February 26, 2004
Is There a Hole in the Fence Plan?
The burnt-out hulk of an Israeli bus destroyed by a Palestinian suicide bomber had just arrived at The Hague on Sunday, when a second bus was blown up at a busy intersection in Jerusalem.
The first bus -- the remains of a Palestinian bomber's work in Jerusalem on Jan. 29 -- was meant to protest this week's International Court of Justice hearings on the legality of the security barrier Israel is building to stop the bombers.
The images of the two mangled buses made Israel's case against terrorism better than words ever could. However, they also raised serious issues for Israel.
The two bombings, which killed 19 Israelis and injured more than 100, occurred in densely populated residential sections of the city within three weeks of each other.
Their proximity raised two key questions: How effective is Israel's barrier likely to be against would-be Palestinian bombers, and if it is effective everywhere else, will Jerusalem -- with its patchwork of Arab and Jewish neighborhoods -- become the soft underbelly of the system and the main target of Palestinian terrorism?
The barrier, for most of its planned 450 mile-route, is a sophisticated network of wire-mesh fences built with electronic sensors, patrol roads, ditches, cameras and watchtowers. In some short spans, the barrier is a concrete wall.
In both bombing cases, the attackers came from the Bethlehem area. According to Israel's Shin Bet security services, the bombers infiltrated Jerusalem though gaps in the fence south of the city. Work on the fence there has been held up for weeks in Israeli courts.
Had that southern portion of the barrier been complete, Israeli advocates of the fence system said, the bombings probably would have been prevented. They said the fact that the bombings occurred is a strong argument for speedy completion of the barrier separating Israelis from Palestinians -- in Jerusalem and everywhere else.
The problem with that argument is that the fence in Jerusalem is unlike the fence anywhere else.
Between Israel proper and the West Bank, the fence separates Israelis from Palestinians and serves as a security barrier between would-be suicide bombers and their targets in Israel, even if it does not offer protection for Jewish settlers on the Palestinian side of the fence.
In Jerusalem, however, the fence runs along the city's outer perimeter, separating it from the West Bank but leaving on the Israeli side most of the city's 200,000 Palestinians. There is no barrier between them and the city's buses. They could provide a huge fount of Arab terror against Israel.
Danny Seidemann, a U.S.-born lawyer who has studied the Jerusalem fence and knows virtually every inch of its convoluted route, is convinced that that is precisely what will happen.
Seidemann argues that besides leaving nearly 200,000 Palestinians in the capital city, the fence cuts arbitrarily through Palestinian suburbs, cuts off Palestinians from their natural hinterland in the West Bank and cuts off others from Jerusalem itself. Given the mixture of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, he maintains that a rational division of Jews and Arabs simply is not possible.
"In Jerusalem," Seidemann said, "Israelis should defend themselves against terror by other, more sophisticated means."
Seidemann contended that the fence in Jerusalem is counterproductive. He argued that the main reason Jerusalem Arabs have not taken any significant part in terrorist activities until now is because of their relatively high standard of living.
Per capita income for Jerusalem Arabs, Seidemann said, is about $3,500 a year, more than four times as much as in the rest of the West Bank. Until now, Jerusalem Arabs have been unwilling to risk their standard of living by provoking Israeli reprisals and defensive measures that could strangle economic life, Seidemann said.
However, the fence threatens to put an end to all that. Cut off from the West Bank, prices in Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem will rise and standards of living will decrease. The humanitarian and economic problems created by the fence, Seidemann said, will increase terror, not reduce it.
Moreover, Palestinians in Jerusalem who decide to turn to terrorism will not be impeded by a barrier, because the fence runs mainly outside the city, not inside it.
Jerusalem could become the prime focus of the terrorists, because of its symbolic resonance in both Israeli and Palestinian narratives and because of the relative ease with which its targets can be reached. That would create a new security problem for Israel's armed forces and its police, possibly entailing a stronger presence in the eastern part of the city.
Already, there have been 25 suicide bombings in Jerusalem during the three years of the intifada, nearly all by bombers from outside the city. These attacks have claimed more than 180 lives, nearly 20 percent of all Israeli casualties of the intifada.
Jerusalem Arabs joining the ranks of the terrorists could have horrific consequences for both sides, Seidemann said.
Blowing up the second bus in Jerusalem seemed to play into Israel's hands in the public relations campaign against the proceedings at The Hague, which Israel officially is boycotting on the grounds that the court lacks jurisdiction in the matter.
On the day the proceedings began this week, Israel's daily Yediot Achronot led its front-page preview of the court's hearings with a letter to the 15-judge panel from a woman who was widowed by Sunday's bombing.
"You are sitting in judgment," wrote Fanny Haim, "and I am burying my husband."
Though the Palestinian Authority condemned the latest bombing, Palestinian spokesmen seemed more concerned about the bad timing of the attack than the bombing itself. A branch of the Al-Aqsa Brigade, affiliated with P.A. President Yasser Arafat's Fatah organization, claimed responsibility for the attack. Some Israeli analysts saw this as evidence of chaos on the Palestinian side, because the bombing does not seem to serve the Palestinian Authority's interests.
Meanwhile, P.A. leaders reportedly have sent messages to terrorist commanders urging them to exercise restraint for the time being. But whether controlled from above or the result of grass-roots efforts, the attacks against Israeli civilians show few signs of abating soon.
If the judges at The Hague rule against Israel's fence -- ignoring the terrorism that prompted its construction -- their ruling could encourage terrorists further.
The bottom line is that whatever happens at The Hague, Israel will go on building its security fence. In Jerusalem, however, that may not be enough.