On my last visit to Israel, I thought it would be interesting to take a tour of the West Bank from the perspective of critics of Israeli government policy. I went with MachsomWatch, an organization of Israeli women who, among other things, monitor checkpoints. The guide, Daniela, said the tour would not be political, but it was essentially a day long diatribe against Israel’s efforts to defend itself against terrorists.
The Orwellian logic of the tour began just outside the Palestinian town of Qalqilya. We could get a good view of the security wall separating the town from Israel. Roughly five percent of the security barrier consists of a wall rather than a fence and the reason for this stretch of concrete is that Palestinians used to shoot at Israeli motorists on the nearby highway. Daniela said there had not been any terror attacks from Qalqilya in years to suggest the wall was unnecessary as opposed to demonstrating its effectiveness.
She later quoted from an article written by former defense minister Moshe Arens arguing that the fence should be torn down because of the impact on the Palestinians and the fact that terrorists can go around it because it has not been completed. Arens’ argument is contradicted by the dramatic decrease in terror attacks since the fence was constructed. If the wall around Qalqilya were torn down as Arens and MachsomWatch would like, nothing would prevent snipers from targeting cars on the highway again and terrorists could literally walk across the street to infiltrate Israel and launch an attack rather than hunt for an opening miles away.
One of the main messages of the tour, after visiting with three Palestinians, was that the checkpoints and gates inside the West Bank make life burdensome for Palestinians. Some spend an inordinate amount of time waiting at these checkpoints to travel through the area and to get to and from their jobs. Some fences separate farmers from their fields and groves and, according to the guide, are only permitted to pass through the gates at certain times, some of which are restricted to a few times per month or year. On a different tour, I saw an area where the fence separated some farmers from their land and, even though there were specific times when they were allowed to pass through the gates, when they wanted to tend to their crops they would simply shake the fence until soldiers arrived and opened it for them. Also, she also did not mention that Arabs benefited from the fence because it brought quiet and allowed a significant upsurge in economic activity.
During our tour, we did not witness any delays, however, it is true that Palestinians are inconvenienced by these restrictions and many feel humiliated by the way they are treated by soldiers responsible for ensuring they are not carrying weapons or planning a terrorist attack. Unfortunately, this is the price many Palestinians must pay for the decisions of their leaders to support terrorism. Their discomfort is temporary whereas the deaths of the victims of terror is permanent.
I understood, and sympathized with the argument that Israel should do more to ease the plight of the Palestinians, and that it is in Israel’s best interest to find a long-term solution that will provide them a path to statehood without jeopardizing the lives of Israelis. I was offended, however, when standing at a checkpoint Daniela said the soldiers there signed up to defend their country and not to stand bored at checkpoints where they were like grocery clerks. These young soldiers are at the forefront of protecting their nation. If someone shoplifts and a grocery clerk fails to catch them, the store loses money but no one is hurt. If a terrorist smuggles a bomb passed a soldier at a gate, people may die.
Shortly after our tour, for example, two sisters from the Gaza Strip were arrested after they were caught at the Erez crossing in Gaza smuggling explosives for Hamas in medical supplies. This was just the latest example of the extremes to which terrorists will go to in the hope of getting past those “grocery clerks.”
While most Palestinians are peaceful, it only takes one with a bomb to create mayhem. Palestinians armed with everything from knives to explosives are regularly caught at checkpoints. Thanks to the pay-to-slay policies of the Palestinian Authority (i.e., stipends paid to prisoners and the families of “martyrs”), Palestinians have an incentive to engage in terror. Moreover, it is the presence of Israeli security forces beyond the fence that prevent many potential infiltrators from getting as far as the checkpoints. Just a few weeks before my tour, the director of the Shin Bet reported the organization had foiled more than 400 potential attacks in 2016 and that threats emanating from the West Bank were escalating.
The women of MachsomWatch are hardly alone in objecting to the construction of the fence. The truth is no Israelis wanted a barrier, and Israel resisted building one for 35 years. It was not until more than 1,000 Israelis were murdered, many in horrific suicide bombings, that Israel’s leaders decided a fence was necessary. If suicide bombs were routinely exploding in Israel today, I wonder if MachsomWatch would still be protesting.
Creating a barrier to infiltrators is unremarkable; after all, Israel has fences on its borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and now Egypt. Countries all over the world have fences, including Saudi Arabia, Ireland and the United States. In fact, when the UN was pillorying Israel for building the fence, the UN was planning its own barrier to defend the headquarters from potential terrorists.
Daniela expressed understanding of the need for border checkpoints but objected to the fact that the fence is not built strictly along the Green Line, but this was not an internationally recognized border, it was an armistice line between Israel and Jordan pending the negotiation of a final border. As Israel’s Supreme Court noted in its ruling on the route of the barrier, building the fence along that line would have been a political statement and would not accomplish the principal goal of the barrier, namely, the prevention of terror.
The route of the fence must consider topography, population density, and threat assessment of each area. To be effective in protecting the maximum number of Israelis, it also must incorporate some of the settlements in the West Bank. Still, most of the fence runs roughly along the “Green Line” (in some places, the fence is inside this line) and the original route has been repeatedly modified. As a result of a June 2004 Supreme Court decision, the barrier was moved closer to the 1967 cease-fire line to make it less burdensome to the Palestinians. On several other occasions, the court has considered the grievances of Palestinians (who can petition the court without being Israeli citizens) and ruled the government had to reduce the infringement upon local inhabitants by altering the path of the fence.
Daniela also talked about the great expense required to build the security fence. It has indeed been a multibillion dollar project and Israelis, I’m sure, would have preferred to have spent that money on pressing social needs. I had a simple question for Daniela: How much is an Israeli life worth? She didn’t have an answer.
The Palestinians we met all said they were interested in peace and Daniela wanted us to believe that Israel is to blame for the ongoing conflict. The next day, coincidentally, a story was published about an analysis by Daniel Polisar of Shalem College, who studied 400 surveys of Palestinian opinions and found that Palestinians collectively believe Israel has no historical or moral claim to exist, is inherently rapacious and expansionist, and is doomed to extinction.
It would also be easier to take MachsomWatch’s concern for the Palestinians more seriously if they demonstrated equal concern for the Palestinian Authority’s denial of civil and human rights. Roughly 98% percent of Palestinians are under the jurisdiction of their own leaders and the fact that they are denied freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, women’s rights or gay rights has nothing to do with Israeli checkpoints or fences.
Israel has significantly reduced the number of checkpoints over the years and perhaps more can be done to reduce or eliminate the deprivations and inconveniences they cause. Neither the checkpoints nor the security fence need be permanent. The shattering of the land for peace myth following the disengagement from Gaza; however, has placed the burden on the Palestinians to prove they are willing to live in peace. They have it in their power to make the barriers disappear; all it takes is the will to negotiate a peace agreement that will make Israelis feel secure. The well-meaning women of MachsomWatch would have a better chance of achieving their goals if they focused their ire on the Palestinian leadership rather than on Israel’s security forces.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine