By Yossi Alpher
Successive Israeli governments since those of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have made nearly every mistake possible in creating the West Bank security fence. Yet the fence has not only served its original security purpose well; it has also delineated the broad outline of a future Israeli-Palestinian border everywhere in the West Bank except Jerusalem.
A brief review of those mistakes is instructive for appreciating the role the fence has played in the past decade of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The first and worst mistake, by Sharon and the defense establishment, was to look upon the fence idea as the opportunity for a land grab: a chance to link as much of the West Bank as possible to Israel and expand the territory under the control of specific settlements. This was a clear violation of the primary intent of those Israeli security experts who advocated the fence in the first place: a green line fence that would separate potential Palestinian terrorists from the heartland of Israel. Here we recall that the fence idea evolved in 2001-3 at the height of the Palestinian suicide bomber campaign inside Israeli mainstream cities, and that the model for the West Bank fence was the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip, which sits exactly on the green line and has never been successfully breached by a terrorist attack.
The land-grab intention was largely thwarted, and in a few areas is still being thwarted, by a combination of Israel High Court of Justice rulings and international and domestic Israeli pressure. Of the eight percent or so of the West Bank that is today “attached” to Israel by the fence, some portions still have little justification in terms of security.
The next mistake was to ignore the case brought by the Palestinians against the fence before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The government of Israel’s blanket refusal to defend itself before the court ignored a golden opportunity to present to the world Israel’s case against the suicide bombings and the Palestinian leaders who actively or passively supported these attacks. Instead, the Court’s ruling in 2004 added considerable fuel to the international de-legitimization campaign against Israel. It also enabled the Palestinian side successfully to market the security barrier as a “wall”, when in fact it is 92 percent fence and only eight percent wall (in crowded urban areas like Jerusalem). Walls have a much more negative connotation in the international community than do fences. The Court’s ruling actually denotes the entire fence a “wall”.
Next came the mistake of building the fence/wall (here much of it is a wall) around Jerusalem on the basis of ideological/religious rather than security considerations. By forcibly attaching some 250,000 Jerusalem Palestinians to Israel and detaching them from the West Bank where their political, cultural and commercial links lie — all in the name of “united Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel” — Israel clearly acted against its long-term strategic interests and laid the foundations for future physical and political strife.
Last in this list of mistakes is the fact that, ten years after it was begun, the fence is still not complete. In some places, such as the Ariel bloc in northern Samaria and Maale Adumim east of Jerusalem, this reflects ongoing controversy regarding the location of the fence on the eastern flank of these settlement blocs and its ramifications for a future border. In others, such as the southern Judean Desert area, it reflects a combination of low terrorist infiltration and higher priorities for available funds. Add to this the security establishment’s deference to demands by settlers east of the fence to enable them to quickly traverse official passages through the fence, and Israel remains potentially exposed to terrorists and illegal migrants entering the country where there is no fence or, by subterfuge, through the passages (even settlers have been caught smuggling Palestinians into Israel).
Yet, despite all these errors of judgment or of greed, the fence has served two positive purposes. First, it has helped radically reduce terrorist incursions. This is its main purpose, and it reflects the heavy trauma visited upon the country by suicide bombings beginning a decade ago. Undoubtedly, additional factors have contributed — in particular the advent of a Palestinian leadership that genuinely opposes terrorism and the emergence of well-trained, dedicated Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. Yet, the status of the fence as primary preventive element is borne out by the situation with Gaza, where the Hamas leadership is intent on sending terrorists into Israel to attack Israeli civilians, yet the fence does its job.
Second, reflecting the not-so-hidden agenda of the primary advocates of the fence ten years ago, the fence has definitely contributed to the gradual delineation of an Israeli-Palestinian sovereign border. The fence still “grabs” eight percent of the West Bank; judging by the contents of final status negotiations since 2000, the final border is likely to annex around four or five percent. The difference is bridgeable, thanks in part to the fence. And the fence, incidentally — even where it’s a wall — is easily moved.
Finally, one additional thought in response to those Palestinians who oppose the fence, whether as a matter of principle or because it diverges from the green line. They brought it upon themselves. None of us wanted a fence, but the terrorist offensive against our civilian population beginning a decade ago, which was supported by at least half the West Bank Palestinian population and the Palestinian leadership of the day, fully justified our taking extreme measures.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.