Analysis: Why Netanyahu can’t finish West Bank security barrier

At issue is not a “hole” or “breach” in the fence, but rather more than 250 km. of a 790-km. route that has yet to be built.

Palestinians walk near an opening in Israel's security fence in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of A-tur (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians walk near an opening in Israel's security fence in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of A-tur
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Construction of the West Bank security barrier has been mostly frozen for nine years, even though some 36 percent has yet to be completed.
Nor is it likely to be finished in the near future, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise last week to wrap a security fence around the entire State of Israel.
“We are also preparing a plan to close the breaches in the security fence in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said.
At issue is not a “hole” or “breach” in a fence initially designed in 2002, at the height of the second intifada to halt Palestinian suicide bombers, but rather more than 250 km. of a 790-km. route that has yet to be built around three main settlement blocs – Gush Etzion, Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim, including E1.
During the last 14 years, Israel has remained orally committed to its right to safeguard its citizens with a barrier. Pragmatically on the ground, however, its work on the route has advanced just 47 km. since 2007, according to United Nations data.
Prior to September 2015, it was easy to forget about the barrier, particularly given the larger threats of a nuclear Iran and missiles from Israel’s northern and southern borders.
Most people actually thought it had been finished long ago. The IDF had taken it off its priority list, but wanted to preserve the option to build it if necessary, a security source once told The Jerusalem Post.
The almost daily Palestinian attacks in the last five months, causing the deaths of some 30 people and wounding 346, has reminded people of the reason the barrier was initially created. Wasn’t the barrier designed to halt a Palestinian with a knife, gun or bomb, who wants to kill Israelis? In the past few weeks, opposition leader Isaac Herzog has said that in light of this new reality, Netanyahu must finish the barrier.
“Some of the tragedies that have been inflicted in recent months have come because there were no barriers along the way,” Herzog said Wednesday at the Jerusalem Press Club.
“None of us like barriers and no one likes fences, but at the end we need to preserve the lives of people here against cruel terrorism,” he said. “If you want to prevent the immediate danger, the immediate risk, deal with Palestinian terrorism.”
In picking up the call for the resumption of construction of the barrier, Herzog has wisely zeroed in on one of Netanyahu’s clear weak points. Finishing the barrier is one of the obvious antidotes to the wave of terrorism, but it is also the one thing that Netanyahu, who has billed himself as “Mr. Security,” cannot do.
Shlomo Vaknin, who heads security for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, said the sections of the barrier that could be built, have been already been constructed.
“They started with what was easy and they stopped when it got difficult. Now they are stuck,” said Vaknin, who explained that the issues were both international pressure and domestic politics.
The barrier drew international and Palestinian ire from the moment it was first designed as a 364-km. project hugging the Green Line and encircling Jerusalem with some minor portions of the West Bank.
No one argued with Israel’s right to build a barrier on the pre-1967 lines, but the moment it crossed over, the international community and the Palestinians accused Israel of grabbing PA land and unilaterally creating an Israeli border in the West Bank.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice at The Hague issued an advisory opinion that declared the barrier over the Green Line illegal. Over time, the barrier’s concrete slabs, otherwise known as the “wall,” have come to symbolize some of the worst evils of the “occupation” for Palestinians and Israel’s opponents.
Initially, former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert were able to defy the international community and more than doubled the route after a 2006-cabinet vote that firmly encompassed the blocs.
Olmert’s drive to move forward with the project shifted after the IDF deprioritized the barrier in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, diverting funding to other security needs. The US-led Annapolis peace process also made it difficult to continue.
Israel has continued to work on minor sections of the barrier since by shoring up existing parts of the route rather than pushing forward to place the barrier around the blocs.
In 2014, the Defense Ministry told the Post it was working on completing 525 km. of the barrier, not including Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel. It has refused in the last three months to tell how many kilometers of the route have been completed to date.
After Netanyahu entered office in 2009, Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli predicted to the Post that international outrage over the barrier, particularly from the US, would ground construction to a halt when it came to the issue of placing the barrier around the blocs.
Arieli, is a security expert on the West Bank who has monitored the barrier since its inception. When contacted last week by the Post, he said nothing has changed in the last seven years and that construction of the barrier around the blocs remains untenable. The barrier is still frozen, with some 500 km. completed, he said.
In 2016, the international hostility against the barrier has only grown, with the EU labeling settlement products and the US stating unequivocally that Israeli settlement activity is unacceptable, including retroactive authorizations, infrastructure and planning activity.
As an example of just how complicated it would be to finish the barrier, one need look no further than the Ma’aleh Adumim loop.
That route places E1 inside the barrier. The E1 area of the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement is one of the most diplomatically contentious pieces of real estate in Judea and Samaria.
Israel wants to build 3,500 housing units on the mostly barren hilltops of E1, but the Palestinians have argued that construction would harm the viability of their future state and make it impossible for them to have continuous development in that area.
The US has successfully pressured every Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin not to freeze E1. Today, nothing, except for a police station, has been built there. That same pressure would extend to the barrier. Placing it around E1 would be akin to constructing apartments on its hilltops.
If Netanyahu were to resume that work, he would risk isolating Israel even further on the international stage, just as the Palestinians are pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution against the settlements.
Should he look to shorten the route so as to exclude E1, he would need cabinet approval to amend the route but such a vote would destroy his coalition given its widespread support for building there; government ministers would believe that placing E1 outside the barrier would jeopardize its placement within Israel’s final borders.
Arieli said he believes the IDF would take a stab at restarting the Gush Etzion route and possibly a stretch around the built up area of Ma’aleh Adumim, but would not finish it. In October, the IDF did begin some limited work on the barrier in the Bethlehem area of Gush Etzion.
An Israeli official said that when Netanyahu speaks of building a fence, he is prioritizing Israel’s “outer” borders such as Jordan and the Golan. When it comes to the Judea and Samaria barrier, he will be looking first at Jerusalem.
Vaknin said finishing the route would cause turmoil internationally and domestically because there is so little agreement on what constitutes the blocs and many on the Right, including settler leaders, oppose it all together.
Gush Etzion Regional Council head Davidi Perl has always opposed the barrier. The wave of terrorism has not changed his opinion, particularly given that the planned route excludes settlements such as Tekoa and Nokdim and cuts off a portion of Efrat.
“Missiles can fly over a fence and tunnels can be dug underneath it. So why does it help?” he asked.
In contrast, Ma’aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel would love to see the barrier constructed, but he said he is having difficulty obtaining funding for even minor security needs.
“I can’t get pennies and you think the Defense Ministry is now going to invest in a multibillion shekel project?” he asked.
In calling for completing the barrier, Herzog, however, never has to worry about funding or details.
At the press club on Wednesday, Herzog was annoyed when queried by the Post as to the specifics of the route he would want to draw around the blocs.
“No one knows what the current route is. There is a whole political turmoil about the route. We are seeing lots of routes and lots of ideas, but it has to be completed and we call on the government to make sure it is completed.”
As opposition leader, Herzog need only point out the problem – he doesn’t actually have to solve it, thus making it a perfect vehicle by which to attack Netanyahu. The more he hammers away, the more the barrier will likely become an albatross around Netanyahu’s neck.