July 22, 2004
"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 that day, but still, I was stunned. The speaker was one of two British journalists I'd spent the morning with in and around the West Bank town of Kalkilyah. The Israel Defense Forces were taking reporters to see the security fence late last month; conducting our tour was a lieutenant colonel named Shai, the former battalion commander for the area. Also in the van: Harriet, a foreign editor of the influential publication The Guardian, and Martin, a correspondent for The Times of London.
The Guardian is, by all standards, relentlessly anti-Israel, once questioning the Jewish state's right to exist. The Times is considered a tad better in its Mideast coverage.
I was, therefore, not particularly 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 had already come to the tentative conclusion that the security fence was a desperately needed, nonviolent, changeable solution to the murderous wave of terrorism that has taken the lives of 1,000 Israelis 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 in Kalkilya -- the launching point for the suicide bomber who blew himself up outside Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium disco in 2001, killing 21 young people.
Shai, a wiry, 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."
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, and 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: "So if they build something higher, you'll raise the wall?"
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 there.
Harriet interrupted: "Wait, are you trying to say that the fence is making life better for the Palestinians?"
"In some cases, yes," Shai replied, echoing recent comments by Palestinian officials, who say the retreat of the Israeli army has led to a revitalization of business, nightlife and investment in their communities.
Martin was having none of it. "This wall is killing Kalkilya, economically," he opined, "Do you see signs of ordinary citizens turning into terrorists because of it?"
The questions were coming fast and furious now. "Why do you need so much space for the fence? What if Lebanon or Syria said 'We need a few kilometers of your land for security, in case Israel invades.' You'd go mad, wouldn't you?"
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," the soldier said , "not electric. We're not trying to electrocute them; we're trying to stop them from killing us."
But Harriet and Martin persevered: "How long must the Palestinians wait at this checkpoint?" "How far inside the Green Line will the fence go?" "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?"
Each description of efforts to ease the disruption caused to Palestinian life was met with skepticism; every mention of death and destruction on the Israeli side was bypassed in favor of intricate debates over land confiscation and access to fields.
As our tour concluded, I faced my journalistic colleagues.
"It seems to me," I began, "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?"
After heated denials, Martin said, "Why is there no coverage in America of the root causes of terrorism? We try to understand why Palestinians feel driven to take such extreme measures as suicide bombings. Terrorists only flourish if they have grievances to exploit."
"Grievances? You know, I'm from New York," I responded. "Should I try to understand the grievances of the terrorists who flew into the World Trade Center?"
"Well, yes," Martin answered. "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'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 the July 11 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 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.