Israel’s security fence, running more or less along the borders of the West Bank, is meant to do just what its name states—provide security for the people of Israel. Its purpose is not to separate, harass, or isolate Palestinians. The security fence has one goal: To deter, and, it is hoped, prevent terrorists living in the West Bank from infiltrating Israel and harming or killing Israeli citizens. Critics have called the fence a “wall” (evoking comparisons to the Berlin Wall before it). But the fence doesn’t even much resemble a wall area along most of its expanse; much of the barrier is a simple chain-link fence.
The fence was not without precedent. Israel had created barriers like this before, along its borders with Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Since the Gaza fence went up, for example, no suicide bombers have made their way from Gaza into Israel. Other countries, too, have constructed similar fences—the United States, for example, built one along the border with Mexico to deter illegal immigration.
Talk about this security fence began back in the 1990s, following murders in Jerusalem and violence in Gaza. When the al-Aqsa Intifada started in 2000, the unprecedented level of attacks, most often perpetrated by terrorists entering Israel from the West Bank, spurred the government to action. Hundreds of citizens had been murdered, thousands more maimed. Without a barrier of some kind, pulling off an attack was as easy as putting one foot in front of the other. The Palestinians, though they had officially renounced violence as part of the Oslo Accords, showed no intention of actually ending the attacks (as evidenced by the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians in terror attacks). The Israeli government thus had an obligation to protect its citizens, Arab and Jew alike.
The fence, started in 2003, follows the border of the “Green Line” demarcated as the Israel-Jordan border after 1948. Israelis and Arabs both fear that the fence will become an eventual Israeli border: Israelis living in West Bank communities located outside the fence worry that they will be left defenseless, in a hostile Arab environment, while Arabs worry that Israel is slowly annexing the territory they believe to be rightfully theirs. However, Israel does not plan to make this fence into any kind of border; its existence is solely to ensure the safety of Israeli citizens. The route of the fence will eventually include as many Israeli, and as few Palestinian, settlements as possible, and it weaves in and out of the West Bank.
The government has attempted to use only public land when possible to construct the fence; when private land is used, it remains the property of the owners, who receive government compensation. Doubtless the fence creates inconveniences and bad feelings for Palestinians who come to Israel for work. It also makes the movement of goods between the West Bank and Israel more difficult. Responding to these unfortunate byproducts and to help with the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians, Israel has created checkpoints along the fence allowing Palestinians to enter Israel legally. In fact, the government contends that the fence will eventually benefit the Palestinians, as the improved safety it brings will make military operations less necessary in the West Bank and reduce the number of troops deployed in Palestinian towns.
The route of the fence has sparked much controversy, and work has stopped numerous times as the courts debate the legality of certain portions. For example, since the government wishes to include as many Jewish towns as possible, authorities have constructed the fence farther inside the West Bank instead of strictly along the 1949 armistice line. And the construction of the fence around Jerusalem has also sparked opposition. Answering legal challenges, the Israeli courts decided in 2005 to build a temporary fence separating Jerusalem from the West Bank, and to delay building the permanent fence until the legal issues can be resolved.
The fence itself, though seemingly made of low-tech materials, is actually highly sophisticated, incorporating sensors, trenches, unmanned aerial vehicles, and land mines. And it works. Violence has fallen dramatically since the fence’s construction. From 2000 (when the al-Aqsa Intifada started) until 2003 (when the first part of the fence was completed), terrorists operating out of the West Bank carried out 73 attacks, killing 293 Israelis and wounding 1,950. But those numbers fell dramatically the next three years, post-construction. Between 2003 and 2006, only 12 attacks were carried out, killing 64 Israelis and wounding 445—still distressing numbers, but much lower ones. Why the difference? Approximately 75% of the Palestinian terrorists coming from the West Bank had infiltrated Israel from the area now protected by the fence.
The security fence may be controversial, but it is saving lives, both Jewish and Arab.