Southern police chief: Build Hebron fence now

Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev: Gap along southern part of W. Bank renders whole fence less effective.

fence 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
fence 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Every day, thousands of Palestinians stream unchecked from the West Bank into the Negev through the South Hebron Hills because there is no security barrier in the area, Southern District police chief Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. While most of those infiltrating from the West Bank are simply seeking day work in Israel, included among them are criminals and terrorists, Bar-Lev said. So this week, in the wake of Monday's Dimona suicide bombing that killed one woman and wounded 40 others - and was reportedly carried out by terrorists from Hebron who exploited a gap in the barrier - Bar-Lev has called on the government to immediately close at least a 10-kilometer stretch of fence in that area that is not being held up by legal or environmental issues. This would still leave a gap of dozens of kilometers stretching down to the Dead Sea, where legal and environmental protests have not yet been resolved. "Because of the large gap that lies along the southern-most part of the West Bank, the whole fence is rendered less effective," Bar-Lev said. According to the Defense Ministry, construction is not slated to begin on the crucial Hebron 10-km. section of the barrier, running eastward from the Metzudat Yehuda checkpoint near the settlement of Yatir, until 2009. It is at Metzudat Yehuda, right past an imposing section of the fence that boasts a freshly paved access road and a newly constructed concrete checkpoint where soldiers with guns monitor each passing car, that security abruptly ends. Here, there is no physical barrier at all, and the brown dirt hills leading into the mountainous Judean Desert are crisscrossed by unmarked and unpaved Beduin trails that allow for unchecked passage. Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror told the Post that a lack of funds was the prime impediment to building this stretch. If money were available, contractors could be working out there now, Dror said. But the complete barrier all the way down to the Dead Sea, he added, could be finished until legal and environmental issues were settled, too, and thus the ministry was waiting until it could complete the entire section as one unit. The ministry is of the opinion that it is best to focus on building sections in other West Bank areas that can be fully completed, given that the entire barrier budget for this year is only NIS 1.3 billion. More accurately, only NIS 1.05b. is available, because NIS 250 million was used in advance and placed in the 2007 budget, said Dror. That money was needed to make up for the NIS 500m. that was cut out of the 2007 budget, reducing it from NIS 1.3b. to NIS 800m. The shortfall caused work on the fence to grind to a halt in November 2007. It restarted the next month, with the funds that were advanced from the 2008 budget. Since December, the ministry has completed at least 40 kilometers of the fence, mostly in the Jerusalem area. It was able to work so fast because in large part it was simply finishing work done last fall. Overall, some 490 kilometers - 62 percent of the entire planned 790-kilometer route - have been built. Of the remaining 300 kilometers, some 100 are tied up in 47 legal cases before the High Court of Justice. Overall, the fence is not due to be finished until 2010. According to Dror, the Defense Ministry only expects to complete 80 kilometers of the fence this year. It intends to focus on the sections around Jerusalem, including the controversial E-1 section of Ma'aleh Adumim. It also intends to work on the "finger" section of the fence in Samaria around Ariel. In spite of last week's terror attack, the ministry is of the opinion that the open fence areas around Jerusalem are the most problematic from a security point of view, Dror said. Palestinians can move much more quickly from those regions into large, populated Israeli areas and can disappear more easily into the crowds, so it is harder to chase after them, he said. Terrorists are easier to track in open empty areas such as the South Hebron Hills, Dror added. "It is sexy now to speak of the South Hebron Hills," said Dror. But in the end, "every place where a gap exists is a place where terrorists will attempt to enter." The goal is to close all the gaps as quickly as possible, he said. The Knesset Committee on the Interior and the Environment, in a discussion on Wednesday on the aftermath of the Dimona attack, called on the government to "immediately budget resources to close the 10-kilometer gap in the Hebron Hills." Bar-Lev estimated that, once that stretch of fence was completed, crime in the area would drop by up to 30%. "The financial damage of not having the fence," he said, "is actually much more severe then the cost of building this part of the fence."