NITSANEI OZ, Israel (Reuters) - A huge Palestinian flag suddenly looms up above the grey concrete slabs of Israel’s West Bank barrier, a rare glimpse of “the other” before it disappears in your rear-view mirror.
Farther north around ancient Armageddon and the tourist lookout points of Mount Gilboa, a wrong turn leads to a warning sign, or a gap in the trees reveals a West Bank Palestinian village below in the distance.
The relative rarity of these fleeting glimpses shows how, 20 years after the Second Palestinian Intifada (uprising), many Israelis ceased seeing the Palestinians as prospective peace partners, and prefer not to see them at all.
Israel credits the barrier with having stemmed Palestinian suicide bombings and shooting attacks during the five-year intifada, in which more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians were killed.
Palestinians say it was a land grab that cuts miles into the West Bank and was designed to annex parts of the territory that Israel captured and occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, and which Palestinians seek for a future state.
The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in an advisory opinion in 2004 that the barrier was illegal under international law. Israel rejected this, accusing the court of being “politically motivated”.
But there is little argument that the barrier has shifted the geographical terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – radically changing the dynamic between two intertwined peoples.
While West Bank Palestinians could before 2000 easily walk or drive into Israel, a generation later, some Israelis are now most likely to encounter them while serving as soldiers at a checkpoint – unless they are among the 450,000 Israelis now living in West Bank settlements.
And from border communities such as Nitsanei Oz just inside Israel, miles of fencing, walls and watchtowers between them and the West Bank have become an immutable reality.
“By building the fence we did create a fact on the ground - a one-side fact,” said Shachar Goldrat, 36, in Tel Aviv.
“It did create a situation of some measure of security, so yes, it was a way to give up and say, ‘We are not going to have a peace treaty any time soon.’”
The uprising erupted on Sept. 28, 2000 after Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon paid a high-profile visit to Jerusalem’s most fiercely disputed holy site, the walled Old City compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Palestinians regarded Sharon’s walkabout as a calculated provocation, but Israel accused then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of inciting violence - two months after a failed peace summit in the United States.
Palestinians signalled they would accept nothing less than a viable state in what is now Israeli-occupied territory with its capital in East Jerusalem, while many Israelis concluded that they had no “partner for peace”.
Just 60 km (40 miles) south of Israel’s coastal metropolis Tel Aviv lies Gaza, where two million Palestinians live under the control of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States.
Since Israel unilaterally withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas took over the narrow enclave, there has been even less direct contact – besides the frequent threat of rockets fired by Palestinian militants into Israel, and of Israeli air strikes into densely populated Gaza.
The West Bank barrier and Gaza pull-out were both spearheaded by Sharon, who was by then prime minister.
“What we intended was a process of separation from the Palestinians,” a former Sharon former adviser, Eival Giladi, told Reuters. “It was a vision of putting down the Intifada so that then we could make progress, not under the pressure of terrorism, but by being proactive and strong.”
Giladi regrets what he calls a “lost decade”, when, he believes, Israel “did not make wise use of the positive conditions we had to hand” to bring about “a more successful result with the Palestinians”.
The last round of peace talks collapsed six years ago.
But Israeli historian Benny Morris said that after living with the daily fear of explosions in buses and restaurants, the main impact of the intifada was the “hardening of Israelis’ positions” toward Palestinians.
The barrier was one expression of that, Morris said.
“Israelis have gone off Palestinians. They want as little as possible to do with them, want as few of them around as possible and the fence helps that situation emerge,” he told Reuters.
“Over 1,000 Israelis were killed by bombers, snipers, in restaurants and so on and this made Israelis extremely angry. I’m sure the Israeli reaction to that made the Palestinians angry. But it made the Israelis understand that the Palestinians are really not interested in making peace but only in destroying Israel. I think that was the major effect on Israelis.”
Some Israelis, however, want a rethink - not least after months in which the coronavirus pandemic – respecting neither religion nor politics - has forced lockdowns everywhere.
“I think that we cannot look to the past, we have to look to the future,” said Dror Gal, a 65-year-old lawyer in Tel Aviv.
“And mainly during these days of the virus...we should have to cooperate, we should live together - to survive together.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich
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