White vs Johnson on the ‘separation wall’

January 14, 2014 at 6:33 pm (Guest post, Human rights, israel, Middle East, palestine, Pink Prosecco, terror, war, zionism)

Guest Post by Pink Prosecco

I have recently read an apparently thoughtful and informative piece on Israel’s security barrier by Alan Johnson over at That Place.  Although associated with pro-Israel advocacy, Johnson appeared willing to engage with the complexity of the situation in Israel/Palestine, and attend to the Palestinian as well as the Israeli perspective.

“Because the constructive pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace approach we need has three characteristics:

First, it is open to the full force of the sheer bloody complexity of the conflict, and is willing to wrestle with that complexity, not evade it.

Second, it is fully aware of the determining contexts of the conflict, among which is security.

Third, it refuses to demonise either side, working with both parties, seeking co-existence, compromise, mutual recognition and peace.”

Ben White has now written a response to Alan Johnson’s piece.  Sneering, smearing and insufferably smug he may be – but does his argument stand up? This seems reasonable:

“Even if that were all true — that the wall was only built as a response to suicide bombings, and that it was solely responsible for a 90 percent reduction in attacks — criticism of the barrier from a human rights and international law perspective remains valid.”

Security and liberty are not always fully compatible and it is appropriate to ask how far, and in what circumstances, it is permissable to curtail liberties in order to enhance security. And you can welcome the part the wall seems to have played in making Israelis feel more safe while criticising the way it has been implemented and acknowledging its impact on Palestinians.

White’s next points don’t really strike me as convincing.  Just because some people wanted a physical barrier even before the violence of the second intifada does not prove that security is not its primary purpose.  However elements in his concluding analysis – seeking to demonstrate that there is no (or little) correlation between the wall’s construction and the decline in violent attacks – seems worth engaging with. However (as usual) White seems to want to alienate readers who feel any sympathy for the Israeli perspective rather than encourage them to adjust their views in the hope of achieving the goals of mutual recognition, peace and compromise set out by Alan Johnson.   White’s habitual lack of empathy for Israelis makes me doubt whether he has researched the issue of the security barrier in a spirit of genuine enquiry.  But I’d be interested to know whether Shiraz Socialist readers find his arguments, or those of Alan Johnson, more compelling.


  1. Babs said,

    The separation barrier would have been a lot less controversial if it didn’t snake through occupied territory. It may well be for security but it’s certainly been used to land grab and that’s what it is now known for and will be remembered for should it be a permanent wall.

  2. Noga said,

    “Even if that were all true — that the wall was only built as a response to suicide bombings, and that it was solely responsible for a 90 percent reduction in attacks — criticism of the barrier from a human rights and international law perspective remains valid.”

    To criticize the “Wall” is not intended as an exercise in futility; it wants to achieve a goal which I assume is its disappearance. If the author accepts that it is possible that the “Wall” is a means of securing the life of Israelis (and Palestinians as well, BTW), then how can a principle of advocating its disappearance still be valid? It can only be valid if you find tolerable the position that says that the right to free and unhindered movement for Palestinians trumps the right to life and security of Israelis.

    • Pink Prosecco said,

      I certainly think Ben White demonstrates (surprise, surprise) no great interest in the small matter of saved Israeli lives.

      He is right to raise the general point, I guess, that we may feel some security measures are so negative, e.g. in their impact on our freedom, that they cannot be justified even if lives may be saved.

      As far as I know, Babs is right to raise the issue of ‘land grab’ – and it’s quite possible to argue that the barrier is defensible in principle, and has some very important benefits, but also that it is implemented unfairly or opportunistically.

      I’ll confess that my confirmation bias is with Alan Johnson, but it may be that Ben White is correct in his analysis of the (negligible) impact of the barrier on security. *Some* of the evidence he adduced seemed reasonable.

      • Ben said,

        The barrier had a negligible impact on security? What a brazen lie.

        There were hundreds of people murdered and thousands wounded and maimed before the barrier was erected, and there was a dramatic fallof in casualties after.

