Israel may soon become a testing ground for the proposition that good fences make good neighbors.
As the Palestinians resume the pace and ferocity of their terror onslaught, Israelis increasingly are demanding that their government build a fence between Israel and the West Bank that would keep Palestinians out. Such a barrier is already springing up in some parts of the country, including in Jerusalem.
Despite the broad appeal of the idea, questions are being raised as to whether a fence really would solve Israel's security problems -- and whether it would justify the expected diplomatic fallout if Israel sets a de facto border with the Palestinians. The push for a fence is gaining impetus with each passing day and each new terror attack.
In the latest attacks, four Israelis were killed Tuesday in the West Bank. Three yeshiva students were murdered by a gunman from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement who infiltrated the disputed territory of Itamar. An Israeli driver also was shot dead near the settlement of Ofra.
On Monday, a 17-year-old bomber linked to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement blew himself up outside a mall in Petach Tikvah, killing an elderly woman and her infant granddaughter and injuring more than 40 people.
Israel responded to the attack, as it has to other recent bombings, with military incursions into Palestinians cities, arresting suspected terrorists. But many Israelis, including reserve soldiers called up for Operation Protective Wall and those deployed along Israel's seam line with the West Bank, believe that only a fence can stop the bombers.
Israeli intelligence sources seem to bear this out. They note that the bombers plan everything in meticulous detail, except transport from the West Bank to their targets in Israel proper. That's because of the ease with which bombers can steal into Israel and then simply hail a taxi to their chosen attack site.
For example, the Palestinian city of Jenin and its refugee camp, from which nearly 30 suicide bombers have come during the Palestinian intifada, is just four miles from a virtually unguarded border. It is just a few miles more from there to the main highway leading from Tel Aviv through Hadera, to Israeli Arab areas and to Afula and Tiberias.
The heads of Israeli regional councils near Jenin and other Palestinian cities along the seam line currently feel so vulnerable that they are threatening to build a fence themselves.
"If the government won't do it, we, the regional council heads, will," says Dani Attar, head of the Gilboa Regional Council, which represents an area near Jenin. "We have the legal authority to grant permits for building fences. All we need is the money."
Building a fence similar to those along the Lebanese and Jordanian borders would cost about $1 million per kilometer, or about $350 million total, Attar estimates. As for the efficacy of the fence, Attar points out that the Gaza Strip is fenced, and few if any suicide bombers have been able to get through from the strip -- though the topography of the West Bank would make it much more difficult to enclose than the Gaza Strip.
The fence Attar envisions would be electrified, and touching it would set off a sophisticated alarm system, dispatching patrols to the entry point within minutes. His plan is for each regional council to build its own fence along the borderline, fencing off the entire West Bank roughly along the pre-Six Day War border known as the Green Line. After initially opposing the fence idea, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer now is trying to preempt the regional council heads. He has set up a special "seam-area administration" charged with erecting a fence and presented a plan to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Tuesday.
Critics, however, say that Ben-Eliezer intends to build only 50 miles of fence. That will be virtually useless, Attar says. The terrorists simply will circumvent the fenced-off areas and enter via open areas. To keep Attar and other regional council heads quiet, Ben-Eliezer has co-opted them as advisers to his seam-area administration. Some on the panel suggest building not only a fence but, in particularly sensitive areas, a high, unscalable, wall.
One way or another, the idea is to cut the Palestinians off from Israel proper, thus putting an end to Palestinian terror.
Or so the theory goes. Skeptics, however, note several shortcomings. For one thing, Palestinians could fire mortars or rockets over the fence. In addition, it's unclear what message a fence would send to the Arab world or the larger international community.
Israeli officials say the location of a fence would be determined solely by geographic factors, but many believe it would constitute a de facto border between Israel and a future Palestinian state that would assume more permanence over time.
Much would depend on where Israel positions the fence. If it corresponds to the Green Line, the dilemma arises over whether to protect or dismantle Jewish areas on the other side. If the fence runs inside the West Bank and around most of the disputed lands, the international community might well dismiss the new line as an Israeli land grab and support Palestinian violence against it.
In contrast, many on the right in Israel worry that such a demarcation would cut Israel off from land they believe should be part of the state. In addition, if Israel acts unilaterally to erect a fence, some worry that the Palestinians would react by unilaterally declaring a state, circumventing the restrictions on their sovereignty that likely would result from an agreement with Israel.
That would include limits on the size of the Palestinians' armed forces, the nature of their weaponry and the availability of their air space to Israeli planes in case of threat. Given the difficulties, what seems to be happening in lieu of a clear government decision is a creeping, ad hoc -- and largely ineffective -- fence- and wall-building by default along the Green Line.
Some of the fence-building is being done by the government, some by regional councils and some by the border villages themselves.
But the security problem masks a deeper issue that many believe would be resolved by a fence -- the demographic "time bomb."
There now are about 9 million people between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, including 5 million Jews and 4 million Arabs. Within the next decade, there is likely to be an Arab majority.
Unless Israel reaches a political agreement to separate from the Palestinians by then, the Palestinians might well resurrect their old demand for a single, binational state, in which they would be the majority. Chances for a two-state solution, one predominantly Jewish and the other Palestinian, would evaporate.
The irony is that the Oslo process, which gave Israel an unprecedented opening to what had been a monolithically hostile Arab world, could end with Israel physically closing itself off from the Arab world behind an electrified fence and a security wall.
After the Six-Day War, the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, many Israelis felt they had broken the Arab siege and could breathe more freely.
Soon, if pinned between the sea on one side and a fence against hostile neighbors on the other, they may feel a deeper sense of claustrophobia than ever.
Unless, one day, good fences do indeed make good neighbors.
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