"People don’t become suicide bombers for the fun of it, you know. They have grievances.”
The statement should have come as no surprise after all I had heard during the previous three hours, but still I was stunned. The speaker was one of two British journalists with whom I had spent the morning in and around the West Bank town of Kalkilya.
The Israel Defense Forces were taking foreign reporters on a tour of the “separation fence” late last month, days before Israel’s Supreme Court balanced humanitarian and security considerations, ordering the army to remove a small portion of the barrier and re-route other sections that might impose undue hardships on Palestinians.
Conducting our tour was a lieutenant colonel named Shai, the former battalion commander for the area. Also in the van: an IDF spokesman and the two Brits: Harriet, a foreign editor of the influential UK publication The Guardian, and Martin, a correspondent for the Times of London.
The Guardian, which has long been considered relentlessly anti-Israel by Israel-supportive media watchdogs, once questioned Israel’s right to exist. The Times is thought of as just a tad more even-handed in its Middle East coverage.
Therefore, I was not expecting objectivity from my fellow travelers, although I embarked on our trip with my own baggage. As a Hebrew-speaking Jew who has spent time in Israel nearly every other year since 1970, I already had come to the tentative conclusion that the security fence was a desperately needed, nonviolent, changeable solution, possibly the only one at this moment to the murderous wave of terrorism that has taken 1,000 Israeli lives over the last four years, injured another 6,000 and wounded the Israeli psyche and the Zionist enterprise in ways that perhaps will not become clear for some time.
Now I was back in Kalkilya, a village I first visited three years after the 1967 Six-Day War. I still have the photo I took then of a disarmed rocket-launcher aimed in the general direction of Tel Aviv. Just over three decades later, a suicide bomber left Kalkilya and blew himself up outside Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium disco, killing 21 young people.
Shai, a wiry, upbeat, fast-talking Israeli with a desert-dry sense of humor, pointed to the bustling highway that skirts the town.
“This is Route 6, the main route between the north and south,” he said. “It’s a toll road. I’m not sure how it is in England, but I don’t know any Israeli that will pay money to get shot. We don’t like that over here, so we built this wall to make sure no Palestinians can shoot onto the road.” (Less than 4 percent of the barrier is comprised of concrete walls, which are used only in sniper-prone areas).
While Shai was in charge of the area, a terrorist had opened fire on an Israeli family returning from a wedding. A 7-year-old girl was killed; Shai removed her body from the car.
“When you take out a child with a big hole in her chest,” he said, pointing to the spot where the attack occurred, “you understand why you need this wall. We measured the angle from the highest house where a sniper might be hiding to the road and built it accordingly.”
Harriet had a question, but it was not about the horror that Shai, himself a father of young children, had witnessed that day.
“So if they build something higher, you’ll raise the wall?” she asked.
No, Shai explained, the army has basically cleared the terrorists out of Kalkilya, so one benefit for the residents is that an Israeli army battalion no longer must be stationed inside the town.
“Wait,” Harriet interrupted, “are you trying to say that the fence is making life better for the Palestinians?”
“In some cases, yes,” replied Shai, echoing recent comments by the head of the Jenin Chamber of Commerce, who said the retreat of the Israeli army following the construction of the security fence has led to a revitalization of business, nightlife and investment in that Palestinian community.
Martin was having none of it.
“This wall is killing Kalkilya economically,” he said, clueless to the irony in his choice of words. “Do you see signs of ordinary citizens turning into terrorists because of it?”
I listened without comment. As we stood next to the wire fence and its motion detectors, Martin asked, “Is it electrified?”
“Touch it and see,” Shai suggested.
As we laughed nervously, Shai, then Martin, grabbed the barrier.
“It’s electronic,” said the soldier, “not electric. We’re not trying to electrocute them; we’re trying to stop them from coming in and killing us.”
Shai contrasted the numbers of dead Israelis, pre- and post-construction of the fence in the northern region. In a subdued tone, he spoke of the bus with a suicide bomber on board that he happened to be driving behind on Mount Meron two years ago. He was one of the first on the scene, removing bodies and limbs, and giving CPR to a Filipino woman who died in his arms.
“You don’t forget something like that,” he concluded, “and it makes you understand why we need this fence.”
But Harriet and Martin persevered.
“How long must the Palestinians wait at this checkpoint?” they asked. “Can you shoot them from the fence, or are those just cameras up there? You say you compensate Palestinians if you confiscate land for the fence; what if there are olive trees growing on that section for 100 years — how can you compensate them for that?”
As our tour concluded, I asked some questions of my own.
“It seems to me that most of the British coverage I’ve seen of this story is inordinately focused on the inconveniences suffered by the Palestinians due to this fence, as opposed to the Israeli lives it is apparently saving. Why might that be?” I wondered.
After heated denials by both journalists, Martin said, “I could turn the question around. Why is there no coverage in America given to the root causes of terrorism? We try to understand why Palestinian people feel driven to take such extreme measures as suicide bombings. I understand why Israel is building a wall to stop terror, but terrorists only flourish if they have grievances to exploit.”
“Grievances? You know, I’m from New York,” I said. “Should I try to understand the grievances of the terrorists who flew into the World Trade Center?”
“Well, yes,” answered Martin. “I think bin Laden tapped into grievances.”
Harriet chimed in, “Do you think they just did it for fun? They have reasons.”
Our conversation was over. I returned to New York, where I later read the International Court of Justice’s decision declaring Israel’s security fence illegal, which eerily echoed the deep concern of my English friends about the property of Palestinians over the lives of Jews.
And Harriet and Martin returned to Great Britain, where they may have been enjoying a spot of tea and a scone as they read about last Sunday’s bus-stop bombing in Tel Aviv in which more than 30 people were wounded and a strikingly beautiful 19-year-old woman was torn apart by the metal bolts and ball bearings tightly packed into an explosive device.
Perhaps the parents of Maayan Naim, who loved to dance and wanted to study and travel the world, would be comforted by knowing the terrorist who so brutally murdered their daughter had “grievances.” Somehow, I think not.
Steve North is a senior producer and radio newscaster at CNBC.