The Israeli military this week began removing a security wall that protected the Jewish settlement of Gilo, on the southeast edge of Jerusalem, against attacks from the nearby Palestinian village of Beit Jala.
Israel says that it is removing the protective structure because the security situation in the neighborhood, directly targeted by Palestinian militants during the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, has improved.
But Palestinians say the Israeli move is self-serving and superficial.
For nearly a decade, a 10-foot-high, 1.2 mile-long wall was a stark reminder that this neighborhood was the target of some of the earliest attacks of the second intifada.
But Israeli security officials say that tensions have now subsided between the Palestinian village of Beit Jala and Gilo. The Israeli settlement was built on land seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Israel now considers it a suburb of Jerusalem.
In 2000, Gilo was the target of regular sniper fire and occasional mortar attacks from Palestinian militants across a ravine in nearby Beit Jala, a village adjacent to Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem.
The Palestinian security forces that now operate in Beit Jala have received high praise from Israeli and U.S. officials for restoring order there. The Israel Defense Forces largely credits their work for the decision to remove the Gilo wall.
Rami Cohen, a 53-year-old resident of Gilo, says his car was hit by bullets during one of the shooting attacks. Still, he thinks the wall should have come down years ago. "I don't think this is something that really helped. It always just separated us from our problems. Not just this wall, but the whole other wall is a really bad move by Israel," Cohen says, referring to the much larger separation barrier that winds in and around the West Bank.
The Larger Barrier
For many, the wall in Gilo was a precursor to the army's decision to build the larger structure. Some Israelis, who protested the original Gilo wall, are now discussing ways in which they can use its removal to strengthen their campaign against the separation barrier.
But most Palestinians are not as hopeful. Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, shrugs off any prospect that dismantling the Gilo wall could herald bigger things.
"I don’t think there is any significance on this step. Now they say that they removed it because they feel that things are more secure. If this is correct, then they should have better removed some of the barriers that are making our lives terrible. Like some of the checkpoints, or some of the wall," Khatib says.
He says the removal of the wall is cosmetic, at best.
"It might make the life of the [Jewish] settlers easier, but it has nothing to do with the life of the Palestinians," Khatib says.
Concern In Gilo
Some residents of Gilo seem apprehensive about the decision to remove the wall, which has long been the focus of their community. Tourists came to photograph it, and artists held contests to determine who would decorate the concrete slabs.
Mordechai Sechavia is one of the original founders of Gilo 35 years ago.
He gestures across the ravine toward Beit Jala, pointing out places where Palestinian gunman took up positions years ago. He argues that the wall should not be removed. "It could be that the violence will just come back again. There is no way of knowing. They could take it down and tomorrow the shooting will start again," Sechavia says.
Israeli soldiers removing the wall are working quickly. They expect to have it completely dismantled within two weeks. Still, they say they aren't taking any chances. As they hoist the concrete slabs onto the back of a flatbed truck, they number the pieces.
That way, they say, it will be easy to put it back together again.