Thursday, July 14, 2011

WHAT'S HOLDING UP COMPLETION OF ISRAEL'S SECURITY BARRIER?

The Good Fence

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

Yet what is most striking is that nine years after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the construction of the life-saving fence, critical swaths of the proposed 760 kilometer barricade have yet to be completed.

Why? Because finishing the fence would force Israel's polity to make tough decisions that it would rather postpone about de facto boundaries; because details about its precise route, in a very few locations, are being challenged in the Israeli courts, but mostly because of habitual budgetary and bureaucratic foot-dragging.
Paradoxically, the success of the fence has removed much of the incentive – 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 Beersheba axe-wielding attack last month [June].

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 that a barrier running where it was most effective -- and not necessarily along the hard-to-defend 1949 Armistice Lines – needed to separate West Bank Palestinians from Israeli population centers. Later, Ehud Barak as premier also picked up the scheme.

But 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, the height of the Palestinians' blood-soaked frenzy, a staggering 26,000 terror attacks were launched against Israelis including 144 by suicide bombers; over 1,000 Israelis were murdered, 6,000 wounded. In one hideous June 2001 instance, a suicide bomber slaughtered 21 teenagers on a Friday night at the Dolphinarium dance club in Tel Aviv.

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 putting up 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 himself. 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; approximately $2 million per kilometer, 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. By March 2002 Sharon had ordered Operation Defense Shield which reversed the IDF's withdrawal from much of the West Bank that had taken place under the 1993 Oslo Accords. This campaign and other security measures together with the barrier essentially defanged Palestinian offensive capabilities in the West Bank.

An unforeseen positive consequence of the security barrier -- actually a multifaceted defense system that in very few places is a concrete wall (along highways to protect against Palestinian snipers) and elsewhere is mostly a combination of trenches, metal fencing and electronic sensors -- has been that it has made it possible to dramatically reduce the number of IDF checkpoints within the West Bank to less than 50.

Clearly, as the Gaza barrier demonstrates, gunmen can lob rockets over or -- as in the Gilad Schalit case -- tunnel beneath any barrier. In 2003, two British nationals managed to legally exit Gaza to bomb "Mike's Place" 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.

The West Bank fence has already proven to be a life-saver. In 2010, there were "only" seven fatalities attributable to Palestinian terror emanating in the West Bank. Even the still-incomplete security fence has made 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 is an "apartheid" wall. As part of their lawfare campaign against Israel, Palestinians turned to the International Court at The Hague which predictably ruled -- exactly four years ago this month [July] -- that the barrier was "illegal."

Characteristic of those who have coalesced around this issue is the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) which, in keeping with its nuanced stance on suicide bombing, helps organize "direct-action" -- a euphemism for weekly riots -- at the fence. ISM, which professes to be Palestinian-led, was founded by Brooklyn-born Adam Shapiro and his wife Huwaida Arraf (an American citizen).

In contrast, "pro-peace" J-Street takes a more disingenuous line holding that if a barrier is necessary it should be constructed on the Israeli side of the 1949 Armistice Lines. In fact, over 80% of the route is within three miles of the Green Line. But given topography and demographics placing the barrier wholly on those lines – rather than where it can be most effective -- would be strategically self-defeating.

Israel's Supreme Court has upheld the legality of the barrier and where the fence veers east the court has at times ruled in favor of Palestinian claimants with regard to its precise route most notably in the Bil'in- Modi'in area.

The barrier was foisted on Israel by Palestinian aggression so its political implications cannot be entirely discounted. The current line demarcates the minimal depth necessary to separate as many Israeli civilians as possible from Palestinian attacks. Only some 8.5 percent of the barrier is situated east of the old porous armistice lines. Sharon had intended to retain geo-strategically vital territory – consensus settlement blocs -- on the Israeli side of the fence. And 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 Judea and Samaria.

Whatever its location, the fence is a blight symbolizing a "victory" for Palestinian obduracy. But placing it ineffectually along the old seam line would only add insult to injury especially as even the comparatively moderate Palestinian Authority does accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

Yet it is not foreign opposition but Israeli political lethargy that emphatically has been holding 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 Hezbollah to launch the attack that ignited the 2006 Second Lebanon War. In the south, Luria said, despite the deteriorating situation in Egypt, improved relations between Cairo and Hamas-controlled Gaza, the influx of thousands African asylum seekers into Israel, and notwithstanding the government's decision to construct a Negev-Sinai barrier – "Little has been done and progress is painfully slow."

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% gap (about 100 kilometers). Meanwhile, Israelis who live in Jerusalem, the Negev, Ariel, Gush Etzion and the Tzur Hadassah- Bet Shemesh corridor can only hope the Palestinian leadership decides not to launch a third intifada in the fall.

Good fences make good neighbors. Bad neighbors make good fences imperative.

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