The Good Fence

By Elliot Jager
Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Just about anything that makes Israel more secure is opposed by someone: either by its enemies and their enablers, or by its fair-weather friends in the international arena, or by dissident elements within the Jewish community—and sometimes by all three. A case in point is Israel's West Bank security barrier.   

The security barrier is actually a multifaceted defense system.  Mostly a combination of trenches, metal fencing, and electronic sensors, it is a concrete wall only in very few places (along highways to protect against Palestinian snipers).  Yet nine years after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the construction of the fence, which has led to a dramatic decrease in terrorist attacks, critical swaths of the proposed 472-mile barricade have yet to be completed.  Why?   

Aside from the habitual budgetary and bureaucratic foot-dragging, a few details about the fence's precise route are being challenged in the Israeli courts, and finishing the fence would force Israel's polity to make tough decisions about de facto boundaries.  But also, paradoxically, the very success of the fence has removed much of the incentive—and the public pressure on politicians—to complete it.   

And yet gaps in the barrier made it easy for West Bank Palestinians to stab Christine Logan to death in the Jerusalem forest late last year and to wound two Israelis in a downtown Beer Sheva ax-wielding attack last month.

The original concept of a security fence had many boosters, from former Knesset member Haim Ramon and former national security adviser Uzi Dayan to the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Reacting to Palestinian Arab violence in 1992, Rabin argued for a barrier separating West Bank Palestinians from Israeli population centers, running where it was most effective (not necessarily along the hard-to-defend 1949 armistice lines).  

The real impetus came in the wake of the second intifada unleashed by Yasir Arafat in September 2000. Dozens of Palestinian suicide bombings claimed scores of Israeli lives. Between 2000 and 2005, a staggering 26,000 terror attacks, including 144 suicide bombings, were launched against Israelis; over 1,000 Israelis were murdered and 6,000 wounded. In one hideous instance in June 2001, a suicide bomber slaughtered 21 teenagers on a Friday night at Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium dance club. 

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came under intense grass-roots pressure to finally build the fence that would protect Israelis from the Palestinian onslaught. But Sharon worried that not enough thought had been given to what such a fortification might signal about Israel's ancestral and geo-strategic claims to the land on the other side. He wanted time to overcome Palestinian terror through conventional military means. 

Ordinary Israelis, however, did not want to wait any longer. When local authorities began taking matters into their own hands by building makeshift fences, Sharon reluctantly reversed his position. The barrier's first continuous segment, opposite the northern West Bank, was completed at the end of July 2003; residents of the capital could also see signs of a protective "envelope" rising around Jerusalem. Finally, in 2005, the cabinet formally approved the route of the barrier as proposed by Sharon. It was a pricy decision; costing over $2 million per mile, but with Israel's economy stagnating under merciless Palestinian battering there was little alternative.

The fence alone would not have defeated the intifada, though demoralized terror leaders admitted that it appreciably complicated their "resistance" efforts.  One unforeseen positive consequence of the security barrier is that it made it possible to dramatically reduce the number of IDF checkpoints within the West Bank to less than 50. 

Clearly, gunmen can still lob rockets over or (as in the Gilad Shalit case) tunnel beneath any barrier. In 2003, two British nationals managed to legally exit Gaza to bomb the "Mike's Place" club in Tel Aviv, and in 2005 terrorists launched a deadly attack at the Karni truck crossing. But since the Gaza perimeter was secured in 1999, no terror attacks have emanated from the Strip.  Even where it is still incomplete, the security fence has made it harder for enemy operatives to deliver car bombs or suicide bombers into Israeli population centers. 

No doubt because of this success, the fence has served as a lightning rod for Israel's radical de-legitimizers who have nonsensically labeled it an "apartheid wall."  Characteristic of those who have coalesced around this issue is the International Solidarity Movement, which organizes weekly riots (euphemistically, "direct action") at the fence.  Four years ago this month, the International Court at The Hague predictably ruled that the barrier was "illegal."

Israel's Supreme Court has upheld the legality of the barrier and has, at times, ruled in favor of Palestinian claimants with regard to its precise route—most notably in the Bil'in-Modi'in area. In Jerusalem the fence is being erected along the municipal boundaries so as not to divide the capital. That still leaves too many Israelis on the "wrong side" of the fence feeling isolated and worried that its placement is a precursor to the abandonment of Jewish rights in the West Bank.

Yet it is not foreign opposition but Israeli political lethargy that has held up completion of the barrier. Marc Luria, a founding member of Security Fence for Israel, pointed out that Israel's Defense Ministry budget does not contain a line item for the barrier so funds are constantly redirected elsewhere. He argued that neglect of Israel's barrier along the Lebanese border emboldened Hizballah to launch the attack that ignited the 2006 second Lebanon war. On another front in the south, where the Negev meets Egypt's Sinai, Luria said that "little has been done and progress is painfully slow" on building a new fence.

So while the good news is that about 90 percent of the West Bank fence has been completed, without pressure from ordinary Israelis it will take another gory wave of Palestinian violence to prompt Israel's government to complete the crucial 10 percent gap (about 62 miles).  In the poem "Mending Wall," Robert Frost skewered the aphorism that "good fences make good neighbors."  Unfortunately, bad neighbors make good fences imperative.

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