Why a West Bank fence won't protect Israel.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 8 2002 5:38 PM

Hitting the Wall

Why a West Bank fence won't protect Israel.

Israeli workers erect a fence around Neeve Yaakov, a Jewish area of Jerusalem
Israeli workers erect a fence around Neeve Yaakov, a Jewish area of Jerusalem

Building a fence to keep out Palestinian terrorists: It's a beguilingly simple idea that continues to gain currency in an Israel tormented by Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Indeed, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hastens back from Washington after yet another suicide bombing, his government is already starting to demarcate land for barriers and quietly thinking through what's euphemistically known in Israel as "separation." But a fence is a counsel of despair. While the idea has clear appeal for Israeli politicians, it's dubious security policy and rash diplomacy.

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The reason building a security fence is so popular at the moment is that it lets a traumatized Israel do something to protect itself in the absence of a Palestinian peace partner. This idea is particularly associated with Ehud Barak, the former Labor Party prime minister who lost out after his effort at a peace deal failed and is now pushing unilateralism to fuel his comeback. Labor had urged Israelis to trust Yasser Arafat, who wouldn't abandon his lifelong addiction to terrorism as a political tool. The fence gives a Labor Party discredited by the failed Oslo peace process a security plank to run on. In political terms, the idea plays: It's not wimpy, it appeals to the solid Israeli majority ready for a pragmatic way out, and it lets Labor paint Likud as more committed to greater-Israel ideology than security.

No wonder, then, that Sharon has suddenly come around to the idea, even though he's spent decades trying to erase the Green Line that separates Israel from the West Bank, not fortify it. Sharon's no fool, and he doesn't want to leave Labor a way to bring itself back from its current near-death state. Sharon now has his chief rival party trapped in the political purgatory of a hawk-dominated national unity government where Labor holds both the defense and foreign ministries. In this position, Labor continues to take flak for the failures of both Barak's open hand and Sharon's mailed fist.

But politics aside, does a fence make security sense for Israel? Constructing a wall might yield some short-term benefit, but it's not an easy long-run case to make. First, fences leak. Enthusiasts point to the apparent success of the 30-mile fence built around the Gaza Strip in 1994, which has stopped dozens of suicide bombers. But Gaza is small, flat, and clearly demarcated—a much easier place to cordon off than the West Bank, which features a 190-mile, curving, hilly frontier with Israel proper. Even so, Israeli police say the bomber who killed 15 Israelis Tuesday came from Gaza. The most ingeniously constructed West Bank fence would also be permeable, even by low-tech terrorism. A fence could keep out some impulsive 17-year-olds, but serious terrorist groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aqsa Brigades would still find ways in—tunnels, ladders, hang gliders, infiltrations, and so on.

Second, fences are better at stopping trade than terror. Israel has it in its power to cut the Palestinians off with something as impermeable as the Berlin Wall. But doing so would collapse the Palestinian economy, which is enormously dependent on trade with Israel. When Israel cut off the West Bank during its April incursion, Palestinian unemployment doubled to a staggering 60 percent, according to U.N. estimates. Huge pools of unemployed young Palestinians mean serious long-term trouble for Israeli security. Israel could try to evade this problem by building a fence designed to channel movement across the Green Line rather than curtail it. But terrorists would inevitably sneak in among the thousands of people who'd cross every day. And since there are few things West Bank Palestinians hate more than Israel Defense Forces checkpoints, new ones would likely exacerbate their sense of humiliation and grievance against Israel.

Third, the security impact of a fence depends on where it is built. Tellingly, nobody has yet offered a map. Barak has vaguely proposed a fence running close to the borders he futilely offered Arafat at Camp David—a curling wall far longer than the 190-mile Green Line, swooping in to annex settlements in Gush Etzion, Ariel, and other places relatively close to Israel proper. But Likud has deliberately plunked other settlements close to Palestinian population centers to foreclose any future Israeli withdrawal. These settlements are filled not with middle-class, center-right Israelis lured across the Green Line by tax breaks and cheap mortgages—the profile of most of the 200,000 settlers—but by ideologues, messianists, and haters.

Leaving 50,000 hard-core settlers on far-flung hilltops while Israel proper barricades itself is a security problem from hell. With a wall, "every settler who wants to do their shopping will have to be accompanied by a squad of soldiers," says Gal Luft, a former IDF lieutenant colonel who has held commands in Gaza and Ramallah. Instead of stopping Palestinian terrorism, a wall might just rechannel it against the settlements—putting Israel in the excruciating position of either pummeling the Palestinians to get them to stop attacking settlements Israel knows it can't keep or abandoning the settlements and reinforcing the lesson that terror can win territory.

And that, ultimately, is the biggest reason to worry about the enthusiasm for a fence: It reinforces unilateralism and helps defer indefinitely the only possible solution—negotiated partition—that has any reasonable chance of bringing peace. Unilateral disengagement by Israel would replace the land-for-peace premise of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 with land-for-violence; gut the long-standing Israeli insistence that negotiations are the lone legitimate way to resolve Arab-Israeli tensions; encourage Palestinian militance; reinforce Hezbollah's crowing insistence that force works and talks don't; and make Jerusalem and the rest of the new frontier into a new front line.

Unfortunately, Israel isn't facing a security problem that admits of a technical fix. Its security woes go hand-in-glove with its political predicament. Until the Palestinian leadership abandons its myopic, ugly reliance on terrorism and until Sharon starts offering the Palestinians some carrots as well as sticks, the country will remain under siege. In the long run, the smart move for Israel isn't building a fence. It's trying to build a border.

Warren Bass is a senior editor at the Washington Post's "Book World" section and the author ofSupport Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance.

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