by Muhammad Nakhal
The closure policy Israel uses against the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is unique in the world of geopolitics or the geography of borders. Indeed, there are no recorded examples in any part of the world of what is known as "closure"; it is a one-hundred-percent Israeli invention. As a result, certain features of political borders have emerged in the area, as it is the first time that borders between peoples are defined through the use of closure, both as mechanism and measure for boundary demarcation.
The closure, which Israel began to implement on a wide scale in April 1993, was previously used in 1991 during the Gulf War, when the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were sealed for six consecutive weeks. Following the massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron on February 25, 1994, Israel started using the closure on a more extensive and permanent basis. The aim was to prevent friction between Palestinians and Israelis.
The policy of closure reached its height in March 1996, in the wake of several Palestinian suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, killing and wounding scores of Israelis. Israel decided to embark on preparations of plans and budgets for the closure to arrive at political separation between the two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians.
Political separation, however, entails the determination and drawing of borders between two entities. To this day, Israel has not defined its political boundaries. Thus, a permanent border demarcation is expected to take place during the final stage of the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
Closure — A Definition
Closure is an Israeli government decision to restrict and forbid the movement and entry of Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into Israel and Jerusalem — including its Arab part. It is implemented through security checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers, Border Police and other Israeli security bodies, along inexistent borders.
Borders, as a concept and convention for separation, can be defined as a line or a boundary where the features and characteristics of a certain area end and those of another area begin, with each one containing homogeneous and analogous elements. Various criteria, natural or artificial, can be used in the determination and delineation of borders, but these are beyond the scope of this article, which attempts to draw a connection between closure and borders.
Types of Closure
According to Israeli understanding, closure is a political boundary and implies the separation between Israelis and Palestinians, specifically between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, on the one hand, and Jerusalem (including the Arab part) and Israel, on the other. This closure is known as "tota1." Another type of closure, which is imposed on occasion within the Palestinian areas themselves in 465 Palestinian conglomerations, is called "internal" closure. This form of closure that Israel began using in March 1996 is more severe and crippling than the former as it leaves close to two million Palestinians virtual prisoners in their respective towns and villages. Total closure, on the other hand, does not forbid movement among the towns or villages of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but it denies entry to Palestinians into Jerusalem and Israe1.
Israel claims the closure is imposed on the Palestinian territories as a security measure. Palestinians view the reason as political, which will eventually turn the closure into political borders between the two entities. Thus, the closure that we see today begs the question whether it is a precursor to a future political border between Palestinians and Israelis, or whether it is just a passing phenomenon, albeit a three-year-long one. It is the contention of this article that closure is an aspect of determining borders, and it is being transformed into future political borders between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Case of Jerusalem
"Total" and "internal" closures alike cause great suffering for Palestinians, including those in East Jerusalem. It should be emphasized at this point that there are no natural, social or cultural borders between the Palestinians of East Jerusalem and those living in the West Bank: they are of the same ethnic origin, they have the same national identity, and they have the same culture, civilization, language and religion. Consequently, the closure that East Jerusalem suffers is the hardest and cruelest type because it aims at separating the inhabitants of East Jerusalem from their Palestinian hinterland. Isolating Jerusalem in this manner signifies a de facto political annexation of the Arab part of the city with its land and people. Indeed, one of the aims of closing off Jerusalem is the consolidation of the city's annexation and the moving of the Green Line four to six kilometers eastward.
In the case of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, the suffering from closure is compounded by internal "borders" between the eastern and western side of the city. Roman and Winograd in their study, Living Together Separately, point to the separation which exists between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem, in spite of the fact that they live in one single city. This is due to the lack of homogeneity between the two peoples based on ethnic, religious, economic and social grounds which, in turn, reflects itself on the political situation. These researchers, however, did not deal with the subject of closure which exacerbates the separation suffered by the Palestinians in East Jerusalem who are also cut off from their natural strategic depth, the people and land of the West Bank.
In fact, intra-city borders can be seen in many cities around the world. A case in point is Belfast where boundaries exist between Protestants and Catholics on the religious level, and between Irish and British on ethnic grounds. But even in this context, closure has never been applied against the Irish or vice versa.
