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The Seamline Fence

Walking along Israel's latest attempt to protect itself from terror.

11:00 PM, Nov 2, 2003 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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Jerusalem

THE MOST REMARKABLE THING about the seamline fence is that it looks like an ordinary chain-link fence. In the evening light, looking across to the Palestinian town of Tulkarm, it's hard to see it at all, even from the road that runs right next to it.

But this length of chain-link has gotten a great deal of attention from the world. It is the latest attempt by Israel to control the movement of terrorists from the West Bank to Israel. Official Israel estimates say that about 900 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian terrorists since September 2000. Many of the suicide bombers simply walked from their homes in the Arafat-controlled West Bank into Israel. The fence is designed to stop them.

In most places the fence follows the Green Line, which was set in 1949. The Green Line marks where Israel meets the West Bank, according to international law. About 127 kilometers of the fence, however, diverge from the Green Line and into the West Bank to enclose Jewish communities established there--settlements.

IT'S TOO EARLY to tell just how effective the fence will be at stopping terror once completed, but since the first phase of the fence was finished in July, crime of all kinds in Israel is down by about 30 percent. Much of that crime was at borders where thieves could simply disappear into areas under the authority of Yasser Arafat and avoid detection and prosecution by Israel.

The fence is, of course, much more than mere chain-link. It is studded with lookouts, and boasts the latest in alarm, radar, video, and night-vision technology. At a cost of a million sheckels per kilometer (4.5 sheckels to the dollar) one expects something imposing. But from Israel you can see through it to the Arab villages beyond that have, in better times, been Israel's trading partners and neighbors. It's hardly the Berlin Wall.

Opponents of the fence are quick to note that a few sections are concrete. There is a section overlooking a new toll highway that has taken sniper fire. Another concrete fence divides a town in two. On one side is Matan, with the signature red roofs of an Israeli village. On the other side there are the white flat-topped dwellings of the Palestinians of Halba. Some of the houses are no more than ten feet apart. But now there is a divider between them. Divisions like this, say opponents, will make the fence into a de facto border.

Proponents of the fence dismiss these concerns. They say it is just another security measure, like checkpoints and travel restrictions within the West Bank and Gaza. The security industry is the fastest growing sector of Israel's economy and new security measures are instituted all the time.

"Two elements dictate the route of the fence: demography and topography," said a senior source in Prime Minister Sharon's office. "It is not a political border." The goal, he says, is simple: Protect as many Israeli citizens as possible.

SEVENTY PERCENT of Israelis support the fence, though there is disagreement about its digressions from the Green Line. Most people here support it because they believe it will be an effective security measure. But some Israeli settlements remain outside on the West-Bank side of the fence, like the Ariel settlement. It's a fairly large settlement on the far side of an Arab town. Its residents will have to decide whether they are willing to remain outside the protection of the fence.

In the Old City of Jerusalem, in the Jewish quarter, passersby can look down into an archaeological excavation. What you see is a section of a wall, partially reconstructed, that marked the edge of the city between 1000-586 B.C. The wall was hastily erected when Jerusalem was under attack. To build it, stones were scavenged from the dwellings outside the city--there was no time to quarry more and those houses would be near-impossible to defend anyway. An oddly-shaped house butts against the wall. In the rush, the wall was built right through the family dwelling. Pottery and other evidence found in the house indicate that a family continued to live there while the wall went up.

They say that good fences make good neighbors. This principle is nothing new to the Middle East. But walls eventually fall. And fences, even expensive fences, can be taken down. Perhaps the latest fence will someday be as unnecessary as the bit of crumbling wall in the Old City--a vestige of conflict long past.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

Correction appended 11/3/03: The article originally stated that Tulkarm was an Arab-Israeli town; the town is under control of the Palestinian Authority. Also, it stated that the Green Line was established in 1967; it was established in 1949.