Sunday night, the Cap’n and I had one of our rare nights out. Instead of our usual trek to a movie theatre, however, we grabbed a falafel and went instead to the new digs of the AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) in Talpiot to hear a lecture by Col. (res.) Dany Tirza, the main architect of Israel’s security fence.
Many are familiar with the barrier built to separate Israelis from Palestinians in the early to mid-2000s. Its construction and implementation have been compared to Hadrian’s Wall and the Berlin Wall, and dubbed a lifesaver and an “apartheid” fence. Those in the middle of the political spectrum were generally in favor of its construction, while people to the further Left and Right of the Israeli political scene opposed it: the Left for its hampering of the freedom of movement of non-Israeli Arabs, and the Right for the de facto political border they feared it would create, were a Palestinian state to be declared.
(For those who require some background on the fence, its causes, goals, and design, see the website for Israel’s Security Fence, watch the video which addresses many of the questions asked about the fence, or look at the many resources about the fence on the Israeli Diplomatic Network’s Security Fence page.)
Col. Tirza explained that his role in the security field in Israel began when he was sent to Oslo at the beginning of the clandestine talks that led to the Oslo Accords. He had been sent to hear the discussions and negotiations, and report back to Minister of Defense Ehud Barak about any concerns the Israeli government and the IDF should have about the security of Israeli citizens. In a nutshell, while Tirza did the intelligence-gathering requested by him, and as the casualties and death toll mounted following the “peace process” in the 1990s, security was not always the government’s top priority. Tirza was present again at the 2000 Camp David talks between Arafat and Barak, when Barak offered Arafat nearly everything he demanded, but only on the condition that this would mark the end, forever, of the conflict. Arafat’s answer, that he could act on behalf of the Palestinian people but not of the entire Arab world, ended what would have been a historic conclusion to the conflict and began a hideous terror war planned and executed by his own Fatah forces.
As shootings and explosions erupted across the country, the Israeli government was extremely reluctant to build a physical barrier between Israelis and the bases of terror.
A few things should be mentioned about the fence. One is that it is meant as a security fence, not a political structure. It zigzags in and out of the Green Line, attempting to include Israeli citizens (Jews and Arabs) and only exclude those under the Palestinian Authority, particularly in areas known to be points of origin of terrorists.
Another is that every effort was made to avoid trampling on the rights of landowners and farmers. Gates were installed at frequent intervals to allow farmers to access their land on the other side of the fence, not one house was torn down to build the fence, and Arab landowners were compensated for any expropriated lands (though, since most refused to take the compensation for fear of appearing to be collaborators with Israel, Israel has set aside those funds so that that compensation can be claimed any time in the future by the farmers or their descendants).
A third is that while the media like to call it a “separation wall” or just a “wall,” only 3% of it is solid wall. (The rest is a combination of cameras, barbed wire, ditch, soft sand, and roadway to reveal any attempts to infiltrate Israel and slow down the infiltrator until he can be apprehended.) The solid wall, built along stretches of Highway 6 (the north-south Trans-Israel Highway) and the length of Route 60 that bypasses Bethlehem (which I take into Jerusalem), is built in order to stop bullets in places where motorists were shot and killed during the Palestinian Terror War (2000-2005).
And finally, the fence is meant as a temporary measure to ensure the safety of Israeli citizens. Rather than a means to separate Arabs from Jews (which it does not), it is meant to separate terrorists and murderers from their would-be victims. In the event that a peace agreement is reached, and the end of the conflict finally comes, Tirza says he hopes and expects to see the fence dismantled and torn down.
In the process of building it, Tirza’s door was open to anyone with grievances or requests. The Supreme Court also heard hundreds of complaints and challenges to the building of the fence. Christian groups (Anglicans, Lutherans, Greek Orthodox, etc.) who until then had refused to speak to one another, had no choice but to sit down together and discuss its impact together. Arab workers who worked in Israel are still permitted to do so, with the crossings attempting to process workers in no more than 20 minutes. Despite most of the international community opposing the fence as “illegal” and “inhumane,” Israel has executed its construction with every attention paid to due process and humanitarian concern. (Interestingly, the bombings, shootings, stonings, and other murders of Jews during the Terror War were never called “illegal” or “inhumane.”)
Perhaps the thing missing from most discussions of Israel and the Arabs here is a look at the stories motivating the two peoples. The Israeli story sees the return of the Jews to this land as a return to the land of our forefathers, to land promised us by God, in which we were once sovereign and independent, and which we prayed to return to for 1900 years. The Arab story sees the Biblical account of the gift of this land to Abraham and the Children of Israel as irrelevant, the Jews as foreigners and colonists, and the Arabs as the only rightful heirs to this land. The Jews say they are here to stay, and the Arabs say they will not stop until they’ve driven the Jews out for good. Bleak as these conflicting stories sound for someone who lives to see peace established here, they are necessary to understand both the Arab refusal to make peace with the Jews, and the source of the Jews’ overriding concern with their own safety here.
Personally, I’m sick of the sound of the word “security.” It gets raised by the Israeli side whenever there is talk of making concessions to “build confidence” with the Arabs, or of finding more things to give them in exchange for… what, I’m not sure. I have little doubt that the rest of the world is so inured to the thought of violent Arabs and dead Jews that the constant reminder of the need of Israelis for security is like listening to a scratched old LP that keeps hopping the needle back to the same few bars of Ravel’s “Bolero.”
And yet, as the Cap’n reminded me, even with the hate, the terror, the rockets, the constant hammering away by the press and the UN, and the disintegration of Israel’s few alliances, the Jews are probably still better off now than they were during the Exile, where the only thing that stood between them and the hysterical mob on Easter or during the Plague was a fat archbishop or lord mayor who may have declared the Jews a protected minority, but who could (or would) do little more in a pogrom than call out “Cease!” from their balcony over the roar of the crowd. Back then, there was no Israel, no IDF, and certainly no security fence to stop the carnage.
Natan Sharansky, Minister of Housing and Construction at the time the fence was planned and its execution begun, said
When Israel’s free society was defending itself against an unprecedented campaign of terror, most of the international community was calling for an end of the “cycle of violence” and a return to the negotiating table. When the Palestinian terrorists struck… Israel was condemned for imposing “collective punishment” on the Palestinian population. When Israel chose to target individual terrorists with precision air strikes, its actions were condemned as illegal extrajudicial assassinations. It seemed that in eyes of many, the Jews had a right to defend themselves in theory but could not exercise that right in practice… our government understood that there were three options to maintain an acceptable level of security for our citizens. The first was to wage a total war against Palestinian terror using weapons that would claim many innocent Palestinian lives. The second was to keep our reserves constantly mobilized to defend the country. The third option was to build the security fence. Had the Palestinian Authority become a partner in fighting terror, as it was obliged to do under all the agreements that it signed, none of these options would have become necessary.
Do good fences make good neighbors? Insofar as they are prevented from being murderous neighbors, I suppose so.