The June 5 suicide bombing of a bus near Megiddo in northern Israel in which 17 Israelis were killed was typical. First a car was stolen in Lod and driven across the Green Line into the West Bank. There it was fitted with explosives. Then, on the appointed day, it was driven back into Israel and exploded next to the bus. The ease with which Palestinian terrorists can drive stolen cars across the Green Line is of course indicative of the ease with which suicide bombers can cross this border on foot. It is a scandal.
Yet in the course of many long months of repeated suicide bombings the Sharon government refused to take the obvious minimal step needed to protect 97 percent of its citizens who live within the Green Line. It clearly feared that the building of physical barriers along the Green Line would have negative ramifications for the viability of the settlements housing the remaining 3 percent of Israelis who live beyond the Green Line, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In other words, the government feared that the fence would become the de facto political border.
Now, hundreds of deaths later, Prime Minister Sharon and Defense Minister Ben Eliezer have acquiesced. In view of the immense popularity of the fence idea among the public, coupled with their own fear of popular disapproval if they continue to neglect the public’s most fundamental welfare, they have undertaken to build fences and walls on or near the Green Line–initially in the most vulnerable areas in the north and center of the country, and eventually everywhere.
Yet the concept of separation by fences is far more complex than it may appear initially.
Militarily, fences and walls will have no effect on mortar or rocket attacks launched from the West Bank against Israel, and little effect against determined aggressive intruders unless the fences are patrolled. But the forces needed to patrol them are busy guarding the settlements, particularly those located in the midst of large Palestinian population concentrations in Gaza and the West Bank heartland. Hence many of the grassroots advocates of fences, led by the Council for Peace and Security, insist that their construction be accompanied by unilateral withdrawal from these settlements, first and foremost in order to free up forces for a more orderly and efficient effort to protect Israel against suicide bombers. The fence would then be designed so as to comprise the settlement blocs located near the Green Line, thereby protecting some 70 percent of the settlers as well. While the public supports this idea, most of the political parties currently represented in the Knesset! do not. Thus there is little likelihood that settlements will be dismantled in the near future, thereby somewhat limiting the military utility of the fence.
In this regard, it is important to note the example of the Gaza Strip. The Gaza-Israel border, some 45 kilometers long, has been fenced for around 10 years. Not a single suicide bomber has penetrated it into Israel. But the settlements located inside the Strip remain vulnerable to attack, and require large contingents of troops to patrol them.
The fence will have heavy ramifications for Palestinians, too. Politically, they will attack the idea. Militarily, they may interpret dismantling of settlements as a sign of Israeli weakness. Economically, illegal commuters will be barred from work in Israel.
As for the ramifications for peace, some advocates of separation, like Labor’s Haim Ramon, in effect seek to present the line delineated by the fencing of the Green Line together with the settlement blocs as a de facto political border. Others point out that, even after dismantling isolated settlements, Israel will hold onto the Jordan Valley for strategic security reasons, as well as Greater Jerusalem, which cannot be rationally “separated” by fences, pending final status negotiations in which all the land of the West Bank will be on the table. According to this position, unilateral withdrawal and the building of fences should not be confused with the drawing of borders. In any case, most advocates of separation now assert, convincingly, that Israel does not currently have a peace partner on the Palestinian side, and must therefore act unilaterally in accordance with its own needs.
Finally, the demographic issue. The dismantling of outlying settlements in Gaza and the West Bank heartland could literally rescue Israel from impending demographic disaster. The settlers, with the loftiest of Zionist motives for redeeming the Land, are increasingly plunging Israel into a South African situation, with the Area A Palestinian cities filling the roll of Bantustans, and an Arab majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River a matter of a few more years. The more settlements are built and the more Palestinians are born, the more difficult will be the inevitable effort to disentangle us from this threat. Building fences–despite their drawbacks–will hopefully catalyze a process of demographic security as well as enhanced physical security.
Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”