What America can learn from Israel's fence.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 6 2006 11:42 AM

Fences

What America can learn from Israel's West Bank security barrier.

Israeli security barrier. Click image to expand.
Israeli security barrier

Here's one lesson Americans can definitely draw from the Israeli experience of building a fence to separate them from the Palestinians: High fences don't always make good neighbors. It didn't happen in the West Bank, and it probably won't happen in Texas. The country that builds the fence buys a sense of security, but the people prevented from getting to work, or shopping, or marrying someone on the other side will not be thankful for it. And the reason is pretty obvious: Fences work.

As America debates the question of erecting a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, two precedents are mentioned by proponents and opponents: the Berlin wall and the Israeli barrier. The former is usually the negative example, the latter the more practical illustration. Most calculations of the projected cost of a U.S. fence cite the Israeli model: "[B]ased on the price of the Israeli security barrier," the National Journal estimated that 2,000 miles of fence will cost the United States $6.4 billion.

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But a real calculation is much more complicated than just multiplying the Israeli cost per mile by the number of miles on the American border. It is trickier for technical reasons like terrain and climate and the number and cost of high-tech devices involved. But first and foremost, the cost depends on what kind of fence the United States would want on its border. What kind of investment would Washington make to keep the fence efficient? How high should it be? What are its planners' expectations? How many guards will be on hand to keep it up and running?

The Israeli West Bank barrier, when finished, will run for more than 400 miles and will consist of trenches, security roads, electronic fences, and concrete walls. Its main goal is to stop terrorists from detonating themselves in restaurants and cafes and buses in the cities and towns of central Israel. So, planners set the bar very high: It is intended to prevent every single attempt to cross it. The rules of engagement were written accordingly. If someone trying to cross the fence in the middle of the night is presumed to be a terrorist, there's no need to hesitate before shooting. To kill.

As such, the Israeli fence is very efficient. The number of fatalities from terror attacks within Israel dropped from more than 130 in 2003 to fewer than 25 in 2005. The number of bombings fell from dozens to fewer than 10. The cost for Israel is in money and personnel; the cost for Palestinians is in unemployment, health, frustration, and blood. The demographic benefit—keeping out the Palestinians—is just another positive side effect for the Israelis.

No wonder the fence is considered a good deal by those living on its western side. But applying this model to the U.S.-Mexico border will not be easy. U.S. citizens will find it hard to justify such tough measures when their only goal is to stop people coming in for work—rather than preventing them from trying to commit murder. And the cost will be more important. It's much easier to open your wallet when someone is threatening to blow up your local cafe.

Still, some of the lessons from the Israeli experience apply. The first is one opponents don't like to hear: A wisely planned fence is capable of preventing almost every attempt to enter a country illegally.

When Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano declares, "You show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border," the answer is fairly straightforward: You show me a 51-foot ladder, and I'll show you a guardsman standing on the other side of the wall waiting to arrest the person using it. The fence is not the only thing keeping people from entering. The fence has just two objectives: slowing the intruders and making them visible to members of the border patrol. The rest of the work is done by human beings.

And generally speaking, this is the biggest lesson. It's not the fence, stupid—it is the decisions that the planners make. How tough are you willing to be with illegals? How much money do you want to spend? How important is it to maintain good relations with the towns on the Mexican side of the border? How sympathetic are you to would-be border crossers' needs and desires?

The more you answer these questions the Israeli way, the more unbeatable your fence will be. But don't forget: Years of terror attacks hardened Israelis' hearts toward their neighbors (just as years of occupation hardened Palestinians' hearts toward Israelis). This brought them to a point where they were ready to do whatever it took to make the bloodshed stop. So, here's an easy way to figure out if an American fence will work: Measure the anger and despair. Has it grown big enough to make that same commitment?

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