Reminiscent of apartheid South Africa’s policy of ethnic separation, the structure runs roughly between Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Controversially, it includes several West Bank towns and lands on the Israeli side of the structure.

Initially planned to be about 250km long, the barrier has been extended and is now expected to be about 700km long. More than 200km has been built so far.

Builders began work in June 2002 between the Palestinian towns of Qalqilya and Jenin. But what exactly is it, what is it for, and why is it driving President George Bush’s so-called road map into a dead end?

Fence or wall?

When complete, the barrier will part solid concrete wall, part wire and mesh fence. Most of it is expected to consist of a concrete base supporting a five-metre-high wire and mesh barrier, with rolls of razor wire and a four-metre-deep ditch on one side.

About nine kilometers of its projected length is made up of an eight-metre-high wall of solid concrete, featuring huge watchtowers. Much of this is already well under way.

What they say

"It is a sinful assault on our land, an act of racism and apartheid"
Yasir Arafat,
Palestinian president

"I know it's a conventional wisdom that fences make good neighbors, but that's if you build the fence on your own land and don't disrupt your neighbor's life" 
Kofi Annan,
UN Secretary-General

"The security fence will continue to be built with every effort to minimise the infringement on the daily life of the Palestinian population,"
Ariel Sharon,
Israeli premier

"When security becomes apartheid"
Salon editorial headline, July 2003

"I made it clear, I thought the fence was a problem”
George Bush,
US president

"The barrier deprives thousands of Palestinian residents of
adequate access to basic services such as water, health care and education"
International Committe of the Red Cross

In addition, the barrier will have electronic sensors and a so-called trace road, which will reveal the footprints of anyone who has managed to reach or cross the structure.

Israel has consistently referred to the barrier as a 'security fence', but this description has been criticised as misleading because the barrier is much more solid and formidable than the word ‘fence’ usually connotes.

Why build it?

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his cabinet in March that the barrier was “another means to assist in the war against terror and greatly assist in stopping illegal aliens”.

Israeli officials have said the solid concrete part around Qalqilya is meant to be a 'sniper wall' to prevent gun attacks against passing Israeli motorists on the nearby highway.

Now that construction work has started, however, Sharon’s coalition government may find it difficult to stop. Israeli opinion polls show a solid majority of Israelis support the creation of the barrier.

But Palestinian officials have denied the structure will be effective in preventing attacks, saying visible progress in peace negotiations will prove more efficacious in diminishing violence.

Critics of the structure point to the route of what many of them have dubbed the 'apartheid wall'. They suggest that by building it so that many Palestinian towns and lands fall on the Israeli side – rather than following the internationally recognised 1967 border – the structure is intended to expand Israel’s de facto boundaries.

Why do Palestinians object?

Besides concerns that Israel is trying to annex more Arab territory by stealth, Palestinians complain that the barrier is already disrupting life on the West Bank.

Arab land has been confiscated to build the structure. Moreover, many Palestinian farmers have been cut off from their fields and orchards, which now fall on the wrong side of the structure. This has threatened the livelihoods of hundreds if not thousands of West Bank farmers and traders.

The most egregious example is Qalqilya, which has been almost surrounded by the 'sniper wall' section and can only be reached through a solitary Israeli checkpoint.

Consequently, a town renowned for its fruit production has been virtually cut off from both its fields and its traditional markets and faces economic ruin.