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In the beginning, at the early planning stages, the idea of erecting a separating wall was applauded by many Israeli commentators. They applauded an immediate physical separation from the Palestinians to boost Israel's security and to fight terror (Israel's defense ministry reported that in 2003, 30 percent of planned terror attacks were prevented because of the fence). The security fence was, and still is, regarded as an "insurance policy" should the road map fail.
According to an opinion poll conducted in July 2003, 70 percent of the Israeli publicrepresenting a broad consensus from across the political spectrumsupport a unilateral political and territorial separation from the Palestinians in the form of a security fence. And according to the Peace Index survey published on March 1, 2004, the Israeli-Jewish public almost unanimously (84 percent) supports the fence (13 percent oppose it, and 3 percent do not know).
The Israeli public thus supports a two-state solution and, until that happens, a reduction of friction between the two peoples. "Unilateral separation provides a short-term alternative that will at least allow for conflict management," asserts Gerald M. Steinberg of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs,"... creating a modicum of stability and a foundation for resumption of formal negotiations toward an end to the conflict."
Initial Praise Turns Into Preaching
Just after construction of the fence had started, Tel Aviv's centrist Ma'ariv wrote in an editorial: "Yesterdaytoo late for 530 Israeli deadthe cornerstone was laid for the separation fence between Israel and the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Better late than never!" Over time, however, Israeli commentators have come to question the merits of a wall.
"Since the beginnings of Zionism, Jewish settlers have felt a need to surround themselves with a fence, while their Arab neighbors were happy with the hedges of Barbary fig plants around their villages," wrote Yehuda Litani in Yediot Aharonot (July 31, 2003). "The separation fence being built in the past few months, which turned into a bone of contention between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon, continues that trend. [The fence] is a symbol of the isolation Israel has imposed on itself. It is the symbol of Israel's shortsightedness. [...] An entire nation that pins all its hopes on a separation fence, not on a binding bilateral agreement, places its trust on castles in the air. [...] Walls, watchtowers, and roadblocks provide an illusion of security. But that is false security [...] that causes the postponement of the only possible solution. A good fence is no guarantee for good neighborly relations; in our case, this is a bad fence that will produce even worse neighborly relations."
"The barricade has created a physical and emotional scar running through the heart of this bitterly contested landscape," wrote David Newman, a professor of political geography at Ben Gurion University in Israel, in the Los Angeles Times (July 28, 2003)."[I]n fact, a new border is being created."
On July 10, 2003, Minister of Foreign Affairs Silvan Shalom said that Israel would attempt to reach a solution to the disagreement on the fence, in accordance with understandings between Israel and the United States. "I heard President Bush's comments that the fence was appropriate for a period in which there was terror," Shalom said in an interview on Israel Radio. "We don't want to return to that period of terror. This fence will be very effective in preventing extremist organizations from carrying out terror operations....The Americans want a different route, but they say that as long as the fence is related to our security and doesn't harm Palestinian lives, it can continue.....The fence is intended to help the peace process, not to destroy it as the Palestinians claim," Shalom added. "It is meant to prevent extremist groups from dismantling and ending the peace process. Therefore the fence will continue to be built. Of course we want to do all we can in coordination with the Americans, but friends can also disagree."
On July 11, 2003, Ha'aretz reported that Israel would consult with the United States as it finalizes the route of the security fence, including the section around the community of Ariel. Israel wanted to take into account the wishes of the U.S. government, as long as they did not conflict with Israel's security needs. Israel is open to alternate suggestions from the United States and hopes to find solutions that cause "the minimal amount of infringement and hardship."
The Settlements: In or Out?
The debate, however, continued over the position of the fenceespecially around large Israeli settlementsand whether the fence should be built around them, deep into Palestinian territory, or not. After a suicide bombing on July 12 near the entrance to Ariela large settlement in the West Bank east of Tel Avivthat killed one Israeli, the debate heated up, because the fence stops just near this town. Right-wing politicians and settlers argued that large settlements should be included within the fence so that suicide bombings, such as the one near Ariel, could be stopped. Gideon Ezra (Likud) said that the attack at Ariel proved that the partition fence must be erected to the east of the settlement so that it would be included "within" iteven though this would mean that a substantial area of the Shomron would have to be annexed. Ophir Pines (Labor), however, gave the viewpoint of the Israeli left, saying that it is clear that Ariel cannot be included within the fence, "because this would violate Israel's understandings with the entire world, causing the wall not to be built at all." According to an opinion poll conducted by the Israeli Radio station Reshet Beth on Aug. 12-13, however, 63 percent of the Israelis (69 percent of Likud voters and 41 percent of Labor voters) believe that the security fence must include Ariel.
