A tool of survival?

by Dr. Eran Lerman
JERUSALEM—Is there a moral case for the Israeli "security barrier," which Israelis call "the Fence" and Palestinians "the Racist Wall?" Are Israelis simply fencing themselves into luxury, while their neighbours linger in misery? Is this a story about disdain for "the other," or much more simply, about survival?

To understand the Israeli Cabinet's 2002 decision to erect a physical obstacle between Palestinian territories and Israel, it is necessary to examine its context, within which we'll see a moral dimension.

The evils of the barrier are obvious: It blights the lives and livelihood of Palestinians; its route is controversial; it is ugly, even more so amidst the beautiful curving hills around Jerusalem, and the verdant edges of the coastal plain.

However, a simple, powerful case can be made for its existence: it saves many lives—on both sides.

As late as February 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in a meeting with an AJC Solidarity Mission, adamantly resisted the notion of a barrier. Sharon made this choice only after a long delay, for which he was bitterly criticised by many Israelis; he made this choice against the will of the Israeli far right, many of whom reject any division of the land that tacitly accepts a two-state solution.

By March 2002, Sharon could no longer ignore the call of Israel's mainstream: some 120 men, women, and children were murdered in that month alone. A barrier is indeed a painful eyesore and moral outrage. But scraping human remains from the pavement, or amidst the burned hulks of buses, is even uglier.

The Fence Saves Lives

One example demonstrates, in sad detail, the utility of the barrier. Early in June 2005, a Fatah activist in Gaza persuaded a young woman, disfigured by burns caused by a domestic accident, to carry an explosive device into the very place where her life was saved — Soroka Hospital. It was only because of the detection devices at the checkpoint that this bombing was prevented.

While the checkpoints might be burdensome and oppressive, they are vital and functional because the fence around Gaza is effective. Only twice, in years of conflict, have suicide bombers succeeded in penetrating the fence from Gaza. Had there been no barrier, the scale of carnage would have been much greater — on both sides.

The statistics for the northern West Bank are equally stark. Until the fence was built in 2003, violence in areas adjacent to the main Palestinian population centres was at its highest, resulting in massive military operations. Fear dominated the lives of people in Afula, Haifa, Hadera and Netanya, in Jenin, Nablus, Tul Karm and Qalqiliyah. Since then, there have been no major attacks.

Anyone advocating the removal of the barrier must therefore bear in mind its current usefulness:

• for the survival of hundreds of thousands of Israelis;
• for the future of Palestinians who live in the northern West Bank. The barrier restrains radical elements, which would otherwise seek to turn the region into a battlefield. Even Ha'aretz journalist Gideon Levi – a strong advocate of the Palestinian cause – confirms that in Jenin, once known as the "Capital of Suicide Bombers," the barrier has actually led to a better, more secure existence;
• for the well-being of Israeli Arabs in the area northwest of the barrier.

The Route of the Fence

Some question the very existence of the barrier; others wonder why Israel doesn't build the "wall" on the boundaries established in 1967. There are some legitimate answers:

• The so-called 1967 "green" line is not seen by Israelis – or the United States – as a sanctified international border. Indeed, the Arab states, after 1948, refused to recognise Israel's right to exist, and never accepted it as a border.
• The international border between Israel and the emerging State of Palestine has yet to be created through the next phases of the peace process (as outlined at Annapolis), so the current location of the barrier does not predetermine final borders.
• The fence – as experience has already shown (after the Supreme Court, in several cases, ruled in favour of Palestinian plaintiffs) – can be quickly re-routed. Indeed, Sharon has told Bush that the barrier is transitory, a promise made in a letter dated April 14, 2004.

How does the system work?

This is not to say that the barrier is a panacea, or is in any sense impenetrable. To borrow a term from the language of strategic deterrence, it is but one "sliding door" among several, which all together constitute Israel's counter-terrorist response. It very effectively deters suicide bombers. What was once a walk across a field is now a complex operation, which is much more likely to "emit" intelligence information. The IDF and the security forces do the rest; the results are no longer in dispute.

For many Israelis, open borders are a sweet dream: "wiping hummus" in Damascus, dancing in Ramallah nightclubs, tasting the fish in Gaza, admiring the Pyramids, gazing at Petra. Yet open borders, alas, work best in regions where politics, ideology, social mores and economic prosperity more or less cohere. Where they do not, as in the case of the Spanish enclaves and Morocco, one is likely to see high fences. But whatever the outcome to disputes, there and here, it should be the result of negotiations and persuasions, not of violence and demographic inundation.


* Dr. Eran Lerman is a historian by training, and a former intelligence officer. He directs the American Jewish Committee's Israel and Middle East Office. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service, and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

This article is part of a special series on the psychology of separation, which examines the psychological, spiritual, and political implications of physical and emotional barriers.

Source: The Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 17 January 2008, www.commongroundnews.org.
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In the shadow of Zion
Would that the Walls were Holy
Like the Berlin Wall…
Healing Separation
Share space, defy the wall
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Other articles in this series

In the shadow of Zion by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
Would that the Walls were Holy by Rabbi Michael Schwartz
Like the Berlin Wall… by Ghiath Nasser
Healing Separation by Lila Sophia Tresemer
Share space, defy the wall by Mohammed Abu-Nimer