        Israel did not want to have a wall – it was forced to construct it because of the criminal attacks launched against it by Palestinian extremists. Of course Israel chose a path for the wall that did not cause additional suffering for its own people – why should it do otherwise after enduring so much suffering at the hands of its murderous neighbours?

  3. Roger McCarthy said,

    Despite having been very strongly involved in such arguments in the past nowadays I find I just don’t care in the same partisan way.

    The wall is there and like the Berlin Wall from 1960-1990 will remain there until some at present almost unimaginable catastrophe brings it crashing down.

    Nothing any of us say about it can change that fact.

    But our arguments about faraway countries of which we know all too much but about which we can do all too little do divide us and are a distraction from the struggle with our own mortal enemies here and now.

    Feeling as I did and still do about Israel and it’s small but heroic left (how many of us will ever risk our lives to make a political point as Israeli activists do on a daily basis in the West Bank), I am not all happy with this moral abdication.

    But politics must be about priorities.

    Getting the Tories out is a mission that is achievable and to which all of us can make a tiny but real contribution.

    Rescuing two foreign nations depressingly few of whose members show any interest at all in escaping from the historical tragedy in which they are locked is a hopeless task at least for this generation.

    If the world changes so eventually will Israel and Palestine (indeed arguably what advances were made in the early 1990s peace process flowed not from any change of heart on the ground but from the end of the cold war and the US and USSR dragging their proxies kicking and screaming to the conference table – and the unravelling of the peace process can be seen as a consequence of the loss of the USSR as a balancing global force and the loss of interest in the US in resolving conflicts which no longer had a global strategic dimension) – but that is the only hope for progress there.

    • Ben said,

      “its”, not “it’s”.

      RM’s comment is an overdramatization that misrepresents the facts of history and the reality on the ground.

      There is no historical tragedy locking Israelis and Palestine Arabs today. The land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean is the most peaceful and tranquil in the entire Middle East and North Africa.

      Nobody dragged anybody kicking and screaming to the conference table in the early 1990’s. The unravellling of the peace process had nothing to do with the loss of the USSR as a balancing global force – on the contrary it only became possible after the Soviet-era obduracy on the Palestine Arab side ceased receiving post-Soviet Russian support. The conflict never really had that much of a global strategic dimension, and has less of a global strategic importance today than ever.

      • Pink Prosecco said,

        I can’t reply to your comment to me for some reason – perhaps there’s a limit to how many layers are allowed. You say the barrier prevented casualties but don’t counter Ben White’s arguments. Of course there is a correlation between the building of the barrier and the sharp decrease in casualties – but just how causative is it? I don’t think Johnson is saying it’s the only cause and I don’t think White is saying it has no impact at all on Israeli security. But their implied ratios (deaths prevented by the wall vs. deaths prevented for other reasons) are quite different.

      • Roger McCarthy said,

        Damn that apostrophe….

        And if you were right about the land between the Jordan and the Sea being the most peaceful and tranquil in the entire Middle East and North Africa then that is hardly saying very much.

        (However Morocco is part of North Africa & AFAIK not currently wracked by civil war, the Lebanese moved from civil war to occasional assassination some years ago and oppressive as the Gulf states are most are generally free from actual civil conflict).

        ‘Kicking and screaming’ is obviously a rhetorical device – however every account I’ve read about the Madrid talks does emphasise the degree to which Bush and Gorbachov did pressure the Israelis and Fatah so its not entirely excessive when you are discussing the start of the process.

        Certainly by the time we get to Oslo the collapse of Russia’s ability to project power beyond (or even within) its borders forced Fatah to continue negotiating and to eventually seek American economic support as a quid pro quo for concessions.

        And that ‘the struggle’ has far less global strategic importance today than it had during the Cold War and that consequently nothing much will change and all of the rhetoric on both sides is utterly wasted is precisely the point I was making.

  4. richardarmbach2 said,

    Roger you couldn’t be more wrong. It is very doable and at little cost. Just get this ” it is complex ” thing out of your mind. Israel is the most dependent nation on earth. We just say ” no more exceptionalism for YOU” and it is sorted before breakfast time tomorrow.

