Fence? Security barrier? Apartheid wall?

Israel is spending $1 billion on a structure to seal itself off from the West Bank. But the question of what to call it provokes an explosive debate.

By Eric Boehlert
August 2, 2003 3:52AM (UTC)
main article image

The newest and most controversial piece of architecture in the Middle East will stretch a total of 300 miles through Israel and the West Bank, a $1 billion combination of trenches, electronic fences, concrete walls and razor coil rising in some places to 25 feet high. When completed, it will cut off Jerusalem from Palestinian areas to the north and south -- a requirement, Israeli officials say, to stop Palestinian suicide bombers from entering their country.

After months of construction and simmering conflict, the project has emerged this week as a high-profile flash point in the ongoing, White House-led Middle East peace talks.


For journalists though, the barrier poses another problem: What does one call it? A wall? A fence? The choice may seem trivial, but as with everything else connected to the Israeli/Palestinian struggle, the topic stirs deep passions and fierce debate.

"It's a reflection of the whole Middle East quandary," says Mark Jacob, foreign/national news editor at the Chicago Tribune. "They can't even agree on a word."

Palestinians refer to the structure as a wall -- Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat labeled it the new "Berlin Wall," and many others call it an "apartheid wall" -- and insist construction will sabotage any peace plans that call for creating a Palestinian state. They fear it will permanently divide West Bank communities down the middle, making it difficult for citizens to get from one side to the other, and in some cases separating farmers from their fields.


Israelis maintain it's a much-needed measure of security, and one justified by an epidemic of Palestinian suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. "The construction is intended to keep out terrorists and extremists seeking to blow up the peace process," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio. To them, the barrier is a fence.

The two phrases carry clear public-relations connotations. "Fence" summons a homey image, a logical attempt at self-defense; "wall" conjures a prison, or the Soviet Union, or a failed security policy that's unable to protect its people.

That's one reason Israelis so adamantly reject the "wall" label. Appearing on NBC's "Today Show" this week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insisted: "First of all, it's not a wall there. It's a very small part where you have a wall. It's a fence."


In the middle are news organizations struggling to find a description that is both accurate and that doesn't raise charges of bias.

"Of all the groups that make their concerns known to us, none are more vocal than the Palestinians and the Israelis," says Eason Jordan, chief news executive at CNN. "And we've heard from them on this topic." He says the all-news channel refers to the West Bank structure as a "security barrier" because that is the best generic term to describe a structure that in some places resembles a high-tech chain-link fence and in others is a concrete wall.


A review of recent news dispatches shows outlets using a shifting assortment of terms when dealing with the volatile topic.

In a July 30 dispatch, the London-based Guardian detailed Sharon's visit to the White House, where the barrier was discussed. The Guardian opted for "fence," but not "wall." The Associated Press made the same choice that day, as did the Dallas Morning News, Newsday, the New York Post, and the Sacramento Bee, among others.

New York Times clips show the paper often uses "security fence" to describe the West Bank barrier. But a newspaper spokeswoman says the Times will now opt for "barrier" to avoid the politicized terms of "wall" or "fence." It will also drop "security" from the description, "because that is an Israeli term expressing the Israeli view" of what the structure provides, says the spokesperson.


Meanwhile, in its August 4 issue, Newsweek asked Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas about Israel's security "wall." Addressing the wall/fence question on Fox News this week, anchor Brit Hume told viewers the barrier "looks like a wall."

Some news outlets simply use both terms. Consider a July 30 story from the London-based Financial Times: "Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, said yesterday that Israel would continue constructing a security fence." The next paragraph read: "Mr. Sharon said following a White House meeting with President George W. Bush that the wall would be built."

The Boston Globe on July 30 also juggled the two descriptions, but leaned more often towards wall.


In its July 28 feature on the topic filed from the West Bank, the Los Angeles Times ran a the headline "Palestinians Losing Land to the Fence" followed by a sub-headline "Israel's anti-terrorism security wall makes its way through people's property in West Bank." Inside the story, too, the terms were used interchangeably. "Palestinians, Israelis and international peace mediators all fear the fence will harden into a border. The wall's final route is a mystery ... "

Just two days later, covering Sharon's visit to the White House, the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau story dropped any reference to a wall, and used fence. It did note, though, that Palestinians refer to it as the "Berlin Wall."

Something similar occurred at the Chicago Tribune. On July 26, the paper ran a dispatch from Jerusalem about the security barrier and referred to it nearly 20 times as a "wall." Four days later, detailing Sharon's meeting with Bush, the Tribune reported about the controversy surrounding the "fence."

"If everyone is talking fence, fence, fence, then the reporter may be more likely to use 'fence' than 'wall'," says Jacob at the Tribune. "But it was not conscious, and it does not reflect a change of policy at the newspaper." He says fence, wall, and barrier are all fair descriptions.


Some of the confusion may stem from the fact that President Bush has flip-flopped on the controversial terms. Last week when welcoming Abbas to the White House, Bush was quite clear when addressing reporters in a joint media appearance. "First of all, on the wall. Let me talk about the wall. I think the wall is a problem," said Bush. "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."

The same day Bush's spokesman echoed his boss: "And on the issue of the wall, the president did express his concern about the wall."

But when Sharon appeared at the White House this week, where in private he told Bush "fences make good neighbors," the president changed course, and discussed the barrier as a fence. "Look, the fence is a sensitive issue," he told reporters.

The Washington Post noted how Bush "adjusted his terminology as well, calling the $1 billion project a 'fence' -- Israel's preferred term -- rather than the 'wall' used by Palestinians."


The Post itself did not have to make any adjustments; it most often refers to the structure as a fence.

The change in phrase was seen as a victory for Sharon and his trip to the U.S. As an Israeli security expert told the Christian Science Monitor: "Basically, Sharon came back safe. They [the White House] called the wall a fence."

Yet even last week, when Bush was using "wall," the New York Daily News and other news operations rejected the president's phrase and insisted on using "fence" even when reporting on the president's comments. The same with the New York Post: "'I think the wall is a problem,' Bush said of the 200-mile long fence." [Emphasis added.]

Perhaps the smartest approach is to simply inform news consumers about the semantics debate, and let them decide, the way CNN's Chris Burns did on July 29: "The Palestinians call it a wall of separation. The Israelis call it a security fence that prevents militants from crossing into Israel proper."


Says CNN's Jordan: "We lay it all out there and viewers can reach their own conclusions."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Berlin Wall Cnn Fox News Middle East The New York Times Washington Post