Rethinking Israel’s border policy

Rapid construction of the Israel-Egypt border fence motivated by defense, economic considerations.

By
January 30, 2012 21:47
Israel-Egypt border fence

Israel-Egypt border fence 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Speedily, and with a minimum of headlines, the government has constructed a new physical barrier between Israel and Egypt along almost the entire length of the border, from the Gaza Strip to Eilat.

The barrier consists of parallel swathes of electrified barbed wire fence. Sophisticated surveillance ensures that any attempt to cross the border, cut the fence or tunnel underneath can be detected and an immediate response force dispatched.

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Unlike the separation fence between Israel and the West Bank, the Israel-Egypt fence has been constructed with a minimum of conflict and almost no international media coverage or opposition. The fence runs along the course of Israel’s recognized international border with Egypt, as demarcated in the peace agreement between the two countries signed by Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter as part of the Camp David Peace Accords.

Unlike the Green Line this fence is encountered by relatively few people, such as those taking the longer route via Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat, and does not arouse antipathy on the part of either Israel’s or Egypt’s populations or governments, as it serves the interests of both countries.

What is perhaps more surprising than the new fence, however, is that during the 30 years following the implementation of the Camp David Accords no such physical barrier separated the two countries, formerly such bitter enemies. Incidents of illegal crossings and infiltration were negligible, and travelers along the border road during the past 20 years were often taken aback by the scarcity of border guards.

The rapid construction of the new border fence was motivated by two main considerations – one related to defense, the other socioeconomic.

Since the Israeli pullout from Gaza and the opening of the crossings between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, the Sinai desert has become a new area of concern for the Israeli defense establishment, as terrorists can now potentially threaten Israel anywhere along the border. In addition, it isn’t yet clear what impact the recent changes in Egypt will have on its policies regarding the border zone.

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The other factor is Israel’s increasing concern regarding the high number of refugees and immigrants from African countries, notably Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, who in recent years have been fleeing their war torn and famine stricken countries and seeking safer havens, with Israel being a popular destination.

The fact that Israel can be reached by land, without the travails or expense of a long, dangerous sea crossing has resulted in many thousands of such refugees arriving in Israel across the unpatrolled border – although this often puts them at the mercy of local tribes who take their money and then leave them stranded in the desert, where many die. The Israeli government’s unwillingness to take in an unlimited number of illegal immigrants has been a major factor in the discourse surrounding the need for the new barrier.

The barrier also makes it much more difficult, in fact almost impossible, for smuggling to take place along the border, preventing many of the local nomadic populations from transporting goods from one side to the other without paying the appropriate customs taxes, and preventing the flow of illegal drugs into Israel.

This mixture of security and anti-immigration arguments is not unique to Israel. During the past decade, since the events of 9/11, there has been a renaissance of border construction throughout the world, following a period in the 1980s and 1990s when governments and globalization theorists had been talking about the emergence of a new, “borderless” world.

The fall of the Iron Curtain, the opening of borders inside the European Union and the unchecked flow of information and global capital through cyberspace had resulted, so it was argued, in a world where borders no longer had any significance. In defensive terms it was argued that the ability of countries to fire ballistic missiles over hundreds of kilometers and to accurately hit their targets in neighboring countries made borders irrelevant. In modern, technological warfare, so the thinking went, outcomes would be decoded by computer programmers rather than land forces.

While the significance of borders had clearly been changing in light of global technological advancement and political developments in Europe, it was clear, however, that they still played an important role in determining the limits of state sovereignty and preventing the inflow of “foreign elements” – be they goods or people. At the same time, borders were becoming more flexible and porous and easier to cross.

But 9/11 changed all that. The idea that dangerous elements could cross into countries from almost anywhere resulted in a hardening of the border concept, both in North America and Western Europe. New fences and walls have been constructed where they were being removed and opened just 10 years ago, while security and immigration checks along the existing borders, and at other points of entry, notably airports, have become much more difficult, tedious and harassing than in the past.

However, for many countries the renewed security discourse is merely an excuse for re-closing and re-sealing borders. The real reason is the desire to prevent further movement of economic migrants and political refugees. It is becoming increasingly hard for countries to disentangle the two arguments.

In an attempt to understand the changing significance of borders, the European Union, as part of its Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7), has devoted 8 million euros to the Borderscapes project. The funding will go to a consortium of 19 universities throughout Europe and the neighboring regions to examine the policy implications of the changing significance and functions of borders and their management today.

Due to its expertise in this area, Ben- Gurion University is part of this consortium, charged with preparing the research and policy recommendations on borders in the Middle East, and Israel’s borders in particular. This ties in with the establishment of a cross-border research center at the university’s Eilat campus, the meeting place of four borders – Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

It is impossible to escape the need of a country to defend and guard its territory against intrusion or infiltration. But it is equally important for an enlightened, western country not to fall into the trap of exploiting security arguments to preventing real refugees and economic migrants from reaching a safe haven where they can create new lives by working hard, providing for their families and enriching the diverse ethnic mosaic of the country’s urban populations.

If there is one people in the world who should know better than any other the importance of maintaining open borders for the oppressed and the persecuted, it is the Jewish people. The construction of the impassable barrier along the Israel-Egypt border should be managed in such a way that the defensive and security needs of the country can be adequately met, while providing a passage for those who are legitimate refugees seeking safety from persecution.

The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. He will direct the Israeli participation in the EU Borderscapes project over the next four years. The views expressed are his alone.

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