Learn from historic mistakes

The West Bank separation fence works. It keeps out terrorists, and for that matter illegal Palestinian immigrants and car thieves too. It has made a major contribution to a radical reduction in Palestinian suicide bombings over recent months. It stands to reason that it must encompass the Jerusalem area as well.

The Israeli authorities, faced with the need to delineate a path for the fence in Jerusalem, have adhered mainly to the expanded municipal boundaries created by Israel in 1967. That decision is causing hardship to tens of thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites and their immediate neighbors in the surrounding West Bank. The ugliest manifestation is the eight meter high wall in Abu Dis. So problematic are large sections of the Jerusalem area fence/wall that dozens of High Court appeals have frozen its progress. Even the Ministry of Defense planners of the fence realize they have a fiasco on their hands.

In order to find a better way to build the fence, we need to recall how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place. When the dust settled from the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli intelligence assessed that we would shortly be subjected to heavy American and Soviet pressures to withdraw from all the territories we had just occupied. This assumption was based on the precedent of two previous wars, in 1948-49 and 1956, when we were obliged by great power demands to withdraw from portions of southern Lebanon and the Sinai Peninsula.

A hasty deliberation in June 1967 by the Israeli unity government of the day determined that we could preempt the anticipated pressures by "creating facts" that would make it difficult to force us to withdraw from at least one occupied area: East Jerusalem with its Jewish holy and historic sites. A committee was established to define the borders of the East Jerusalem area destined for annexation. Here began a process that seemed logical at the time, but can only be described in retrospect as an act of folly.

Based on the assumption that peace with our neighbors was unlikely, that nearly all the territories would soon be returned, and that beyond the bounds of Jerusalem we would once again confront the Jordanian Arab Legion, the decision was taken to expand the borders of East Jerusalem to render them defensible by encompassing the hilltops to the east, north and south of the city from which Jordanian troops had shot at Israelis during the years between 1948 and 1967. That pushed the new border to places like the village of Sur Baher to the east. Further, yielding to the assessment of then-Mayor Teddy Kollek that Jerusalem could once again come under siege as in 1948 and would need to be resupplied more efficiently, a finger of municipal territory was drawn to the north, almost to al Bireh, to encompass the landing strip at Qalandia.

Consequently, instead of annexing a few thousand Palestinian Arab residents in the Old City and Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus areas–the places that interested Israel from an historic and religious standpoint–we annexed some 70,000 Palestinians in 1967. Most of the annexed Palestinians lived in areas that interact on a daily basis with the surrounding West Bank, for which East Jerusalem remains the commercial, educational, medical, religious, and cultural center. These have now become more than 200,000 residents, interacting with an even larger number in the nearby Ramallah and Bethlehem areas. To ensure the impossibility of returning to the old lines, we have built extensive Jewish neighborhoods in the annexed parts of the city, thereby creating a virtually inseparable ethnic/religious mosaic.

Needless to say, none of the pessimistic assessments that underpinned Israel’s Jerusalem annexation scheme ever came to pass. The United States and Soviet Union never pressed for withdrawal; the vicissitudes of Israel-Arab and Arab-Arab interactions led the Jordanians to abdicate any intention of returning to the West Bank; and all parties accept that an eventual Palestinian state will be demilitarized, hence unable to mount a military threat to Israeli Jerusalem.

Back in 1967, in the euphoria of an historic military victory and the absence of a convincing Palestinian national movement, most Israelis were blind to the demographic and political ramifications of the Jerusalem expansion scheme. We no longer have that excuse. Successive Israeli governments and Jerusalem municipalities have failed to provide a coherent political solution for more than 200,000 Arab residents of the city whom Israel doesn’t want but won’t let go of. The fence/wall in Jerusalem as currently planned will create legions of newly embittered Palestinian Jerusalemites, including potential terrorists, some within and some beyond the barrier, and will unfairly disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands more.

The fence is increasingly seen as defining a political as well as a security border. In order to avoid a situation in which the Jerusalem fence perpetuates a negative demographic dynamic and actually worsens Israel’s security situation, its path must be reconsidered. Even the Israeli political right now increasingly acknowledges that the inclusion of villages like Sur Baher within the Jerusalem municipal boundaries–soon to be reaffirmed by the fence–is a mistake.

While in some parts of the north and south of the city the fence’s location makes sense, this is not the case to the east. Here a decision must be taken, in some areas, to move the anti-terrorist barrier closer to the border between the Jewish and Arab parts of Jerusalem, and in other areas to rely on armed patrols rather than fences. While this is not an optimal solution from a security, political, demographic, or humanitarian standpoint, as a synthesis of these requirements it is certainly better than the existing plan.