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Fenced In By: Yossi Klein Halevi
Jerusalem Dispatch | Wednesday, November 05, 2003

The fence that Israel is building along the length of the West Bank should appal me. Fencing in the Jewish state, after all, mocks Zionism's promise to free the Jews from the ghetto. And fencing out the Arab world violates the hope that Israel will one day find a cultural and spiritual place in the Middle East--a hope that once took me on a yearlong pilgrimage into mosques in Israel and the West Bank, as a way of connecting to my neighbors' prayer lives. The fence ends more than three decades of Israeli attempts to reach out to the Middle East, from the "open bridges" policy across the Jordan River in the 1970s to the "good fence" on the northern border in the 1980s, through which Lebanese workers daily crossed into Israel. Finally, as a Jordanian acquaintance sympathetic to Israel recently warned me, the fence actually reduces Israel's deterrence by sending a message of weakness to the Arab world, reinforcing the popular Arab notion that Israel's demise is just a matter of time.  

The argument for the fence, of course, is that it will save lives. The fence won't offer the total separation from Palestinians that Israelis crave: About 200,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem and several tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians could remain on the Israeli side, and at least 20,000 settlers, or 10 percent of the settler population, will find themselves on the wrong side of the fence. Nor will the fence offer absolute security: Breaches will be pried open and tunnels dug underneath the barrier; recently, snipers crawled through a drainage ditch under the fence and killed a child on a road within pre-1967 Israel. Conversely, the more successful the fence becomes against attacks into Israel, the more terrorists will turn against the settlers living on their side of the barrier--and the more pressure will grow within Israel to evacuate those settlements under fire, a move that would further reduce Israeli deterrence by granting victory to terrorism. Still, the security argument is compelling enough: Though more than 120 successful suicide bombers have crossed into Israel from the West Bank, not one has managed to cross from Gaza, which is surrounded by the same kind of formidable fence. 

Beyond the security argument, though, what's appealing about the fence is precisely what Israeli officials are trying to deny: its political message. Even more than a separation between Israelis and Palestinians, the fence is a demarcation line between the Oslo era of Israeli delusions and the post-Oslo era of Israeli realism. The fence embodies the lesson of this war: that the violent Palestinian rejection of peace three years ago wasn't merely a setback on the way to a comprehensive settlement but the negation of a comprehensive settlement. September 2000 was an historic turning point as decisive as November 1947, when the Arab world rejected U.N. partition. To insist otherwise is to risk repeating the Oslo syndrome of Palestinian deception and Israeli self-deception. And that's precisely what happened recently with the Geneva Accord, a bit of freelance diplomacy between left-wing Israelis, who obviously don't speak for the Sharon government, and Palestinians linked to Yasir Arafat. Even as Israelis who participated in these negotiations were heralding the Palestinians' renunciation of the right of return, Kadoura Fares, a Palestinian delegate to the talks, was reassuring his people that he had done no such thing. Indeed, to expect Arafat's regime to uphold its commitments is absurd. The fence, then, is Israel's acknowledgment that the Palestinian leadership--in this generation at least--won't honor any commitments to respect Israel's legitimacy.  
The main objection to the fence, which is scheduled for completion in 2005, is that it doesn't adhere to the pre-1967 green line but deviates "deep" into the West Bank. In fact, at most points, the fence either winds close to the green line or extends several miles over it without compromising Palestinian territorial contiguity--hardly the massive land grab warned against by opponents. So far, 108 miles of fence have been completed in the northwestern part of the West Bank, and about 1.5 percent of the West Bank has been incorporated into the Israeli side. If the fence is eventually extended to include Ariel--a town of 18,000 residents, which the Camp David negotiations included within the eventual borders of Israel--it will protrude, finger-shaped, about 15 miles into the territories. Yet even then the fence will encompass only a few percentage points of the West Bank. (The highest figure I've encountered is 10 percent.) And, note Israeli officials, the fence can be moved or even dismantled.

Still, that apologetic argument misses the point, which is that the fence must violate the green line. Building the fence on the 1967 border would play into the Palestinian strategy by creating the outlines of a de facto Palestinian state in all of the West Bank, without requiring the Palestinians to cease terrorism or genuinely recognize Israel. Building over the green line, by contrast, reminds Palestinians that every time they've rejected compromise--whether in 1937, 1947, or 2000--the potential map of Palestine shrinks. That message is the exact opposite of the left-wing trajectory of increased concessions under fire--from Camp David to Taba to Geneva. The fence is a warning: If Palestinians don't stop terrorism and forfeit their dream of destroying Israel, Israel may impose its own map on them. Indeed, the fence is a reminder that the 1967 border isn't sacrosanct. Legally, the West Bank is extraterritorial: The international community didn't recognize Jordan's annexation, and, because Palestine isn't being restored but invented, its borders are negotiable.

