Editor’s Notes: The barrier comes of age

By David Horovitz April 8, 2005

March 2002 saw 126 Israelis killed by terrorists. March 2005 passed without a suicide bombing

How unbelievably terrible it was. And how incredibly quickly most of us have been able to put it behind us.

Leafing through the pages of The Jerusalem Post from three years ago, in the period before Pessah, it is mind-boggling to relive the sheer relentlessness of the Palestinian onslaught. The worst single month for terrorism in the entire history of modern Israel, which culminated in the Seder night bombing of Netanya’s Park Hotel, began with a Saturday night suicide bombing in Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighborhood (March 2, 2002), and was followed in horrifying short order by the sniper attack on soldiers at the Ofra checkpoint (March 4), the infiltration of Atzmona in Gaza (March 7), the bombing of Jerusalem’s Cafe Moment (March 10), the roadside killings near Kibbutz Matzuva in Galilee (March 12) and the bus bombing in Wadi Ara (March 20), to name only the bloodiest of the attacks. By the end of the month, the bombers and gunmen had cut short 126 lives.

As Pessah draws near again, it is tempting to take for granted our survival through this unprecedented assault, to assert that though we were battered we were never likely to break. But I’m not sure how far we were from breaking at the height of that carnage three years ago, when the insult of being accused by the international community of respon-sibility for our own bloody plight was added to the injury we were sustaining in the attacks themselves.

And, in hindsight, it becomes ever more conclusively plain how much of our ability to gain the upper hand in the ongoing battle against the suicide bombers derives from that most elementary of anti-terror defenses, the security barrier, whose painstaking and still far-from-completed construction was approved only after that blackest of all months.

Until three years ago, a would-be killer from Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm or Kalkilya needed only to walk, pedal or drive a few kilometers, taking basic precautions to evade army patrols, in order to reach even major population centers, like Tel Aviv and Netanya, on the coast of Israel. And dozens upon dozens of them did so. No negotiated accommodation post-1967 meant no border between Israel and the West Bank and nothing physical therefore, in contrast to Gaza, to prevent illegal workers, car thieves and suicide bombers making the journey into the heart of the country.

Many Israelis scoffed at the notion of a mere fence, however sophisticated, affording a significant contribution to our security. Many abroad echoed the Palestinian claim that there was no security imperative behind its construction at all – a lie unnecessarily given legs by the planners’ original intention to fence in 16 percent of the West Bank. Now that has been reduced to 7%, following petitions to our Supreme Court, with a much reduced 10,000 Palestinians likely to find themselves on the western side of the fence when it is finally sealed.

The barrier has not been the sole factor behind the dramatic decline in suicide bombings since spring 2002. Israel changed its fundamental policy following the Park Hotel bombing, reimposing its security control over major Palestinian cities in the West Bank, sending troops into the residential zones in Jenin and Nablus where the bomb-makers and bomber-dispatchers had believed themselves immune, and making arrests by the thousand. These in turn yielded the intelligence information that, via targeted strikes from the air and interceptions on the ground, was central to the thwarting of a steadily rising proportion of the attacks. And, more recently, the death of the weapons-importing, terror-funding, ‘martyr’-eulogizing Yasser Arafat, helped too.

But the fence has been central to Israel’s relief, achieving a transformation in its current, unfinished form, that has been more radical than even its most enthusiastic proponents had believed possible. However regrettably it has impacted the lives of many ordinary Palestinians, it has unarguably saved the lives of many hundreds of ordinary Israelis.

Mark Luria, spokesman for ‘Security Fence for Israel,’ calls the change nothing short of ‘amazing,’ explaining that while his lobby group had always believed the barrier would prove highly effective when finished, ‘I did not expect such a partial fence’ – barely a third has been built – ‘to be such a success.’ In the completed section from Beit She’an to Kafr Kasim, he notes by way of concretizing that transformation, ‘there were 84 attempted infiltrations in the last year. In 83 cases, they were thwarted. All involved criminals or people looking for work; no terrorists. Nine were actually trying to go ‘the other way’ – from Israel into the West Bank.

More dramatically still, March 2005, in utter contrast to March 2002, passed without a single suicide bombing.

THE MOST intensive phase of barrier-building is taking place right now. All of Jerusalem, bar two sections that have been in legal dispute for the past 18 months, will be fenced off by July. And the entire section from Beit She’an to the capital and on to the south, with the exception of Ma’aleh Adumim and the Gush Etzion, is set to be finished in eight months.