Then, on Oct. 1, 2003, the Israeli government decided by an overwhelming majority to authorize the planned outline for the central part of the fence, stretching from Elkana to the north to Umm Darajeh near Arad in the south, thus enclosing Ariel on three sides. Defense establishment experts are of the opinion that once the NIS 4.5 billion (approximately $1 billion) budget is approved, it will be possible to complete the entire fence within 18 months to two years. The central part of the fence is to include to the east all the settlements of western Samaria, the area around Modi'in, Etzion, and the southern Hebron Hills, in open defiance of the United States' urgings to leave the settlements outside of the fencea move that, according to the New York Times (Oct. 2, 2003) "could draw penalties from the Bush administration." The administration threatens to deduct about $100 millionthe cost of the central part of fence that will stretch almost 14 miles into Palestinian areas to the east of the Green Linefrom the three-year, $9 billion loan guarantees it extended to Israel last March.
About 80 percent of the settlers in the West Bank live in the areas to be included within the fence. According to Ha'aretz (Oct. 3, 2003), "At least 75,000 Palestinians (excluding the project of "Enveloping Jerusalem," which will take in an additional quarter of a million Palestinians) will find themselves inside enclaves and will be cut off from their own sources of services. On the other hand, in the collective Palestinian consciousness, and also that of the Israelis, the broad areas to the west of the fence have been in fact annexed by the state of Israel."
is joke about a government committee that wanted to plan a donkey, but ended up
with a two-humped camel," snapped Nehamia Strasler in Ha'aretz (Oct.
3, 2003). "The Israeli government has gone further than that. It wanted to
build a fence that would be an obstacle to prevent terror attacks, but ended up
deciding on a route full of deeper fjords than in Norway, with underground passages,
tens of thousands of Palestinians trapped between double fences, a withdrawal
from 12 percent of the territory in the West Bank and total surrender to the settlersand
at a fantastical budgetary cost of [about $1 billion], at a time when [hundreds
of millions of Israeli shekels have been cut from the health budgetTS]
the fence had been built according to the plan presented by former interior minister
Haim Ramon two years ago, it would have been built along the Green Line, on the
shortest possible route, and would thus be efficient in maintaining security.
After all, every zigzag makes security more difficult and infiltration easier.
The fence Ramon proposed would have cost a more reasonable sum. But the government
decided on [another] route
.Sharon, who strenuously opposed the fence because
he did not want to lay down a political border, in the end decided on the most
political fence possible."
The Fence in 2002Off to a Slow Start
idea of separating Israelis and Palestinians before a final peace agreement has
been around for years; it has been repeatedly dismissed, refined, postponed, and
now revived. Polls have shown that the majority of Israelis welcome a unilateral
separation between Israelis and Palestinians, followed by the severing of economic,
cultural, legal, and political contacts. They believe that a heavily fortified
fence with adequate surveillance systems and sophisticated tracking devices will
enhance Israel's security and will bring to an end the suicide bombingsjust
as former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak envisioned in February 2001: "Us
here, them over there."
The Devil's in the Details
most Israelis supported the idea of a security fence in theory, there was considerable
disagreement within Israel over the details of plan. On July 19, 2002, Alex Fishman,
writing for Yediot Aharonot, revealed an alternate plan being floated by
a group of prominent Israelis from across the political spectrum led by Gilad
Shar, Barak's chief of staff, and Uri Sagi, the former head of Israel's military
intelligence agency. Like the cabinet's plan, Shar and Sagi's blueprint envisions
a unilateral Israeli separation from the Palestinians within three years, with
peace talks following after the fact.
All Just Talk?
After only a few months of painfully slow construction, the fence seemed to have united the inhabitants of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, though perhaps not in the way Shar intended. Christian and Muslim Palestinians, secular Israeli Jews, religious Israeli Jews, Israeli doves and hawks, Israeli Arabsall spoke out in opposition to the fence.
project got off to a rather bad start. Critics lamented that the work was not
proceeding fast enoughcontractors initially completed only 98 feet (30 meters)
in three months. Moreover, they complained, at US$1 million per .62 miles (or
1 kilometer), it is too expensive and poorly planned. "Such a slow pace,
[when] all [the] while Israelis are killed on a daily basis, is criminal,"
fumed Yossi Sarid, head of the opposition Meretz Party. But, he admitted to reporters
from the Jerusalem Post, "It was a timely decision and a good thing
that they decided to build [the fence]. I only hope that it actually gets done."
