Walled off: 12 years of Israel’s separation barrier

An international photography collective documents the evolution and conflicts surrounding the barrier wall

Construction on the barrier wall, 2006.
Yotam Ronen/

The West Bank “separation barrier” or “security fence” or “apartheid wall” or “anti-terrorist fence,” depending on whom you ask, is the largest infrastructure project in Israel's history. Twelve years old this April, it costs Israel an annual average of $260 million for maintenance.

Since 2005, Activestills, a collective of Israeli, Palestinian and international photographers, has been documenting the evolution of this structure and its impact on the lives of those it is designed to keep out of Israel. In the process, Activestills has created a compelling visual record of a physical structure that has come to exemplify the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Children play soccer in Anata, Nov. 25, 2005.  Photo by Yotam Ronen

Most of the barrier comprises a set of 2-meter-high, electrified barbed-wire fences with vehicle-barrier trenches and a 60-meter-wide exclusion zone on the Palestinian side. But in more densely populated urban areas, particularly those around Jerusalem, like Anata, above, space limitations prompted the Israelis to instead build a concrete wall to the height of 8 meters. The approximately 15,000 residents of the village are surrounded on three sides by the barrier, which keeps its residents from regular access to the businesses, hospitals, cultural centers and other services in the Holy City. 

Wall construction in Anata, Dec. 20, 2006. Photo by Yotam Ronen

Construction of the barrier commenced on April 14, 2002, at the height of the second intifada, when then–Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered it as a measure to protect Israelis from Palestinian suicide bombers. From the moment construction began, Palestinians protested its route, 85 percent of which runs east of the Green Line, which marked the 1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The full route, as outlined in the blueprint approved by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, is 422 miles of zigzagging curves and loops, making it more than twice as long as the 199-mile-long Green Line. More than one-fifth of the planned barrier has not yet been constructed.

Demonstration against the barrier in Bil’in, Sept. 23, 2005. Photo by Yotam Ronen

The Palestinian village of Bil'in began organizing demonstrations in 2005 to protest construction of the barrier, whose route cut the village off from more than half of its agricultural lands. Under Israeli military law, a protest, or even just a procession of 10 or more people, in Palestinian villages is illegal and warrants forceful dispersion. The weekly protests at Bil'in, regularly suppressed by Israeli border guards using stun grenades, tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, have become an international spectacle.

“Almost everyone was at some stage either injured, or arrested, or having seen his/her equipment destroyed,” says Activestills photographer Anne Paq. “This is not an environment where you can be calm and have a lot of time to really do good pictures. On some occasions, you do not even have time to think about the pictures you take.” 

Bassem Abu Rahme flies a kite at a demonstration in Bil’in, July 25, 2008. Photo by Oren Ziv

Bil'in resident Bassem Abu Rahme was killed on April 17, 2009, by a high-velocity tear gas canister fired at his chest, in an incident captured on video. Known in his village as “Pheel” (elephant, in Arabic) because of his large frame and fun-loving demeanor, Abu Rahme was a regular at the weekly protest, often seen trying to reason with the soldiers in broken Hebrew and English.

In September 2013, Israel’s military advocate general closed the investigation into Abu Rahme’s death without any indictment, claiming it was impossible to identify the soldier involved, or to establish whether there had been a breach of regulations that forbid tear gas canisters from being fired directly at human targets.

Al-Walaja, Dec. 7, 2010. Photo by Anne Paq

It may look like a surrealist painting, but this image of the barrier in Al-Walaja is very real: The village is to be completely encircled by 360 degrees of concrete wall, according to the planned route of the barrier.

Al-Walaja is a five-minute drive from southern Jerusalem, just across the Green Line. Some of its lands were annexed by Israel in 1967, used to build the settlements Gilo and Har Gilo. Part of the Israeli plan for this area is to build a national park that preserves the agricultural terraces Palestinians have been farming for generations — although they will no longer be able to do so once the wall is finished. Residents are currently engaged in a protracted legal battle over the route of the barrier.

Waiting near the Bethlehem checkpoint to attend Ramadan prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, Aug. 10, 2012. Photo by Anne Paq

As of September 2013, there were 99 fixed checkpoints in the West Bank through which Palestinians must pass to move between towns. Most have been privatized and are run by employees of security companies rather than by uniformed Israel Defense Forces soldiers, and are a constant source of disruption and humiliation in Palestinian life.

Protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoner Mahmoud Sarsak, Nablus, June 14, 2012. Photo by Ahmad Al-Bazz

“I'm trying to focus on neglected issues, about issues that few people know about,” says Ahmad Al-Bazz, the photographer who took this picture on the 89th day of the hunger strike of Mahmoud Sarsak, a midfielder for the Palestinian national soccer team. Sarsak had been held under administrative detention in an Israeli prison for three years without charge or trial. His plight, together with that of many other Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, became the focus of almost daily demonstrations in Palestinian cities, although few of those received media attention. 

Despite being blindfolded and handcuffed, one of the children looks directly at the camera. “The boy can see, his eyes are not totally covered. He noticed me while taking photos. This is why he is looking right at me,” al-Bazz explained.

Perhaps because of his role in the nascent Palestinian national soccer setup, Sarsak became a popular symbol of protest. Even FIFA President Sepp Blatter called for his release, which was achieved after he had gone 92 days without eating.

The wall as a giant screen, Bethlehem, Nov. 29, 2012. Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Residents of Bethlehem used the barrier as a screen on which to project the live feed of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally appealing to the United Nations General Assembly for Palestine to be granted “non-member observer state” status. The vote was 138–9 in favor of the upgraded status for Palestine, with 41 nations abstaining. 

Director Emad Burnat near the wall in Bil’in, Nov. 29, 2013.  Photo by Hamde Abu Rahma

Emad Burnat began filming the protests against the separation barrier in his native Bil’in in 2005, the same year his fourth son, Gibreel, was born. Six years later, the documentary “Five Broken Cameras,” which he co-directed with Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi, put the story of Bil’in on the world map. It received critical acclaim, was nominated for an Oscar and won an International Emmy Award, which he is pictured holding here. 

The movie has become an international success, and will even be screened in Israeli high schools. But it has done nothing to move the wall or better the village’s situation. The photo was taken by Hamde Abu Rahma, also a resident of Bil’in, who entered photojournalism after seeing his cousin Bassem Abu Rahme shot and killed in 2009.

Climbing the wall to attend prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, July 26, 2013. Photo by Oren Ziv

During the holy month of Ramadan last year, Israel granted thousands of permits to Palestinians living in the West Bank that would allow them to reach the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. But getting through the checkpoints can take hours, and not everyone was granted a permit. It is much faster — though also more dangerous — to simply climb over the wall.

Oren Ziv, one of Activestills’ co-founders, who took this photo, comments, “Mainstream media often leaves events early, or doesn’t show up at all, so we get exclusive photos.”

Marathon, Bethlehem, April 21, 2013. Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler

When Palestinians staged their first-ever marathon, calling it the "Right to Movement" race, runners had to complete two laps of the route. That’s because there simply isn’t one single stretch of 26 uninterrupted miles under Palestinian Authority control.

“It's easy just to roll up and take some shots of the wall, of the cool graffiti or whatever,” says photographer Ryan Rodrick Beiler. “Lots of people do that without ever talking to someone who lives with it every day … The harder thing is to show the wall in a new way, or a way that shows its direct impact on people.”

Muhammad Amira overlooking his agricultural lands, Nil’in, Oct. 21, 2013. By Keren Manor

In this photograph, Muhammad Amira is trying to get a good look at his olive trees and grazing lands just beyond the barrier, with the sprawling settlement of Hashmonaim in the background. Nil’in residents have been cut off from about 7.5 acres of their agricultural lands by the wall built there in 2007.

Amira is a farmer and science teacher who frequently attends protests against the separation barrier. The village has lost five residents to IDF fire during protests over the years, including a 10-year-old child.

Hole in the wall, Al Khader, West Bank. Nov. 22, 2013

Activestills will not divulge the identity of the photographer responsible for this exclusive image, for fear of incriminating the Palestinians who broke the wall.

Lights from the Israeli settlement of Har Gilo are visible in the distance, and a beam of light — from Highway 60, the main north-south road traversing the West Bank — shines through the hole, as if a glowing buried treasure were discovered. In this case, the army did not show up.

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