part with this issue.

While many language disputes are a matter of interpretation, the disagreement over the Israeli barrier would seem to be a question of simple observation: is it a fence, or is it a wall?

About 80 miles of it is wire fence, but the other five miles consists of concrete walls, according to the Defense Ministry.

"The word 'fence' unites Israelis who just want security," Mr. Rosenthal said. "If you call it a wall, it just sounds ugly."

"The Israelis are taking land from the Palestinians and redrawing the border," said Dr. Ali B. Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. "This is what the world needs to know about the wall."

Greg Myre / The New York Times, August 3, 2003.
Israeli West Bank barrier
[From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]

Acoustic wall near a new neighborhood in Ramat Aviv
Photo: Eva Simon, 2004.

Acoustic wall near a new neighborhood in Ramat Aviv
Photo: Eva Simon, 2004.

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary

President Bush Welcomes Prime Minister Abbas to White House Remarks by President Bush and Prime Minister Abbas
The Rose Garden / July 25, 2003.

PRESIDENT BUSH: We discussed ... the building of a ... Israel will consider ways to reduce the impact of the security fence on the lives of the Palestinian people.
PRIME MINISTER ABBAS: ... the construction of the so-called separation wall on confiscated Palestinian land continues ... the wall must come down.
QUESTION: Would you like to see Israel ... stop building this barrier wall?
PRESIDENT BUSH: ... first of all, on the wall. Let me talk about the wall. I think the wall is a problem, and I discussed this with Ariel Sharon. It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and the Israel – Israel – with a wall snaking through the West Bank.

President Discusses Middle East Peace with Prime Minister Sharon
The Rose Garden / July 29, 2003.

PRIME MINISTER SHARON: ... a number of issues came up: the security fence, which we are forced to construct in order to defend our citizens against terror activities ... The security fence will continue to be built, with every effort to minimize the infringement on the daily life of the Palestinian population.
QUESTION: Mr. President, what do you expect Israel to do in practical terms in regarding the separation fence that you call the wall? Due to the fact that this is one of the most effective measure against terrorism, can you clarify what do you oppose – the concept of the separation fence, or only its roots?
PRESIDENT BUSH: ... I would hope, in the long-term a fence would be irrelevant ... the fence is a sensitive issue, I understand ... we'll continue to discuss and to dialogue how best to make sure that the fence sends the right signal that not only is security important, but the ability for the Palestinians to live a normal life is important, as well.

President Bush Commends Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's Plan
Remarks by the President and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Press Availability
The Cross Hall / April 14, 2004.

PRESIDENT BUSH: ... The barrier being erected by Israel as a part of that security effort should, as your government has stated, be a security, rather than political, barrier.

Painted acoustic walls along Road 440 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, via northern Jerusalem settlement neighborhoods
Photo: Amir Terkel / The Rebuilding Alliance, 2003.

Painted acoustic walls along Road 440 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, via northern Jerusalem settlement neighborhoods
Photo: Amir Terkel / The Rebuilding Alliance, 2003.

The security fence between Baka Al-Garbiya and Baka Al-Sharkiya
Photo: Moshe Milner / Israeli National Photo Collection, 2004.

Concrete blocks used for building Israel’s Wall, which will completely separate the Palestinian neighborhood of Abu Dis from the rest of Occupied Palestinian Jerusalem
Photo: Yehezkel Lein / B’Tselem, 2003.

An isolated house left on the western side of the separation barrier, next to Ar-Ras, which is east of the separation barrier
Photo: Yehezkel Lein / B’Tselem, 2003.

Wall painting on the bulletproof walls in Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem, built to protect against gunfire from Beit Jalla
Photo: Negotiations Affairs Department – Palestine Liberation Organization, 2004.

The construction of the security fence near the Arab village of Abu Dis, Jerusalem
Photo: Avi Ohayon / Israeli National Photo Collection, 2003.