Another example is Berlin which was divided on an ideological basis. The Berlin Wall, which was tom down in 1989, was erected in 1961 by the Soviet Union to separate between the Communist eastern part of the city and the western part with its capitalist regime.
The city of Jerusalem passed through a similar experience between 1948 and 1967, when the cease-fire line was turned into a physical border between the two sections of the city, western and eastern. Following the 1967 war, this physical border was tom down, but it soon turned into a psychological one for all the aforementioned reasons.
Closure as Borders
Although closure as practiced by Israel has its own distinctive features, it also shares many characteristics with regular political borders:
A. 'Closure' borders are one-directional:
Under normal circumstances, borders between two countries consist of two-way points of entry for the nationals of either country. Closure differs from regular borders in the sense that Jerusalem residents wishing to enter the West Bank can do so freely without any need for a permit. In contrast, for those entering Jerusalem from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, entry permits are a must. This mandatory permission to enter Jerusalem represents a visa which is commonly required by countries around the world upon the entry of foreign nationals. Thus, the application for a special permit to cross the checkpoint (closure border) is, to all practical intents, an application for a visa.
B. 'Closure' borders are bound by time:
The permanent closure imposed on the Palestinian territories since 1993 is of varying degrees of intensity or severity. In times of total closure, all entry permits (visas) are automatically revoked. When the closure is eased or lifted, only those holders of special permits are allowed into Jerusalem and Israel. These permits are always subject to various restrictions, such as time (the specific hour of entry and exit) and duration (a day, a week or a month). For West Bank residents working in East Jerusalem, for instance, permits are issued to enter East Jerusalem only, and are valid for a few weeks or up to a maximum of three months. Those who want to enter Jerusalem for medical purposes or for treatment, get permits good for a specific day and hour, based on a doctor's report or a clinic appointment.
C. 'Closure' borders are selective:
Closure does not affect all inhabitants in the same manner and degree. Israelis can pass freely through checkpoints (i.e., they can go in and out of the closure border at will) without any need for an entry permit. Palestinians, on the other hand, are required to have entry permits, and, until recently, a process of selection was used even among the Palestinian population whereby children did not need permits, and, in some cases, neither did women and men of a certain age.
Selection is also based on the nature of an applicant's activity. A West Bank doctor practicing in Jerusalem needs appropriate documents from the medical institution to which he belongs to enable him to obtain an entry permit without time limitation. Similarly, West Bank students need to produce registration documents from the educational institutions they attend in Jerusalem, but the permits they get are limited to the days and hours of their studies, prohibiting an overnight stay in Jerusalem.
The same applies to workers who obtain a permit/visa to enter Jerusalem. They are obliged to return to their place of residence in the West Bank or Gaza, for their permit does not provide for an overnight stay in Jerusalem or Israel. These entry permits, then, do not allow the bearer to, say, go shopping or to get medical treatment or even to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Holy Sepulcher.
D. 'Closure' borders are simultaneously formal and informal:
Borders are formal where Palestinians are concerned, since they need to obtain an entry permit (a visa) to "cross" into Jerusalem. On the other hand, the borders are informal, undeclared and one-sided, since the same country [Israel] controls both their ends. Israeli settlers coming from their settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip do not need a visa because they are crossing the borders of their own state!
Its distinctive features notwithstanding, closure is gradually turning into a border between the Palestinian and Israeli entities. And whether denied or granted, an application for an entry permit into Jerusalem and Israel symbolizes an application for a visa. Nevertheless, although the closure sets out to lay the ground for future political boundaries between Palestine and Israel, the final delineation of borders will have to be discussed during final-status talks, in tandem with the questions of sovereignty, settlements, water and Jerusalem. An arduous task lies ahead.
Budge, Ian (1973). Belfast: an Approach to Crisis. Macmillan: Great Britain.
Nakhal, Muhammad (1996). Jerusalem, Berlin, Belfast and Divided Metropolis. Jerusalem:
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Pound, Norman (1962). Divided Germany and Berlin. New Jersey: Van Nostraud Company, Inc.
Roman, Michael and Alex Winograd (1991). Living Together Separately: Arabs and Jews in Contemporary Jerusalem. Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.