TEL AVIV // For many Israelis, it is known as the main reason that Palestinian suicide bombers have stopped infiltrating their cities.
But for most Palestinians, the network of towering concrete walls, razor wire-tipped fences, trenches and gates that separates Israel from the occupied West Bank is a land-grab cutting deep into territory they want for their future state.
The barrier, the construction of which began in 2002, is perhaps the most controversial piece of architecture built in the Middle East in recent years. The structure, which surrounds 30 West Bank communities on at least three sides, has made it harder for tens of thousands of Palestinians to reach their farmland and their jobs, as well as attend schools and obtain medical care.
At an estimated cost of more than $3 billion (Dh11bn), or four per cent of Israel's annual budget, "it is Israel's biggest ever real-estate project in terms of investment," said the Israeli political analyst Neve Gordon. "On the one hand, it has carried out egregious violations of Palestinian basic rights. On the other hand, it is an effort to determine at least partially the future borders of a Palestinian state if there will be a two-state solution."
Israel claims that it is building the barrier for security reasons, mainly to stem Palestinian suicide bombings inside its recognised borders, and points to the dramatic decrease in such attacks since the start of construction.
"It has definitely helped us reduce terrorism. Just look at the pace of terror activity coming out of the West Bank in 2001, we had around 35 suicide attacks. In 2002, we had 53 suicide attacks. From 2002 onwards, it went downwards. In 2003, we had 26. It went down to one in 2008 and one in 2009," said Capt Arye Shalicar, an Israeli military spokesman.
Both Mr Gordon and Capt Shalicar point to other factors that have contributed to the decrease, including intensified Israeli military operations against militants in the West Bank, the drop in support among Palestinians for suicide attacks in recent years and stepped-up vigilance by the Palestinian Authority.
Regardless of the drop in suicide attacks, many Palestinians insist that political aims were no less a key factor in the decision to build the wall. A key illustration is that only 15 per cent of the project follows the Green Line, the internationally recognised boundary between the West Bank and Israel, while the rest is inside the occupied territory.
"The Israelis built the wall not for security but for land-grab purposes," said Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official. "This and the general settlement issue make it impossible to proceed with negotiations."
Click here for an interactive map of Israel, Gaza and West Bank roads,
and the six types of barriers that Palestinians must negotiate.
The Palestinian leadership claims the Green Line as the rightful border of their future state. The Palestinians also say that the part of the barrier being built in East Jerusalem is aimed at legitimising Israel's 1967 annexation of the area that they want as their future capital. Indeed, despite Israel's official insistence that the barrier is purely a security obstacle, several senior Israeli officials have said otherwise.
In March 2006, the then-acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said the "course of the fence… will be in line with the new course of the permanent border". Five months earlier, then justice minister Tzipi Livni, who later served as the foreign minister and today is the parliamentary opposition leader, said that the barrier would serve as "the future border of the state of Israel".
Israel's barrier plans suffered a blow in 2004 when the International Court of Justice, the main judicial organ of the United Nations, issued a non-binding ruling that the sections running inside the West Bank - including in and around East Jerusalem - are illegal under international law. The court, based in The Hague, called the barrier "tantamount to de facto annexation". The court's opinion "is very, very clear about considering the wall null and void," Mr Erekat said in an interview.
While Israel has rejected the decision, it has rerouted the barrier several times in response to its own high court rulings on appeals from human rights groups that Palestinians are cut off from vital farmland or services.
Almost two-thirds of the wall has been completed. A further eight per cent is under construction and the rest still in planning stages, according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA. When the wall is finished, it will stretch some 707km, more than twice the length of the Green Line. That distance reflects Israel's desire to be well-positioned ahead of negotiating its future borders with a Palestinian state. On its western side, the barrier encloses the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank that Israel plans to keep under any peace pact.
But according to figures compiled by the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, it has also left 72 Jewish settlements - many of them among the most radical - on its eastern side, suggesting that Israel is prepared to evacuate those communities. They are home to 70,000 settlers, or 15 per cent of the West Bank's Jewish population. Once finished, the barrier would put some nine per cent of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, on the Israeli side.
Ariel Sharon, the former right-wing Israeli prime minister who was known as the father of the Jewish settlement enterprise, is widely credited with launching the barrier. However, it was the centrist Labour party under then-prime minister Ehud Barak that in 2000 championed its construction from the West Bank's northern part to its centre to restrict Palestinian cars from crossing into Israel. That decision was partly in response to the start of the second Palestinian intifada in September of that year, which triggered a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings on public buses and in shopping centres within Israel's recognised territory.
Mr Sharon took over the plan's implementation after his Likud party came to power in 2001, presenting it publicly as a temporary security apparatus but in actuality using it as a political tool to seize Palestinian land and redraw Israel's international border, Mr Gordon said.
The sole positive effect of the barrier for the Palestinians appears to be that it has helped mobilise villages and other communities in a non-violent struggle of weapons-free protests - albeit with frequent stone-throwing - against its construction. Activists say the barrier has also spurred the emergence of an aggressive campaign by Palestinians and their regional and foreign supporters to trigger an economic, social and academic boycott of Israel.
"Israel has constructed a structure that has become a symbol and instrument of apartheid," said Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian politician.
While Mr Barghouti claimed that non-violent resistance "has been growing in a powerful way," he conceded that its effects were limited without backing from the US, Britain and other western countries. "Non-violence alone will not work unless it is coupled with support from the international community."