It took security officials less than a day to ascertain how two Palestinians from near Hebron had managed to enter Israel bearing firearms and infiltrate into the heart of Tel Aviv without raising an alarm.
Like the twenty-one year old resident of Qalqilya who drew a knife on a Tel Aviv promenade in March, killing an American tourist and injuring eleven others, the cousins from Yatta responsible for Wednesday’s deadly attack entered Israel through one of the many gaps in Israel’s security barrier.
The incident prompted the usual response from defence officials, who seem to have adopted a de-facto policy of committing to piecemeal fixes to the incomplete security infrastructure after each round of attacks without promising to finally finishing the remaining 320 kilometre stretch of the barrier that remain incomplete.
The story of the construction of the security barrier is not a case study likely to grace the pages of project management textbooks for years to come.
Conceived amidst international outcry after the Second Intifada as a means of preventing armed terrorists from crossing into Israel and committing mass casualty attacks, work on the barrier effectively ended without explanation in 2007 with an average of just 5km. of barrier a year having been added to it since.
The extent of the ‘gaps’ that remain to the barrier – the vast majority of which consists of an unassuming 10ft high fence rather than the towering concrete slabs depicted in media coverage – represents more than six times the distance between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a significant stretch of Israel’s minuscule territory.
Political spats between Palestinians and the army – often trashed out at Israel’s left-leaning High Court – as well as territorial difficulties have impeded some segments of the politically contentious barrier from being built.
No clearer explanation than shifting military priorities has ever been given from official quarters, however, to explain why the controversial security project was essentially abandoned only 60% complete.
Netanyahu’s hawkish security policies, as well as the international condemnation incurred from only the partial finishing of the barrier, makes his seeming inability to bring it to completion all the more perplexing.
Although police and security officials have occasionally referenced their unease at the situation after attacks, most Israelis would be shocked to learn that the security barrier is simply incomplete.
It has only been since successive terrorist attacks were discovered or proven to have been made possible because the attackers crossed through the disingenuously titled ‘gaps’ in the fence (some sections extend for over ten kilometres) that the issue has received prominence in the Israeli media.
Maps of the barrier route produced by left-wing advocacy group B’Tselem show that the barrier as it stands falls far short of its stated purpose of preventing suicide bombings from the West Bank and represents more of a deterrent or inconvenience than an actual obstacle to unauthorized Palestinian entry into Israel.
While major Palestinian cities in area A have been effectively barricaded, adjoining villages as well as swathes of rural areas abutting Israeli territory often have not.
The situation as it stands primarily results in thousands of Palestinians without entry permits illegally living and working in Israel but has been proven – as on Wednesday – to also also allow free passage to terrorists, who by simply taking a circuitous route from their place of origin in the West Bank can enter Israel unimpeded by either checkpoint or barrier.
Even in areas where the fence stands, would-be assailants can use ladders or simply their hands (the fence is not electrified) to manually scale it.
Palestinian news wire Ma’an, in a 2013 article, described how easy it was for West Bank Arabs to cross into Southern Jerusalem via the valley in Al Walaja adjoining the city’s Malha neighbourhood, which affords free access to the country’s capital.
“It’s very normal to cross like this,” an unnamed source said, citing the main strategies necessary to evade Border Police patrols as being hiding behind boulders and trees. A photo from a Btselem reporter shows that this isn’t an exaggeration.
Budget or security
At a time when Israel is building a high-tech fence along its last open border adjoining Jordan in the Arava region, it is somewhat remarkable that the relatively benign security conditions Israel has been experiencing for the past few years eclipsed the issue of finishing a series of gaping holes around the West Bank.
This is, after all, the territory from where the vast majority of suicide bombers emanated during the harrowing days of the Second Intifada, and two-thirds of whose residents recently affirmed their support for the current wave of stabbings against Israelis.
The majority of attacks in the current popular Palestinian uprising have been carried out with knives by attackers from East Jerusalem – within the course of the barrier and Israel ‘proper’.
However the most gruesome of the attacks, such as Wednesday’s, have been perpetrated by attackers who exploited the vulnerabilities of the barrier to cross into Israel from Palestinian villages in the West Bank.
Although the government is quick to point out that the barrier has decreased terror attacks inside Israel by an estimated 90%, the recent attacks have brought greater public awareness to the vulnerability of the presently porous barrier encircling the West Bank.
It has also led many to the uncomfortable realization that the security it provides may be more of a mirage than commonly thought.
Whatever military or budgetary decisions that deemed the barrier’s completion a low priority have time and again been proved wrong.
Netanyahu, always eager to prove his security credentials, should take Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s demand for more than “just words” at face value.
His opportunity to do so: finish the barrier once and for all.