Frontline World

ISRAEL, Tracing Borders, January 2003
Tracing Borders

FRONTLINE/World sent Robin Shulman, our first FRONTLINE/World Fellow, to Israel to explore the shifting frontiers of a country without established borders. She watched the construction of the Seam Line Project, a massive security fence in the northern West Bank and around parts of Jerusalem, intended to separate Israelis and Palestinians. Elsewhere, near the boundary lines of Lebanon and Gaza, she asked people what it's like to live near moving fences, new walls and the people on the other side. Her trip traced official and unofficial lines that connect and separate people in a country where borders -- contested and actual, historical and changing -- are everywhere. Shulman is currently a graduate student working on a joint Master's degree in Journalism and Middle East Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.



Robin ShulmanStitching the Seam Line

From October 1998 to August 2000, I lived in Jerusalem, working as a freelance journalist. I wanted to live in an integrated area with Jews and Arabs, but the closest I came was the armistice line set up after the war of 1948. In "mixed" Abu Tor, my house was the last on the Jewish side; my walkway was part of the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan. Out my window, drilling, hammering and new cement were slowly erasing the border as Jewish buildings pushed up all the way through the onetime no-man's-land to the edge of the stone houses on the Palestinian side.

See a map of the actual Seam LineThe borders around me seemed uncertain, as always throughout Israel's history. When Israel declared statehood in 1948, it didn't declare borders -- but in 1949, it agreed with each of its neighbors on ceasefire lines that also defined the West Bank and Gaza. For a time, Israel negotiated treaties that included stipulations on frontiers -- with Jordan in 1994; with Egypt in 1979; even provisionally with Syria in 1974. But the official status of the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel occupied in 1967, has not been decided. After more than 50 years, the state of Israel has never established legal, binding borders.

In June 2002, Israel began constructing a massive new barrier to separate itself from the Palestinians, a vast formation of walls and fences intended to eventually surround the entire West Bank and enclose Jerusalem. It is called the Seam Line Project, suggesting stitching that connects -- rather than separates -- two pieces of a whole. The name implies an attempt to fuse the demands of occupation and security.

In fall 2002, I took a 10-day journey through Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to trace the official and unofficial borders of a country full of incomplete frontiers. I would start at the new fence and wall, continue along older Israeli-Arab borders, and visit places where the frontiers are far from clear. I wanted to assess how lines are drawn in border zones where people see, hear, smell, infiltrate, ignore, explore, peddle to, steal from, long for, recoil from, partner with, throw stones at and try to kill the people on the other side. What is it like to live on the border in a country without borders -- or whose borders are everywhere?

The Great Wall: Concrete, Concertina Wire and Sensors

A section of the onetime borderland between Israel and Jordan has been made into a playground.

A section of the onetime borderland between Israel and Jordan has been made into a playground.
The sheer scale of the Seam Line Project shows Israel's eagerness to find a formula that will save lives and land. The total cost will be about $1 million per mile, and the first phase of the West Bank section, to be completed in July 2003, will stretch 80 miles long. The width of the barrier area will be an awesome 55 yards, as wide as a football field. A person crossing from the Palestinian side to the Israeli side would encounter a concertina fence, a ditch, an army road, sensor fences or sensor walls up to 28 feet tall, a trace road (for tracking footprints of infiltrators), another army road, another trace road and another concertina fence.

The Americans Behind the Wall. GO"It is not a border," say Israeli officials, who, with careful consistency, refer to the massive wall and fence system as the Seam Line Project. Certainly it defies most conventions of border establishment: There is no agreement with the people on the other side. Israel will not withdraw its forces from the Palestinian side, and that access is built in, with roads designated for Israeli military vehicles on both sides. The United Nations has not acknowledged the new walls and fences. The jutting, jagged barrier will not follow the armistice line accepted as the informal West Bank border since 1949, but will enclose West Bank Jewish settlements, will exclude many nearby Palestinian villages, and, in the first phase of construction, will involve confiscating an estimated 42 square miles of land, mostly farmland, from Palestinians. The project will also enclose an estimated 10,000 (according to the Israeli Ministry of Defense) to 26,000 (according to the Palestinian Authority) Palestinians, who will be trapped between the old border and the new wall, unable to easily enter either Israel or the West Bank.

Opinion polls show that up to 80 percent of Israelis support the new barrier. Desperate to stop suicide bombers, a group of citizens even formed the Movement for Separation, which sued for the government to build the Seam Line faster. Yet nothing is simple when it comes to drawing new lines on Israel's map. The delays in building are partly caused by Jewish settlers who don't want a border that could signal Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank. The Seam Line Project, if it were to become a border, would kill their dreams of an expansive Greater Israel encompassing the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

West Bank: Building the Wall
FRONTLINE/World Fellows
Part of the Web-exclusive FRONTLINE/World Fellowship program. FRONTLINE/World is exploring partnerships with some of the leading graduate schools of journalism around the United States with the goal of identifying and developing the best of an emerging generation of journalists. The FRONTLINE/World Fellowship program is supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Read more about the program.