In selling his border wall, Donald Trump has frequently touted Israel’s barrier with the West Bank as a model. “A wall protects,” he told Fox News shortly after his election. “All you have to do is ask Israel.” He again praised Israel’s wall in a White House meeting last month with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer: “I am proud to shut down the government over border security. If you really want to find out how effective a wall is, just ask Israel.”
Yet if you were to query Israeli officials about the wall, they would likely tell you that their barrier was not built to “protect” Israelis but rather to separate them from Palestinians. They even have a name for it: “the apartheid wall.”
For decades, Israeli officials have employed the Hebrew term Hafrada (“separation” or “segregation”) to describe Israel’s governing policy in the West Bank and Gaza, which involves keeping Palestinians apart from both the Israeli population and the Jewish settler community in the occupied Palestinian territories. The so-called West Bank Barrier, known in Hebrew as “Gader Ha-Hafrada” (“Separation Fence”), was built in accordance with this Hafrada vision.
The wall dates back to the early 1990s, in the wake of the first Intifada, when Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin proposed a physical barrier to divide Israelis from Palestinians for good. He ordered the construction of a thirty-mile wall along the Gaza Strip. Rabin’s Hafrada vision was summed up in his famous pledge to “take Gaza out of Tel Aviv.” As he declared in 1994: “We have to decide on Hafrada as a philosophy.” A year later, Rabin told Israelis: “We have to reach a separation between us and them.”
Putting philosophy into action, he established a special commission to discuss the implementation of Hafrada and formulate a “separation plan.” Out of the plan came a two-hundred-mile “separation line” of fences with the West Bank. (Rabin often described the peace process with Palestinians as another form of Hafrada.)
Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, embraced this Hafrada logic when, on the eve of the 1996 elections, he told Israeli voters: “Build a fence to keep out the Palestinians.”
In 1998, Ehud Barak ran on a platform based openly on the Hafrada doctrine, campaigning under the slogan: “Us here. Them there.” In a famous speech to B’nai B’rith International in August that year, Barak declared: “We should separate ourselves from the Palestinians physically, following the recommendation of the American poet Robert Frost, who once wrote that good fences make good neighbors. Leave them behind the borders that will be agreed upon, and build Israel.”
Barak won the 1999 general election in a landslide. Once in his new office, he worked to make his Hafrada vision concrete. To stimulate cabinet discussion of segregation, he handed his ministers copies of a separatist manifesto composed by the Israeli academic Dan Schueftan, titled Korach ha-Hafrada (The Necessity of Separation), which had inspired Barak’s own segregationist vision. Barak was shrewdly aligning himself with the dominant popular sentiment in Israel at the time: A national poll conducted in late December that year found that 75 percent of Israelis favored Hafrada.
With the turning of the century and the explosion of the second Intifada (2000–5), Hafrada rapidly became Israel’s raison d’être. In 2003, Ariel Sharon, who two years earlier had easily defeated Barak, proposed his own iteration of Hafrada: Unilateral separation (“Hafrada Had Tzdadit,” in Hebrew). Sharon’s vision of Hafrada ultimately prevailed over Barak’s. The Israeli cabinet adopted it in June 2004, the Knesset approved it in February 2005, and it was enacted in August 2005, culminating in Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza.
It was Sharon’s Unilateral Separation Plan that paved the way for the construction of the notorious separation wall, which Israeli officials dubbed the physical incarnation of Sharon’s vision of Hafrada. The original Hebrew term for the plan, “Tokhnit Ha-Hafrada” (Segregation Plan), was later modified and changed to “Tokhnit Ha-Hitnatkut” (Disengagement Plan), apparently out of fear that the Hebrew “Hafrada” might echo the Afrikaans term “apartheid.”
Under Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s successor, Hafrada took on a new face: “The realignment plan,” or the “convergence plan,” which referred to Israel’s plan to unilaterally disengage from most of the West Bank after annexing Jewish settlements into Israel. Despite the milder terminology, the new plan explicitly sought to continue the “segregation policy” (Medinyut ha-Hafrada) implemented by Olmert’s predecessors.
The current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, shares his predecessors’ commitment to the principle of Hafrada. In 2011, he told members of his cabinet: “The debate over how many Jews and how many Palestinians will be between the Jordan and the sea is irrelevant. It does not matter to me whether there are half a million more Palestinians or less because I have no wish to annex them into Israel. I want to separate from them so that they will not be Israeli citizens.”
While some Israelis like to distinguish between “hard separation” (Rabin and Barak) and “soft separation” (Peres and Olmert), the result has been the same: an apartheid form of physical division where one ethnic group is free and the other is not. This is not to suggest that Israel’s Hafrada is identical to South Africa’s apartheid, but that apartheid, or separateness, as a system of enforced segregation based on race and ethnicity and imposed by a sovereign and dominant group over an impoverished one, can take myriad forms.
While Hafrada has gradually dropped out of official use — an attempt to avoid association with the notorious term “apartheid” — it has lost none of its force in Israel’s political and public discourse. In recent years, Palestinians have borrowed Israel’s own terminology to describe the wall that runs deep into their lands, displacing their communities and cutting off their towns and villages from one another.
What’s more, Hafrada is no longer limited to Israel’s actions towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It also applies to Israel’s treatment of the country’s Palestinian citizens. In 2005, an art exhibition in Jaffa dramatized this dehumanization well — featuring images of a dozen separation sites inside Israel, not only between Jewish and Arab towns, but between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods within Israel’s so-called mixed cities (including Haifa, Jerusalem, and Lod).
For the average Israeli, the exhibit no doubt portrayed Hafrada — “separation.” In other words, “apartheid.”