The only justification for withdrawal to the green line is pragmatism. Most Israelis would accept an approximate withdrawal to the 1967 borders in exchange for genuine Palestinian acceptance of Jewish sovereignty on this land. Reinstating the green line, then, would be a reward for peace, not war. But what we've learned in the decade since Oslo began is that "land for peace" was never an option. At best, Israel was being offered land for a cease-fire. And that is hardly justification for returning to the precarious 1967 lines. 

That's especially true for Jerusalem. The Oslo negotiations left the fate of Jerusalem for last, assuming that the joint administering of this fragile city would require a level of trust between Palestinians and Israelis possible only after a prolonged process of reconciliation. Precisely the opposite has happened. Thanks, ironically, to Oslo, which subjected the Palestinians to a decade of Palestinian Authority propaganda glorifying hatred of Israel--in schools, mosques, and the media--Palestinians are far less prepared for peace than they were before Oslo. The result of Palestinian hatred and Israeli mistrust is that sharing the administration of Jerusalem has become untenable. Imagine the effect on the Jewish presence within the Old City today, for example, if Palestinian police were positioned on its walls. "Sharing" Jerusalem means dismembering it. A fence around Jerusalem, then, isn't only a buffer against suicidal terrorists but against suicidal blueprints. 

Palestinians have begun calling the fence "The Apartheid Wall." In fact, it is neither apartheid nor a wall. The first surprise in encountering the fence is that it really is a fence. Except for about five miles of concrete wall near the West Bank cities of Tulkarem and Qalqilya, which is necessary to prevent sniper attacks on an adjacent Israeli highway, the projected 370-mile barrier is an electrified fence mounted with surveillance cameras and flanked by trenches and barbed-wire pyramids.

The second surprise is the similarity of the landscape on either side of the fence, especially in the area known as the "Triangle," the mostly Arab-populated area of pre-1967 Israel bordering the West Bank and parallel to the coastal plain. On both sides are white stone houses, olive groves, and minarets; the only difference is that the houses and fields in the Arab-Israeli towns and villages are larger and more prosperous. The fence, then, doesn't separate Arabs and Jews but primarily Palestinians and Israelis--Israeli Arabs as well as Jews. One of the most common complaints about the fence that I've heard from Israeli Jews, on the left as well as the right, is that it leaves the Triangle, which is the center of Arab-Israeli Islamic fundamentalism, within Israel's borders. 

Separating West Bank Palestinians from Israeli Palestinians is, in fact, a crucial by-product of the fence. Throughout the 1990s, tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians illegally crossed into Israel and are living in Arab communities in the Triangle and the Galilee. Frustrating that silent "return" is an essential part of Israel's struggle to maintain its Jewish majority. And it's one of the reasons, according to Israeli Defense Ministry Director-General Amos Yaron, that Palestinian leaders are so outraged by the fence. 

Certainly, the fence causes serious hardship to many Palestinians. According to B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, the fence will cause economic or social dislocation for some 200,000 Palestinians.

The fence will separate farmers from their lands in 36 villages. Israel is trying to minimize the damage. It has built 41 "agricultural gates" along the fence exclusively for the use of farmers. And the army has replanted olive trees uprooted by the fence. But those efforts don't compensate for a brutal reality. Palestinian farmers trying to get to their fields complain of complications at the gates, including an inability to bring in trucks on which to load large quantities of crops. 

Still, the fence is hardly a case of the many suffering for the terrorism of the few. The war against Israel was initiated by the official Palestinian leadership with overwhelming popular support. According to one poll, 75 percent of Palestinians backed the recent suicide attack on Haifa's Maxim restaurant, which murdered three generations of two Jewish families and five Israeli Arabs. In its very ugliness--a scar across an often-pastoral landscape--the fence is an apt expression of the Palestinians' grotesque war. Palestinian society has been overtaken by a culture whose deepest longing isn't for the creation of a state of its own but the destruction of the state of its neighbors. Indeed, according to another recent poll, 59 percent of Palestinians want to see terrorism against Israel continue even after the creation of a Palestinian state. The very hardships imposed by the fence are part of its message: When one society declares war against another society, there's a price to pay. 

And if a miracle happens and reconciliation becomes possible? Then, indeed, the fence can be moved or uprooted. The Berlin Wall, as Palestinian spokesmen remind us, did eventually fall. And a fence, after all, isn't even a wall.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor at TNR and an associate fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

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