    • Babs said,

      It’s up to the US to force Israel to implement UNSC 242, no one else matters. And that won’t happen.

      • richardarmbach2 said,

        Agree but that at least is the problem defined. There is nothing to talk to the Israelis about.

    • Roger McCarthy said,

      I genuinely wish it were.

      But due to its dysfunctional internal politics the US will never (at least not in this decade, generation or quite possibly century) force the Israelis to deliver a genuinely fair two-state solution.

  5. Skyler White said,

    Leftists in the UK, at the very minimum, have the obligation to support the cultural and economic boycott of Israel (whilst being flexible enough to allow a platform to Israeli supporters of the Palestinian cause). Not buying Israeli oranges and avocados isn’t too much to ask to show a little solidarity is it?

    • Babs said,

      From the Occupied Territories I agree but not from Israel proper.

    • Jim Denham said,

      The BDS camapign is counter-productive, ineffectual, and encourages a “left” version of anti-Semitism in the UK (eg the initial boycott of Marks & Spencers). A campaign within Israel for the boycott of produce from the occupied territories might be a different matter, but in the rest of the world no distinction between the occupied territories and pre-1967 Israel would be made. BDS supporters on the one hand, and the majority of Jews on the other, have entirely different “narratives” on this and don’t seem to understand where the other side is coming from. For BDS campaigners the analogy (false, in my view) is with the Anti-Apartheid camapign: for most Jews it’s Kristalnacht and the various Nazi and Stalinist boycotts of Jewish businesses and professionals.

      • Babs said,

        I think if one can be 100% certain the goods have been produced and/or manufactured from the Occupied Territories than it’s ok to boycott such a company. It is however in most cases difficult to ascertain this due to fraud by some Israeli companies which label their products as coming from Israel and not the illegal settlements.

        But I agree with you in that I don’t think a lot of the BDS proponents will distinguish between goods coming from the OT and Israel pre 1967. I’m not sure if the BDS campaign is to boycott all Israeli goods because if that is the case then they will have a hell of a tough time doling so. Israel is a key player in the hi-tech department (All the big American Hi-Tech firms have set up bases of operations there and collaborate with Israeli ones) so next time BDS proponants buy a new PC/Tablet/Smartphone etc etc they better check where the components have been manufactured 😉

      • richardarmbach2 said,

        ” for most Jews it’s Kristalnacht and the various Nazi and Stalinist boycotts of Jewish businesses and professionals.”

        I thought Nazi analogies were not allowed. Or does it depend upon who is making them ?


    • Roger McCarthy said,

      In fact many Western leftists have been not buying Israeli oranges and avocados for years with no discernible effect whatsoever on Israeli policy,

      And most of the Muslim world has been theoretically boycotting Israel since 1948 (as did the Soviet Bloc for most of the Cold War).

      Now I understand the moral argument for still doing something even when it has zero discernible effect.

      But in such cases all one is doing is striking a moral pose – in Carl Schmitt’s term we are political romantics artificially creating ‘occasions’ in which we can feel ourselves to be at heart of things and validate our self-image as noble and altruistic beings playing an active role in history.

      And we all do this whether it is Palestinian or Israeli flags we are histrionically waving about.

      But it is an illusion – the reality is that Israel can do any damn thing it wants and that the Americans will in the end support them unless they have very pressing geopolitical reasons for not doing so.

      Salvation if it comes at all can only come from firstly a revival (if not a resurrection) of the Israeli left and secondly from the decline of America as a global superpower.

      Such historical processes take decades and generations and will not be helped one iota by someone theatrically turning up their nose at an Israeli orange in Waitrose.

  6. Skyler White said,

    “for most Jews it’s Kristalnacht”. Whilst I think that is absurd hyperbole, I’ll grant you that there may be a perception amongst many jews and non-jews alike that the boycott of Israeli goods is anti-semitic. Indeed, it’s probably the case that certain individuals within the Palestine solidarity movement help to reinforce that perception and its certainly true that the Israeli lobby devote an enormous amount of energy in seeking to paint activism against Israeli oppression of the Palestinians as anti-semitic.

