U.C. Frontline fellow finds Israels concrete wall futile

"What is it like to live on the border in a country without borders — or whose borders are everywhere?"

As the first "Frontline"/World Fellow, U.C. Berkeley journalism student Robin Shulman spent 10 days this fall trying to find out.

Shulman, 27, a Toronto native who graduated with a master's in journalism this month, went to the Middle East to investigate the Seam Line Project, the massive wall the Israelis have devised to separate themselves from the Palestinians.

The results of her investigation are posted on the "Frontline" Web site — www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/ fellows/israel/nfintro.html. Shulman was the first ever fellow in this program, which allows younger journalists to investigate a project of their choice for a multimedia piece that appears on the award-winning news program's Web site. Shulman took most of the photos that accompany her report.

First-person writing is encouraged, as is investigating a topic that isn't well-covered by the mainstream media.

For Shulman, it was a chance to revisit a region where she has worked before. From 1998 to 2000, she worked as a freelance writer and did some radio reporting while living in the mixed Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor. She also worked on the English edition of Ha'aretz.

As Shulman writes, the wall is not a border, since borders must be negotiated and agreed upon by both sides. Israel is putting an estimated $1 million per mile to construct a massive concrete wall, with electronic sensors that will be impossible to penetrate.

According to Israeli figures, she writes, up to 10,000 people will be enclosed between the wall and the established 1967 border otherwise known as the Green Line. Palestinian sources put the figure at 26,000. Regardless of the numbers, the wall will prevent farmers from reaching their farmland and residents from reaching their water sources, among other such effects, according to Shulman. These "Palestinians will be trapped between the old border and the new wall, unable to easily enter either Israel or the West Bank," she writes.

"What is happening is there are some crazy situations where residents will be sealed between the new wall and the West Bank line," she said. "They're not Israeli citizens, they're residents of the West Bank, but the wall will be built between them and the West Bank so they won't be able to access centers of work and health care, schools and shopping, except for passing through this wall."

Given that it is so difficult to pass through the checkpoints now, Shulman said people who will have to do so daily are worried.

"They see it as losing their access; people just don't know what's going to happen."

While most Israelis she talked to were in favor of the wall, she met some who weren't.

In the town of Netiv Ha'Asara, which is inside Israel proper but very close to Gaza, rockets have landed in residents' backyards.

"They said there will be no physical or military solution to this conflict," she said. "They told me that walls are not going to help."

Some who weren't in favor of it were the Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

"There are many settlers who will be on the wrong side of the wall, and they were a force in blocking it," she said. "The fact that it's being built in a zig-zag line is to include some of the settlements inside it."

The Arab citizens of Israel she interviewed felt the wall didn't make sense, especially since it wasn't being built on the recognized border between Israel and the West Bank.

Though the wall was what she focused on most, the story is actually about much more than that.

There are many places in the region where the borders keep changing.

"There is a place on the Lebanese border where the border has been moved," she said. "I think the more important question is how lives are being impacted by the forced division and separation and violence."

Because "Frontline" allowed Shulman to report in first person, her own feelings about the wall come through in her report.

"To me, it seems like a futile solution," she said. "It doesn't seem like a solution to anybody's demands, so it was incredible to be seeing how much is being invested in a solution that doesn't seem to have much hope in it."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."