(photo credit: Rafael D Frankel)
Three days after a suicide bomber crossed into Israel from the West Bank and killed nine people in Tel Aviv, Border Police officers in charge of guarding gaps in the security fence around Jerusalem are allowing unfettered access to Palestinians coming into the capital.
It is through such gaps in the incomplete barrier that the defense establishment believes most suicide bombers are entering from the territories.
At temporary checkpoints along the route of the incomplete fence sections viewed by The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, the atmosphere was relaxed, with the vast majority of Palestinians crossing without having their IDs checked or being searched by border guards.
At the checkpoint separating Jebl Mukaber, part of east Jerusalem and inside the security fence, and East Sawahre, an Area A Palestinian town, for instance, Palestinians young and old, male and female, crossed into Jerusalem undisturbed as border police ate lunch in the shade of their concrete post.
"We don't check them here, they can go freely," said one officer, who would not identify himself, as he chatted with private contractors who were fortifying the position. "We only check them once there is a problem, and that is only sometimes."
A few kilometers down the road and across the wadi at a checkpoint separating Jebl Mukaber and Sheik Said, a town whose position in relation to the fence lies in the hands of the High Court, the situation was similar.
Since 2000, the army has blocked off roads connecting Sheikh Said and Jebl Mukaber, forcing Palestinians to drive to one side of the checkpoint, walk a half-kilometer on foot to the adjacent road inside the route of the security fence, and board taxis to their final destinations within Jerusalem. Throughout the day, Palestinian taxi drivers with Jerusalem IDs wait on both sides of the checkpoint to ferry workers to and from their jobs.
Border police at that checkpoint said they were under orders to check the IDs of Palestinians coming into and leaving Jerusalem. However in the half-hour this reporter spent at the checkpoint, they only checked the IDs of a handful of the few dozen people who crossed into Jerusalem and searched none. All the while, others walked on paths that led around the checkpoint, mostly out of view of the officers.
Even as they allowed the near free-flow of people, the border police said checkpoints around Jerusalem like this one were Israel's weak point in preventing suicide bombings.
"That's how an attack happens," one officer said. "Someone comes to a place like this, and we don't see him. If he tries to go through one of the [larger crossings], there is no way he can get to Tel Aviv."
The officer said the Border Police caught Palestinians who did not have permission to be outside of the territories "all the time" on their way back home and those people "are taken to the police station."
Minutes later, the same officer stopped a woman for just this reason and gave her only a verbal warning not to do it again.
According to Border Police spokeswoman Sarit Phillipson, orders given to officers guarding the dozens of holes in the security fence around Jerusalem vary from location to location. Checks were less severe around Arab Israeli neighborhoods and Palestinian towns where relative quiet prevails, she said, while they were more strenuous in areas with a more violent history. Orders could also change depending on the standing security situation of the day, she said.
In the case of the checkpoints visited by the Post, Phillipson said security precautions were lower because those crossing into Jerusalem from that area would pass through a second check before entering the main areas of the city.
However, this reporter, traveling along the same route taken by the Palestinians, saw no additional checkpoints or security inspections on the way into the center of town.
"I feel furious at these things," said Uzi Dayan, the former national security adviser who first presented the plan for the security fence to the Sharon government in 2001. As the chairman of the Tafnit party, Dayan remains a vocal advocate for the fence's expedited completion.
"The last terror attack just passed and no one feels a sense of responsibility," he said. "This is a terror event with nine funerals that certainly could have been prevented with a completed fence and secure checkpoints."
Sounding a different note than Phillipson, Eli Amitai, the Border Police commander for Jerusalem, said his officers "are under orders to check everyone. Sometimes they know the people, but they should check everyone."
When informed of the porous security at the checkpoints on Thursday, Amitai said he would immediately look into situation.
Acknowledging it as a "problem," Asaf Shariv, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, said the cabinet would address the security measures border police are to employ at the checkpoints around Jerusalem in a meeting scheduled for next week. That meeting, Shariv said, was called by Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in response to the Tel Aviv bombing and would also focus on ways to speed up the construction of the fence around the city, many kilometers of which remain in various stages of construction.
Government and security officials say legal injunctions issued by the High Court against building the fence in certain neighborhoods were responsible for the unfinished segments. Accelerating those legal proceedings, Shariv said, would be the focus of the cabinet meeting.
However, on at least one occasion, the government requested that the court delay its rulings on petitions brought by Palestinians challenging the fence route.
In December, the government asked the court to postpone a ruling on the A-Ram neighborhood, north of Beit Hanina, until it could open a new hi-tech checkpoint at Atarot. That terminal has been open since January and was declared fully operational on April 4. But five months after the government requested the delay, the court has yet to rule on that section of the fence and construction has not commenced.
In an interview with the Post in February, Col. (res.) Danny Tirza, who is in charge of planning the fence's route, said the Jerusalem envelope would be completed by the end of the summer with overall fence construction reaching 100 percent by the end of 2007. Previous deadlines and estimates made by defense officials were generally not met.
On Sunday, Dayan sent draft legislation to a host of Knesset members that would require the government to complete the fence by the end of this year. So far, he has not received a reply. A previous attempt to pass legislation requiring the barrier's completion by the end of 2004 was voted down that January.
"A security fence isn't the ultimate solution for everything, it doesn't substitute for political policy or grand strategy," Dayan said. "But it's like offering the country antibiotics and the country is choosing not to take them because it can get away with it."