    Nevertheless, the existence of that perception does not make it correct. The origins of the BDS campaign come from the most progressive forces within Palestinian civil society – human rights organisations, trade unions teachers, doctors, refugees organisations, women’s movements and so forth. See:


    I’d argue that it is not only a good thing to show solidarity with these forces fighting oppression, but an abrogation of the left’s internationalist duty not to support them. The reason that they called for the boycott is simple: there is simply no other way to achieve justice for the Palestinians other than through being able to exert international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. The Israelis have shown absolutely no willingness to do this as their continued expansion of settlements on the West Bank, annexation of East Jerusalem and construction of the apartheid wall demonstrates. When the Palestinians try to resist this – either peacefully or violently – they are massacred by the Israelis. The Palestinians will never be able to achieve a military victory against Israel and left alone they will continue to be slaughtered.

    You say the boycott is ineffectual and counter-productive, but in relation to what it must be asked? What other avenues are open to the Palestinians? The boycott seems to me to be one of the only means of peacefully being able to assert some leverage over Israel. Not supporting the boycott because of perceptions that it might be anti-semitic is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Far better to fight against irrational beliefs than kowtow to them.

  7. Jim Denham said,

    Skyler White writes: ” Indeed, it’s probably the case that certain individuals within the Palestine solidarity movement help to reinforce that perception and its certainly true that the Israeli lobby devote an enormous amount of energy in seeking to paint activism against Israeli oppression of the Palestinians as anti-semitic. .”

    I’d only add that “the Israeli lobby” (and others, like myself, who are not part of any real or imagined “Israeli lobby” don’t have to work too hard to portray some people within the PSC and BDS movement in the UK as anti-Semites, given their initial concentration on Marks & Spencers, their warm embrace of Gilad Atzmon and their evident denial of the state of Israel’s right to exist behind pre-1967 borders.

    • Skyler White said,

      So some supporters of the Palestinians are anti-semites. Some zionists are anti-arab racists. Some socialists think Stalin was awesome. Some feminists are liberal democrats. This sort of guilt-by-association stuff doesn’t tell us anything about the issues at stake. How can you justify ignoring the calls of Palestinian civil society? How do you propose addressing their plight? Seems to me you’re more interested in petty sectarian sniping from the sidelines than engaging in any real solidarity.

      Roger, I guess you can spend the rest of your life intellectualising your own inactivity by quoting trendy revived nazi theorists if that’s what floats your boat.

      • Jim Denham said,

        Firstly, Skyler, my point was not about “supporters of the Palestinians” (amongst whom I’d count myself) but supporters of a boycott of Israel: the two are not synonymous. I can understand and sympathise with the urge to “do something” about the plight of the Palestinians, especially when it comes from Palestinians themselves (though not all Palestinians support a boycott, and the campaign didn’t originate with Palestinians, but in the UK and Europe). However, the BDS and similar campaigns have an inexorable logic: to “delegitimise” Israel and to target Jews who, however critically, identify with the state of Israel. Thus it undermines the prospects of Palestinian/Israeli working class unity and co-operation between progressive forces. It may make some people feel better, but it hinders, rather than helps, Israeli/Palestinian unity.

        The fact that some anti-Semites are prominent amongst the pro-boycott campaigners and advocates is not “guilt-by-association stuff ” but is the inevitable result of the BDS campaign itself. To be clear: not all (or even, perhaps, most) BDS supporters are anti-Semites, but the logic of the campaign *is* anti-Semitic and its no surprise that it attracts some very nasty people as well as some well-meaning ones.

      • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        As it happens I am about as active politically as it is possible to be living where I do – I attend every Labour Party branch meeting, stand hopelessly for election to local councils, have delivered thousands of leaflets, march on demos, go to conferences – all probably futile but beats imagining that clicking a mouse is activism.

        What I don’t waste my time on any more is activism relating to Israel/Palestine as unless you are willing to physically go there yourself and do something actually useful until they either throw you out or drive a bulldozer over you it is entirely pointless.

        The revival of interest in Carl Schmitt is of course driven very largely by left academics who latched on to his intellectually brilliant critique of liberalism – so have no reason to apologise for that either.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: