The Magazine

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

From the March 1, 2004 issue: For once, Israelis agree about something.

Mar 1, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 24 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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IN ISRAELI POLITICS, contentiousness is the norm and consensus is rare. This makes all the more striking the broad and deep consensus that has formed among Israelis around the conviction that the country, without delay, must complete the construction of the security fence separating it from the West Bank and the Palestinians who live there.

The cause of the consensus is terror. In the old days, before September 2000, it was a mark of the country's national security challenge that almost every adult Israeli had served in the military, and every Israeli had friends and loved ones in the army. These days, the distinguishing mark of the country's national security challenge is something grimmer: Almost every Israeli knows somebody who has been wounded, maimed, or blown to bits by a suicide bomber. For Israelis, the front line is now at home, and it is this transformation of their struggle with the Palestinians that has produced an overwhelming majority--perhaps two thirds of the citizenry--in favor of the security fence.

Predictably, the international community is up in arms. Last December, the United Nations General Assembly voted to refer the question of the legality of Israel's security fence to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion. Working on a greatly expedited schedule, the court set a deadline of January 30 for briefs, with oral arguments to begin on February 23. The Palestinians charge that the fence violates international law, infringes their human rights, and imposes on them grave social and economic hardship. The United States, along with many other nations, opposes the referral of the question to the court on the grounds that the court is, at this time, an inappropriate forum for the question. While the European Union is among the group that opposes involving the court, its representatives have made clear that the E.U. agrees with the Palestinians on many of their charges.

In fact, the case for Israel's security fence is clear and compelling and accounts for the dramatic convergence of Israeli opinion in support of it.

Yet as late as three years ago, almost nobody in Israel was thinking about a fence, in part because it contravenes both left-wing and right-wing views. Those who have embraced the fence from the left have been forced to relinquish their dream of Israelis and Palestinians integrating their economies, traveling daily across open borders, and living together in harmony. And those who have come to it from the right have had to abandon the ambition to maintain Israeli control over, and settlement in, all or most of the disputed territories without partition.

The catalyst for both camps has been the staggering scale of Palestinian terrorism since late September 2000. In the war launched by the Palestinians following Yasser Arafat's rejection of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offer of a Palestinian state in all of Gaza, almost all of the West Bank, and a good portion of the Old City in Jerusalem, more than 900 Israelis have been killed and more than 6,000 have been wounded. In a country of about 6.4 million, that is the equivalent of almost 40,000 dead and a quarter of a million wounded in the United States.

RETIRED MAJOR GENERAL Uzi Dayan, former head of Israel's National Security Council, the fence's original architect in 2001, and its foremost defender today, calls the fence "a precondition to everything." By making Israel more secure, he argues, the fence--one third of which has been built and all of which is due to be completed by the end of 2005--will advance the peace process and thereby serve the interests of Palestinians as well as Israelis. But his first priority, he emphasizes, is Israel's security, which he smoothly translates into the language of human rights. "The basic human right is to live. So before talking about human rights and disturbing the daily routine of Palestinians, which is an issue we need to remember, we need to fight terrorism effectively."

Looking over a winding stretch of the security fence not far from his home in the village of Cochav Yair, where the coastal plain turns into rolling hills and where Israel is at its narrowest, with less than 10 miles from the sea to the Green Line, the pre-1967 border based on the 1949 armistice line, Dayan tells me that "the fence is the ultimate obstacle. The only way to fight terrorism effectively is to build a fence, because you can't fight terrorism just offensively. You need a defense. And the best defense is a fence."