It has arguably never been more necessary, but is Netanyahu really going to fence off Israel's 266-kilometer southwestern border?
The announcement was front-page news in Monday's Jerusalem Post. "PM gives OK to build barrier along Sinai border," blared our headline.
While the Hebrew tabloids made it their main page 1 story, however, we opted to place the article "below the fold" - lower on the page.
The thing is, we've seen, heard and read it all before. Mark Luria, a founder of the "Security Fence for Israel" grassroots lobby group, indeed, reckons he's read this week's story four or five times in the relatively recent past. "It comes around every two or three years," he notes wearily.
Despite a raging smuggling industry, acute concerns over exposure to terrorism, and a huge influx of illegal would-be workers, Israel's 266-kilometer southwestern border with Egypt, from the foot of the Gaza Strip down to Eilat, is astonishingly porous. Such protection as does exist takes the form of intermittent, unmaintained bits of fencing and what is politely and euphemistically described as "electronics"; real meaning, a handful of border policemen with, if they're lucky, some night vision equipment.
The white slave trade may have declined somewhat in recent years; prostitutes and those who dispatch them may have found less arduous access routes. But the terror threat, with Hamas assiduously rearming in Gaza, has rarely been more acute. And the influx of illegals is simply unprecedented.
We've heard estimates that a million would-be arrivals are poised to head this way via Egypt. And the official assessment that 100-200 people are crossing illegally into Israel each week - the majority of them from Eritrea, others from Somalia and the Ivory Coast, and very few from Sudan with legitimate refugee claims - is almost certainly an understatement.
Formally, now, the government has committed itself to taking overdue border-protection action. "I have made the decision to close the southern border to smugglers and terrorists," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared at a meeting on the issue on Sunday. "We are talking about a strategic decision to ensure the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel," he added, alluding to the gradual reduction of the country's Jewish majority that would result from an escalated influx of illegals.
All the key ministers, notably including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, attended the meeting, and they agreed on what has been portrayed in some quarters as a middle-ground plan at a cost of some NIS 1.5 billion: A NIS 5.5b. proposal for an ultra-sophisticated fence was deemed untenably costly. A 1 NISb. alternative was deemed inadequate. So for now, apparently, the idea is to begin the construction of sections of fairly basic fencing for about 50 kilometers from Gaza southwards and Eilat northwards, to introduce improved technological devices all the way along the border while construction progresses, and to aim ultimately for a complete, hermetic barrier.
The vagueness of what is actually going to be constructed sounds immediate warning alarms for Luria, whose skeptical instincts are well primed both because of the series of empty promises that have preceded this week's fanfare, and because he has watched, with ever-mounting frustration, the progress - or lack thereof - of construction of the West Bank security barrier.
IF THE open Israel-Egypt border is a terror disaster waiting to happen, the open West Bank route into Israel was a terror disaster that happened again and again and again.
Prime minister Ariel Sharon, in his pre-unilateralist incarnation, adamantly opposed the idea of constructing a physical barrier separating Israel from all or even part of the West Bank. He feared it would be seized upon as some kind of Israeli legitimization of a border between Israel and the independent Palestinian state which he then opposed. But Sharon was forced to set the bulldozers rolling because the suicide bombers of Jenin and Nablus had become a strategic menace. Israelis awoke each day to face the certainty that Palestinian terror groups were planning to kill them and, week after terrible week, something, somewhere went bang - a shopping mall, a restaurant, a bus - with 10 or 20 or 30 fatalities and dozens of wounded, producing an increasingly traumatized Israeli populace.
The West Bank security barrier changed all that. As its construction gradually closed off the easiest routes into Israel, the bomb threat receded. And yet, largely unremarked, the accelerated construction of just a few years ago has quietly been replaced by what is tantamount to a fence-building moratorium.
Just some 20 kilometers of the West Bank barrier have been added in the past three to four years, and the halt has been almost complete for the last two. Luria believes that only a small proportion of the stalled construction is being thwarted by legal action, in the shape of pending petitions to the High Court against the route of the barrier, which takes in about 7 percent of the West Bank. But there are also suggestions that the defense establishment believes the court would likely intervene where other unbuilt sections are concerned, or that American opposition would be intense, and therefore has chosen not to push ahead in a number of locations. Whatever the reasons, some 200 kilometers, perhaps more, of a route that is projected to extend for approximately 700 kilometers, has yet to be constructed - open sections where entry to Israel is a function not of clearing a permanent, sophisticated barrier, but of outwitting Israel's security personnel.
In certain areas, including around Hebron, the topography makes even the unfenced route into Israel relatively hard to cross inconspicuously - though the two Hamas terrorists involved in the February 2008 suicide bombing at a Dimona shopping mall are believed to have entered Israel from the Hebron district. The IDF's wide deployment in the West Bank and Israel's remarkable intelligence capacities there have also played a central role in preventing terrorist infiltration where the fence is still absent. And, in turn, each thwarted terrorist operation, each bomber intercepted, gradually reduced the motivation to attempt such acts.
But Luria cites figures indicating that 15,000 Palestinians cross illegally to work in the Modi'in area every week, and there are higher estimates concerning West Bank Palestinians crossing illegally into Jerusalem. "A third intifada could erupt at any time," he says. "The Palestinian motivation to carry out acts of terrorism could grow. It's simply absurd that the fence has not been finished, especially in Jerusalem where we have what is essentially an open border. I pray this doesn't happen, but there'll be a terror attack and then people will wake up. Can't we wake up now?"
THE BIG talk and no action - where both the West Bank and the Egypt fence projects are concerned - is at least partly a function of Israel's relentless defense needs. Netanyahu may really be serious about allocating funding this time for the Egyptian border fence. But "allocation" tends to mean that funding is provided from the national budget and steered to the Defense Ministry. And once there, experience shows that it is easily diverted for priorities that, prime ministerial pledges notwithstanding, are deemed to be more urgent.
Luria notes that Barak is prone to asserting that there is no greater priority than completing the West Bank barrier. "But Barak has been defense minister for four years," he points out succinctly. "If the fence were truly his top priority, he'd have built it."
Across the Egyptian border, the terrorist danger is compounded by the multi-million-dollar smuggling industry, notably including drugs, and the influx of illegals. Just this week, Eilat's mayor, Yitzhak Halevi, said the character of his city was being threatened by the pace of arrivals from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast - a flow of would-be workers, he stressed, who were emphatically not legitimate asylum-seekers. In his statement on Sunday, indeed, Netanyahu stressed that Israel would keep its border open to genuine refugees; a few hundred people from Darfur have been given refugee status in recent years.
It won't be long before we discover whether there is substance, this time, behind the promises of an Egyptian border fence. The government has declared that the work, to be completed over two years, will begin within two weeks. We shall see. Or, more likely, not.