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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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”
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
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.