On June 16, 2002, soon after construction started in the northern town of Gilboa, the Supreme Monitoring Committee for Arab Affairs in Israel derided the fences as "fortifying Israel's conquest and sovereignty in the occupied territories " and as "an attempt to impose a reality of conquest on the Palestinian people." The same day, the Yesha Settlement Council, a regional association of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories, voiced its opposition, and Dani Atar, a local leader from the settlements in the Gilboa Hills region near Jenin, complained that the fence would leave the settlements in the region "wide open to terrorist attacks."
Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator Saeb Erakat added his voice to the opposition,
saying the wall will create "the world's biggest prison." And Palestinian
leader Yasser Arafat himself called the plan "a fascist, apartheid measure
[that] we do not accept [and] continue to reject by all means."
amid its tenacious opposition, Ha'aretz found reason to hope that "the
fence would reduce the intolerable price in blood that has been paid with the
lives of peaceful Israelis practically every day" and that after some cooling
off, "a new, tangible reality of separation between two national, geographic
entities would ensue. This reality," Ha'aretz hoped, "[might]
gradually become part of the consciousness of both peoples. The change could be
revolutionary: a physical change that leads to a psychological change, with which
it may be possible to rehabilitate the much longed-for political change."
A Political Wall?
in the conservative Israeli press opposed the wall because it implicitly abandons
the idea of "Greater Israel"that is, modern Israel plus Gaza,
the West Bank, and, depending on the commentator, parts of Jordan and the Sinai.
Many right-wing commentators saw the erection of the fence as a victory of Palestinian
terrorism and as Israel's defeat.
supporting the wall stressed that it would provide Israelis with greater security.
Tami Shelo of Ma'ariv argued, "After the collapse of the negotiations
and the military disaster that followed, a physical separation is the last option
in order to stop terrorism
." Shelo, however, hinted at another point
of dispute on the horizon: "Sooner or later, the fence will turn the settlers
into second-class citizens, by stressing the fact that 'we are here and they are
there.' Then, when the army is forced to spend more and more time and resources
in securing the settlements which remain 'outside' the fence, public pressure
will grow to get rid off them altogether."
Rabin's Stance Revisited
has debated the possibility of unilateral separation from the Palestinians for
many years. Yitzhak Rabin once told Yasser Arafat he wanted separation "not
out of hatred [but] out of respect." In 1995, Minister of Internal Security
Moshe Shahal, and later his successor under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,
Avigdor Kahalani, proposed erecting a buffer zone along the Green Line, which
would include obstacles and roadblocksbut would not be an actual fence.
The plan was abandoned after the National Security Council and the counter-terror
unit in the prime minister's office determined that such a separation zone would
not fulfill its goal as an effective buffer against terror.
June 2001, Prime Minister Sharon ordered Israel's various security bodies to start
work on a separation plan, despite the idea's ill-fated history. A month later,
the cabinet approved the results of their research. Despite the cabinet's approval,
Sharon remained ambivalent about the planned fence and dismissed its proponents
as "people who don't know how to read a map."
Time to Embrace, Time to Stay Apart
Liberal and conservative commentators in the Israeli press began to reflect on the historical implications of a security fence along the Green Line. This is the closest Israel has come to acknowledging the 1967 borders as a final settlement since the Six-Day War.
In 2002, responding to international critics and dovish Israelis (who insisted that the future borders of a Palestinian state could only be determined through negotiations) as well as Israeli hawks (who believed Israel ends at the Jordan River), Ben-Eliezer and Sharon strenuously denied that the fence was meant as a border. Until today, they still do. "It's not a borderit's a wall," Ben-Eliezer states. "We're trying to prevent terrorists from entering our house."
"Israelis have learned that the Palestinians they courted in Oslo as worthy neighbors are actually, whether by commission or omission, child sacrificers," writes Amotz Asa-El in the Jerusalem Post. "And we Jews have been educated by our prophets, more than three centuries before even the Great Wall of China was built, to see in the Moloch cult the worst possible crime against man and God. That alone is a reason to build not a fence, but a wall, between us and them. How many of us still have the appetite to trade, reside, or just talk with them? King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes that while there is 'a time to embrace,' there is also 'a time to refrain from embracing.' This is such a time."
For further reading:
The Separation Barrier, compiled by B'Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories)
Lives: Israel's Security Fence
Security Fence: Facts and Figures,
Latest Information on the Security FenceUpcoming Hearings and the International Court of Justice, compiled by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, providing an extensive list of links.
Paper on The International Court of Justice and the Israeli Fence
by Ruth Wedgwood of The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington