How to sculpt an apartheid state with a calculator

Arnon Sofer is a geographer, a demographer, and an expert sculptor of Israeli apartheid. His name might not ring a bell for most people, but only because his direct involvement in politics is overshadowed by the magnitude of his contribution to a decades-old legacy of forced separation. His influence, however, leaves its mark on Palestinians daily.

Confined to calculators, notebooks, and maps, Sofer has been characterized in the past as someone who has a fetish for counting, adding, and dividing Jews and Arabs. He identifies himself as an ardent supporter of the “overwhelming Jewish majority” and uses population data to tweak political objectives in Israel — objectives that, by any standard outside of Israel, would constitute the basis of systematic racism.

Part of his personal legacy involves the immense barrier wall slicing in and out of the West Bank’s border, an offshoot of what Sofer originally had in mind. Having contributed a series of statistics to the scare-mongering theory that the Jewish faith is under a constant existential threat, Sofer’s idea of population control gained favor with the government administration at the time. During a presentation at Haifa University, Sofer proposed a plan in which the West Bank would be split into four distinct areas: three for Arabs, to be surrounded on all sides by electric fencing, and one for Israel, amounting to over 50% of the territory. The purpose of such a set up would be to prevent Arabs from infiltrating annexed Jewish land. Following the presentation, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shook his hand and the two developed a strong working relationship.

Throughout much of Sharon’s first term as Prime Minister, he and Sofer communicated over the necessity of physically separating Israelis from Arabs to preserve what can be only be understood as the purity and might of the Jewish population. Heeding to Sofer’s propositions, Sharon authorized construction of the barrier wall in 2002 at a time when the Jewish population nearly matched in size the Palestinian population living under Israeli jurisdiction.

Communication between the two persisted well after construction of the wall began. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Sofer recalled Sharon’s reliance on his plan to shift the population ratio in favor of a Jewish-majority state. “When he became Prime Minister the second time, the same night, he called me [at] home. ‘Arnon! Please bring me your disengagement map.’”

Together, and with the support of the cabinet, the two drafted a plan to evacuate Jews from the Gaza Strip and from a number of settlements in the West Bank. This disengagement plan is commonly misunderstood as a gesture of good faith in line with international law but, as Sofer puts it, “if I can summarize, [it was] Jews here, Arabs there” in order to “separate ourselves and to become [again a] Jewish state”.

Many of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians since Sharon and Sofer first met have much to do with Sofer’s intense desire to establish a state where Jews openly dominate non-Jewish minorities. He is not the first to advocate for this idea nor will he be the last, but he did propose a detailed map that piqued the interests of Sharon and his cabinet members. His emphasis on population dynamics rather than on fundamental human and civil rights characterizes his ability to sculpt an apartheid state with nothing more than a calculator at hand.

Today, the concrete wall that reaches upwards of eight meters in height pays homage to Sofer’s influence. Millions of Palestinians must deal with the realities of living on the other side of walls, fences, and checkpoints designed to segregate to the fullest extent.

Sami Kishawi

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