Israel's border walls: A case study for Trump’s mantra

Israelis in large part view the American leader's goal of curbing illegal immigration as rational and necessary

By CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE, TERRANCE J. MINTNER/THE MEDIA LINE
December 17, 2018 08:42
Israel's border walls: A case study for Trump’s mantra

This picture taken on December 4, 2018 near the northern Israeli town of Misgav Am, shows Israeli machinery operating machinery (R) near the border wall with Lebanon. (photo credit: JALAA MAREY/AFP)

 
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According to international law, a key criteria for statehood involves a government’s control over clearly delineated borders. This standard has become increasingly relevant in the United States amid an ongoing debate over President Donald Trump’s proposed construction of a wall along the Mexican frontier to curb the flow of illegal immigration into the country.

Israel has been referenced in the deliberations as observers note that the Jewish state is “fenced-in” with various kinds of internal and external barriers.

Dr. Nachman Shai, an Israeli parliamentarian (Zionist Union) and a member of the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told The Media Line that “the concept behind Zionism at the beginning of the 20th century was not to build walls, but for Jews to live among their neighbors without limitations.

“But since then, we have been building one after the other, including above-ground and underground barriers, and now Israel is surrounded with walls, each one a bit different than the other.”

The “wall” most comparable to what Trump is suggesting is the one along the southern border with Egypt.

That barrier—a “smart” barbed-wire structure equipped with cameras, radar and motion detectors—“was erected to prevent illegal [African] migrants from crossing over a once- porous border into Israel,” Yehuda Ben Meir, head of the National Security and Public Opinion Project at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, related to The Media Line.

“It was constructed in cooperation with Cairo and includes some military crossing points so that the Israeli and Egyptian armies can collaborate when needed,” he added.

Today, there are approximately 40,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 70 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese and almost all of them arrived between 2006 and 2012. In 2010, the height of the wave, about 1,500 illegally crossed from Sinai into Israel each month.

After breaking ground in 2010, Israel completed the 242-km. (150-mile) fence in December 2013 at a cost of around $450 million. Whereas about 9,500 Africans crossed into Israel illegally in the first six months of 2012, less than three dozen did so in the first six months of 2013, at which time the major components of the barrier had been completed.

Illegal immigration through Sinai dropped to 11 cases in 2016 and 0 in 2017.

The fence also has dramatically reduced the smuggling of contraband into Israel and there have been no security breaches from Sinai since then (although the local ISIS-affiliated group has fired rockets at the Israeli Red-Sea resort city of Eilat on a few occasions).

With Israel’s southern fence halting immigration completely, both the Trump administration and many U.S. advocates of tougher immigration policies have taken notice. Notably, Elta North America, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, was one of eight companies chosen to build a prototype for the planned wall along the frontier with Mexico.

The other “wall” worth mentioning is the security barrier built by Israel primarily in the West Bank, which effectively ended the phenomenon of suicide bombings.


That structure is over 700 kilometers (435 miles) in total length and was built during the Second Intifada, a period from 2000-2003 characterized by major Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israeli public places. There were over 70 suicide bombings—killing nearly 300 Israelis—carried out from the West Bank over that time period, until the first significant contiguous section of the barrier was completed.

There were 12 such attacks between August 2003 and the end of 2006.

There is a huge political dimension to this “wall,” while there was essentially an across-the- board consensus on the need to construct a barrier in the south.

Many religiously conservative Israelis were against building the former as they did not want to seal off the West Bank from Israel proper, Ben Meir explained. “But supporters of the two-state solution were in favor of it because the barrier roughly follows the [so-called] 1967 borders, which would form the basis of a future Palestinian state in the eventuality of a breakthrough peace agreement with Israel. “Unique to this type of fence is the aim of controlling Palestinian movement,” he elaborated, adding that Palestinians nevertheless are able to acquire permits to enter into Israel.

On other fronts, the fences too are considered essential to upholding Israel's security. The Jewish state is technically still at war with Lebanon and Syria; faces constant flare-ups with Hamas in the Gaza Strip; as well as terrorist attacks emanating mainly from those West Bank areas not enclosed by the security wall.

“While these have their weaknesses and holes, they have proven themselves as effective measures against these threats,” according to Ben Meir. “While there is serious debate on the political front with regard to the two-state solution—a position that divides Israelis down the middle—on security issues by and large the vast majority of Israelis, 75 percent or more, supports these barriers and other security actions undertaken by the government.”

Efraim Inbar, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Israel's Bar-Ilan University and President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, stressed that the West Bank security fence was built primarily because of popular pressure during the Second Intifada.

“It is not a fool-proof system, but what’s important are Israeli actions beyond the fence combined with intelligence gathering to thwart terrorism and other threats,” he conveyed to The Media Line.

Building a similar structure along the U.S.’ southern border
to prevent illegal immigration is an understandable policy, he opined, but qualified that it should be part of a broader overall strategy to deal with the phenomenon.

“In the end, I wish Israel could build highways between Jerusalem and Damascus but at this stage we build walls," Dr. Shai concluded. "Many Israelis don’t like this but we must defend ourselves.

“This is very different from what is happening in America. So, let the U.S. deal with its own problems and Israel its own, and let’s not mix the two.”

For more stories go to themedialine.org

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