Politics & Policy

Fencing Out Terror

Peace through security.

Open borders invite terrorists, and ours are almost completely vulnerable to infiltration. Slowly–all too slowly–the Department of Homeland Security is building fences and sensor towers, which will block some of those who want to enter illegally, and detect others in time to capture them. But while we’re doing that, it’s fascinating to see how much hell Israel is catching for building an antiterrorist barrier through occupied areas of the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is feeling the heat, as this week he is expected to announce changes to the route of the fence, and possibly some phased withdrawal of West Bank settlements.

We don’t hear a similar outcry against our border barriers for two reasons. First, our borders are real. Israel’s West Bank fence follows no border because there isn’t one, only the “Green Line,” a ceasefire boundary that has no international legal standing. Second, we aren’t Israel. Many in the Arab world are busy convincing themselves that the fence is an Israeli land grab, built only to oppress the Palestinians. Just last week, the EUnuchs said the new fence would make Palestinian life intolerable. (Like Paris in a heat wave?) And the Bush administration–which sees the fence as a complication–is threatening to reduce loan guarantees to Israel if construction continues. To the cash-strapped Sharon government, that amounts to a lot: At $25 million per kilometer, the fence could reduce the loan guarantees by billions of dollars.

Why build it, then? After the 1973 invasion by Syria and Iraq, the Israelis began settling the West Bank. The theory was that settlers–soldiers and their families–would form a defensive barrier to slow or stop another such incursion. But West Bank settlements quickly became the Palestinians’ battle cry, and Arafat, the U.N., and various EUnuchs demand straight-facedly that Israel withdraw from the West Bank and stop building the fence. Therein, they insist, lies the road to peace. But “land for peace” is never a good trade: Just look at Munich in 1938. Last month, I rode up the main highway along the West Bank, through most of the 370 miles of the Green Line. For most of the drive, there is nothing between Israel and the Palestinians but a three-strand barbed-wire fence.

In September 2000, Yasser Arafat’s “Al Aqsa intifada” began. Arafat named it for the mosque that sits on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, because he wants Jerusalem to be as holy a site for all Islam as Mecca is, and thus inviolate under Palestinian control. Since September 28, 2000, the Palestinians who share the West Bank with Israeli settlers–joined by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, as well as Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorists–have been committing terrorist attacks at a horrific rate.

Everything from missile attacks–mostly from Hezbollah in Lebanon–to stabbings, shootings, and even mortar and artillery fire are part of the terrorists’ tactics. As of October 25, 2003, 757 days had passed since the intifada began. According to a confidential Israeli report, of which I’ve been seen an excerpt, there have been over 19,000 attacks since that September day–more than 25 daily. According to that report, almost 900 Israelis have been killed, and nearly 6,000 wounded, in the terrorist attacks.

Protection against terrorist infiltration from Gaza and the West Bank is the business of the Israeli army. Hamas and other terror groups make their home in Gaza, so the Israelis fenced off the Gaza Strip, and limited the movement of all the Palestinians who lived there. Palestinians can only pass through the fence at Israeli security checkpoints, and once it was completed, the Israelis say, terror attacks from Gaza stopped. Now the West Bank is being fenced: About 76 miles have been completed, and almost 300 miles remain to be built.

Near Tulkarm–a Palestinian city from which many attacks have been mounted–I saw a part of the newly built “fence.” It’s not just a 25-foot high barricade. It is also a trench dug to block vehicles, and radar, and other sensors that detect movement. It’s a serious barrier to infiltration, and apparently it’s effective.

A senior Israeli government official told me that since September 2000, more than 100 bombers have mounted attacks from the West Bank. In the north, near the Jenin refugee camp, terrorists used to cross the road, board a bus on Route 65, and just ride in comfort to a target. Now, with part of the fence there, it’s relatively quiet. “The fence is not making life of the Palestinians easier,” he told me. Nor is it intended to. “It’s making Israel more secure.”

The fence is as hotly debated in Israel as it is elsewhere. That it should be built is not debated, but the route it should take–through many or few Palestinian areas–is. One senior Israeli official told me, “The fence goes where security takes it, not where it’s convenient for the other side.” It all boils down to one set of conflicting beliefs: Can Israel get peace before it gets security, or can it have security without first having peace?

Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority seems to think it’s winning, and has ceased all cooperation in stopping terror. So long as Arafat, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the rest think they’re gaining by using terror, it will not stop. To think otherwise–fence or no fence–is simply delusional. Sharon, responding to increasing political pressure, is floating a few test buoys this week, talking about “unilateral acts” to help create peace. The Israelis want a political peace process, and they don’t care much what it looks like.

When the so-called Geneva initiative was announced, a fast poll of Israeli voters found that 40 percent favored it, without even knowing what it provided. Israel clearly can, and should, pull out of some of the West Bank settlements. The settlements, after all, were a defensive measure against a future invasion that now seems highly unlikely. Because Israel’s enemies have long-range missiles, and because we occupy Iraq, the odds of a ground invasion from Syria and Jordan are very slim. But it’s foolish to believe that withdrawal even from all the settlements will stop the terror, because the terror masters think their tactic is working.

Later this week, Sharon will announce his intentions, which will probably include rerouting the fence to accommodate some of President Bush’s demands, moving some settlements inside the fence and withdrawing others completely. Many of these things Israel should do. Not because they will garner international support for anything else Israel does (which they won’t), but because they are right to do. But stopping construction of the fence is not one of them. Security breeds peace; it’s not the other way around.

NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is now an MSNBC military analyst.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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