Friday, November 09, 2007

Israel Diary - IV


Security fence for peace
Kanchan Gupta

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbours'.
-- (Mending Wall by Robert Frost)
There are pines and sycamores and olive orchards, but no apple trees along what Israelis refer to as geder ha'hafrada and those unwilling to concede that Israel has the right to protect its citizens from Palestinian terrorists call the 'wall'. Geder ha'hafrada means the 'separation fence' or, given the purpose behind erecting it, the 'security fence'. The 'wall' could mean any one or all of these things: A racial barrier, an illegal separation, forced quarantine and, according to the more radical and therefore absurd voices, apartheid in practice. In reality, it is mostly a chain-link fence that escapes attention unless you look for it.
Driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, you first encounter the security fence in its other avatar: Flat slabs of grey concrete strung together, providing a canvas for artists who are adventurous enough to brave the security cameras, the electronic sensors and the patrolling soldiers. The stretch of concrete wall, which has been built to prevent Palestinians from shooting at Israeli motorists on the highway that snakes along but has come to capture popular imagination beyond Israel as a symbol of "suppression" of Arab rights and "occupation" of Palestinian territory, comprises only three per cent of the planned 720-km security barrier; 97 per cent of it is a three-metre high chain-link fence that crawls along the pre-1967 line which separated Israel from West Bank. Gaza Strip was fenced off in 1994 along the 1949 armistice line, two years after Yitzhak Rabin, mourning the slaying of a teenaged Israeli girl by Hamas, promised that he would "take Gaza out of Tel Aviv".
The entire fence has not been erected -- there are yawning gaps and these are causing concern among both the security establishment and the people who live in fear of bombings by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that were commonplace till the barrier began to take shape. "Construction on many of the fence's stretches has been halted and new building contracts aren't being signed. Work is proceeding only where old contracts are still in force, like around Gush Etzion, as distinct from some unfenced areas of western Samaria, Modi'in and the Arava," says a report in The Jerusalem Post. It goes on to add, "Considering the enormous financial and political investment -- from almost all across Israel's political spectrum -- in promoting the fence and the concomitant separation from Palestinians which it embodies, it is bizarre in the extreme that a Government which includes the most outspoken of fence advocates (like Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Vice-Premier Haim Ramon) cannot come up with the funds to efficiently complete the project."
There are valid reasons for this disquiet and simmering anger, an Israeli official tells me over dinner at Restobar, a happening place in Jerusalem's upmarket Rechavia neighbourhood, a stone's throw from the Prime Minister's official residence. More than 900 Israelis have died in terror attacks, including suicide bombings, carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. With Gaza Strip effectively cut-off by a security fence, terrorists would slip in from West Bank and effortlessly carry out their murderous mission.
Five years ago, Restobar was known as Moment Cafe. A suicide bomber walked in on March 9, 2002, and pulled the trigger, killing 11 people. A marble plaque at the entrance recalls that terrible night. All around Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and, indeed, across Israel, similar memorials bear mute witness to the slaying of innocent Israelis, often school children, in the name of Palestine. At a bus stop, the twisted stubs of steel poles have been set in concrete as reminder of a suicide bombing; at Mahane Yehuda market, where two bombs killed 16 people and injured 178 others, memories are still fresh of that horrific bloodletting. Everybody has a grim story to tell. Eric Silver, veteran journalist and old Israel hand, shows me the spot outside his 19th century house on the Street of the Prophets where a suicide bomber's belt went off accidentally. The man's head landed in the adjacent convent.
There has been a dramatic reduction in such attacks -- barring the firing of Qassem rockets at Sderot, which is a different story by itself -- and for the past year there have been no bombings. This is largely attributed to three factors: Better intelligence-gathering, robust patrolling by soldiers and the security fence. There is considerable apprehension that with peace talks coming up next month and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas making the right noises, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may go easy on the fence. "That could be disastrous. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are waiting for us to lower our guard. Moreover, they will do anything to scuttle the Annapolis conference," a strategic affairs specialist with the Israeli Government tells me. Everybody is expecting a big bang that would force Mr Olmert to leave the negotiating table.
Israelis, therefore, believe that the only way to prevent the recurrence of terror bombings is to complete the construction of the fence which, apart from being a security barrier, is also a "key component in planned West Bank disengagement". Officials who highlight this point also take care to stress that the fence is neither aimed at annexing Palestinian land nor at establishing a border. There are a large number of crossings to allow Palestinians' free movement. Contrary to stories about long delays at these crossings, I drove into Ramallah without being asked for any documents. It is equally erroneous to claim that the fence is being built entirely on private Palestinian land; the portions that intrude on private land comprise a minuscule fraction of the fence. Full compensation is paid for private land over which Palestinian owners retain their right and if they do not wish to part with it, they can approach the courts, which are known to have ruled against requisitioning, as opposed to acquisition, of private land for erecting the fence.
All this apart, it is difficult to argue against the security fence because the Palestinian Authority has not been mindful of its obligations under the Oslo accords and subsequent agreements. Not only has it abjectly failed in preventing Hamas and Islamic Jihad from killing Israeli civilians but also done nothing to punish the perpetrators. Israel cannot be expected to abdicate its responsibility towards its citizens, nor does it make sense to demand that it should give up its right to self-defence. The fence can be dismantled; the dead cannot be brought back to life.
David Ben-Gurion had famously declared that "they (Arabs) will be there and we will be here". The security fence, which separates Israel from Palestinian territories in both Gaza Strip and West Bank, ensures this separation. It also proves Frost's neighbour right.

1 comment:

Ananthram said...

Mr Gupta,

Thanks for enlightening us with the details in Israel. I think Israel is a country with great people. My confidence in its continuing existence and great future stems from its difficult birth with the enormous pains its community has gone through to establish it.However my concern is the amount of cofindence to seem to put in the Annapolis conference. There have been no abiding peace agreements involving Muslim countries anywhere with Muslims being junior partners. With them it has always been my way or highway. Abbas with all the support US gives him is doubtful partner for Israel and Olmert is no better shape in Israel. Bush is lame duck effectively until end of next year. The only drivers for anything to happen in Annapolis is Iran and the fact that Bush may want some legacy of his rule. However those play against Israel rather than for them since being the reasonable partner of the two they will pushed around for more and more concessions. As abandonment of Gaza has shown land for peace for Israel with leave it with neither.

AK