Should Israel build a fence and separate from the Palestinians? Everyone has their two cents to add to the debate; here's mine. Although a fence might decrease the volume of Palestinian violence, it would serve only as a tactic of mixed utility, not as a grand strategy ("separation") for defining Israel's borders and preserving its Jewish nature. Its limitations include:
- Ineffectiveness against terrorism. Just this past Saturday, two Palestinians cut through the electronic fencing surrounding Gush Katif. Terrorists can also go over a fence in gliders, around it in boats, or under it in tunnels. They can ignore it by firing mortars or rockets. They can pass through checkpoints using false identification papers. They can recruit Israeli Arabs or Western sympathizers.
- Uselessness against armies and missiles. Should Egypt's Third Army start rolling or Iraqi Scuds come flying, a fence will have no value.
- Losing control over the neighborhood. Once a wall goes up, Israel will effectively give up its influence over what happens in the Palestinian Authority, including the importation of weapons and foreign troops.
- Irrelevance to the problem of Israeli Arabs. One-sixth of Israel's population is Muslim; its allegiance to the state is diminishing as rapidly as its size is increasing. A fence obviously does not address the profound challenge this population presents to the Zionist enterprise.
- Sending the wrong signal. Hunkering down behind a fence that runs roughly along the 1967 borders reinforces the prevailing Arab view that Israel is on the run and will spur further violence.
In sum: A fence as a practical tool - maybe; as the basis for a policy of separation - no. That separation has suddenly become popular in Israel points to a larger problem: a too-eager search for the quick fix. This eagerness first appeared with the Oslo process in 1993 when Israel in effect told the Arabs, "Take territories and other benefits, but then leave us alone." This initiative failed because its unilateralism reflected Israeli - not Arab - wishes to end the conflict. Separation is very different in its specifics but similar in spirit ("Here are your borders, now leave us alone"). It too will fail, for Palestinians will certainly reject their assigned borders. Nor is this the only quick-fix idea being bruited about. Others include:
- Wait out Yasser Arafat and deal with his successors who, as the defense minister hopes, will "conduct better negotiations with Israel with pragmatism and more moderate Palestinian demands."
- Bring in outside forces to monitor the Palestinian implementation of agreements for, as former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami puts it, "the people who really need international protection are the Israelis."
- Invite NATO to "occupy the West Bank and Gaza and set up a NATO-run Palestinian state, a la Kosovo and Bosnia," opines Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.
These clever ideas are in reality disguised efforts to avoid reality. Ending the Arab-Israeli conflict requires a willingness by Arabs to live in comity with a Jewish state. This will be achieved not via a quick fix but by Arabs concluding that they can never destroy Israel. That in turn will happen only if Israel reverts to the deterrence policy that it famously deployed before 1993.
Granted, that policy was slow, tedious, painful, passive, and frustrating, but the decades proved that it worked quite well. In contrast, ideas like unilateral concessions, a fence, waiting out Arafat, or looking to international troops seductively offer solutions "without any real tribulation," as Steven Plaut puts it.
Sounds good, but the last eight years established how they harm Israelis and Arabs alike. Fortunately, it's not too late to adopt the right strategy. By reestablishing its reputation for toughness, Israel can simultaneously improve its security position and release the Arabs from the demons of their obsessive anti-Zionism - thereby permitting both parties to disengage from the other and tend to their own gardens.
The implication for Western states is clear: Urge Israelis away from quick-fix solutions and implore them to return to the hard work of deterrence. This will tamp down Arab aggressiveness, thereby benefiting all parties.
Dec. 22, 2004 update: Although the security fence has reduced the number of murders of Israelis, it has its strict limitations, an article in today's Arutz Sheva, "IDF Officials Breaking Silence on Ineffectiveness of Fence," indicates:
IDF officials, including Head of Central Command, Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky have begun to plan for the possibility that Arab terrorists will dig tunnels under the so-called security fence, rendering it ineffective.
Jan. 1, 2009 update: Tunnels turned out to be a problem from Gaza to Egypt, not from Gaza to Israel. Rather, Israel's security problem has been something no one anticipated back in 2001 - rockets. Here is a paragraph from a report out today, "Summary of rocket fire and mortar shelling in 2008," from the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center:
Rocket fire and mortar shelling first started in 2001, gradually becoming the major threat posed by the Palestinian terrorist organizations, which consider it an asymmetrical, simple, cheap, and reliable solution to Israel's military superiority. The rockets, while still having their share of problems and shortcomings, in the terrorists' view, allow them to disrupt the lives of Israeli civilians within the range of fire, destabilize their social fabric, override the security fence built by Israel along the Gaza Strip, and create a kind of balance of terror that makes it difficult for Israel's security forces to conduct counter-activities and reflects the terrorist policy of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
Comment: An obserever could have no idea in August 2001 what form the new Palestinian aggression would take but now we know.