A provisional route for Ma’aleh Adumim and neighboring settlements, encompassing the planned E1 residential strip connecting that area with Jerusalem, has been approved in principle but is not yet going ahead, Luria says, despite energetic urging from the likes of Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The route for Gush Etzion has only recently been finalized and will, says Luria, engender ‘a huge wave’ of petitions to the Supreme Court. And while what he calls ‘fingers’ of fencing are going up around Ariel and adjacent settlements including Emmanuel and Karnei Shomron – encompassing 45,000 Israelis – the ‘hand’ that would link those fingers to Israel ‘won’t be built in 2005.’ The ‘wrist’ – the section of the barrier left open as the Ariel conundrum has been debated, he says, ‘will be closed off by the end of the year.’

In all, the barrier is now expected to run for some 750 kilometers – of which about 150 constitute the potential route out to and around Ariel. Of the remaining 600 km., about 215 km. have been completed to date, and about 500 km. will be finished by December.

It’s no great surprise that the barrier has been effective in the specific areas where it is complete. A wall in only a fraction of its length, where the threat from snipers is at its most acute and where Palestinian neighborhoods truly abut the 1967 border line, the barrier is mostly a 50-meter construction of barbed wire, ditches, dirt roads and a three-meter-high central fence equipped with electronic sensors and surveillance carriers, which presents a truly formidable obstacle to would-be infiltrators.

What is remarkable is that the level of attacks has declined so precipitously even with the vast majority of its construction still ahead, and with vast numbers of Palestinians still exploiting the absent barrier to cross illegally into Israel every day. Right now, in Modi’in, officials estimate that 4,000 or 5,000 Palestinian construction workers, without permits, are flowing in daily. Large numbers of Palestinians cross into the Jerusalem area, too, for work. (The answer to the obvious question – Why they are not tracked down and arrested if they pose a security threat, or given entry permits if they do not? – is evidently to be found in the complex interface between security concerns and the needs of the building, food and tourism industries.)

February’s Tel Aviv suicide bombing was achieved by exploiting the gaps in the fence around Jerusalem. But overall, the presence of the barrier on at least part of the crossing route has funneled would-be bombers into narrower areas, requiring them to travel far longer distances to get into Israel, in turn boosting the chances of their being intercepted at roadblocks or thwarted by intelligence work.

‘If the partial success has been a tremendous boon’ in terms of thwarting terrorism, says Luria, ‘I have no doubt that completing the barrier will be truly great.’

But will the sealing of Israel and its major settlements not merely prompt a new direction for the terror war, with an increased use, say, of rocket attacks? Luria, for one, has no doubt that ‘they’ll try that.’ But, he notes, rocket fire has killed four people in Sderot in four years where the suicide bombers killed hundreds and harmed thousands. ‘A suicide bomber in a bus is like someone with 20 Kassams on his back,’ he asserts, adding: ‘For every problem, there’s a solution.’

According to some, the success of the barrier has provided a solution to a problem even wider than the suicide-bomber onslaught. Speaking to the Post’s Matthew Gutman a few weeks back, Danny Attar, the chairman of the Gilboa Regional Council, cited the barrier as the physical foundation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s entire disengagement initiative.

Attar’s personal pressure for the construction of the fence – the Gilboa region was targeted relentlessly from the adjacent Jenin area at the height of the conflict – won prime ministerial endorsement only after he raised private donor funds to build an eight-kilometer section himself in late 2002. He told Gutman that there has not been ‘a single attack since the fence [in his region] was completed in December 2003.’ And that absolute fall-off, Attar asserted, was critical in persuading ‘Sharon to unilaterally separate from the Palestinians.’ Attar may well be correct.

ALL OVER Har Homa, the (final?) Israeli neighborhood going up on outlying territory annexed by the city after the Six Day War, bulldozers and mechanical diggers and cement mixers are toiling in the sun.

Below the apartment blocks of the elevated Ganei Reuven project, the security barrier snakes through the valley – extending toward Gilo in one direction, linking up to the walled section at Abu Dis in the other.

Easily reached on foot, the fence itself is largely inaccessible on four wheels here, but there is one route down – a road that runs up to and beyond a locked metal gateway in the barrier.

Security at the gate is in the hands not of the army but of a private firm, two of whose armed employees emerge from their improvised little sun-shelter – white fabric slung over a wooden shack – as I pull up. This section of the barrier was completed a few months ago, one of them tells me, happy to break the boredom, and ‘nobody even bothers trying to breach it. They know they’d set off the sensors and get caught right away.’ The gate is not a crossing point for Palestinians, just for the IDF, he goes on, his voice breaking the silence. Civilian traffic – pedestrian and motorized – uses the ‘Mahsom 300’ crossing not far from here, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. ‘Everyone knows that by now,’ says the security guard, ‘so nobody comes here at all.

‘It’s completely quiet,’ he says as I walk back to the car. ‘And long may it remain so.’ Amen to that.

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