The sad tale of the security fence has recently taken on new dimensions that have potentially far-reaching ramifications.
The fence project began some two years ago as a unilateral initiative by Israeli “security doves”, backed–according to the opinion polls–by a large majority of the public, to stop suicide bombers more or less along the green line and to dismantle isolated settlements and those in Gaza. The model was the fence around Gaza, which has never been penetrated by suicide bombers. The objective was to radically improve the security situation and ensure Israel’s long-term survival as a Jewish and democratic state, while in no way prejudicing chances for a viable and negotiated two state settlement with the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, after initially rejecting the idea because of the political ramifications for the settlements that would lie beyond the fence, eventually embraced it, but only because he saw that he could “hijack” the fence and run it deep inside the West Bank in order to embrace as many settlements as possible.
Over time it emerged that Sharon and others on the right intend to subvert the original design of the fence yet further, and to use it to delineate the outlines of a Palestinian enclave state on about half of the West Bank. If Yasser Arafat and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) do not agree to call the fenced-in enclave a “state” within the framework of a new interim deal that ostensibly corresponds with phase II of the roadmap, then Sharon, according to his most recent hints to the press and the public, will seek to impose the new arrangement unilaterally and for an unlimited period of time. Sharon has even alluded to the possibility of removing a few settlements–for security reasons, and/or in order to give the enclave some sort of technical “contiguity”. In exploiting the fence project to this end, he has skillfully appealed to the public’s generalized support for the fence, for separation and for removing settlements, and to President Bush’s support for the roadmap, while taking advantage of the president’s current preoccupation with Iraq and elections.
Never mind that the end product will be a disastrous arrangement that only prolongs and even escalates the conflict. Sharon believes he has a unique opportunity–while Bush is busy and as long as corruption charges don’t chase Sharon from office–to create the very Palestinian autonomous enclave that he has been talking about for nearly three decades. He has distorted the fence project to incredibly destructive ends.
Meanwhile, Palestinian opposition to the fence has been based on a series of calculations, some of which seem inspired, others of dubious wisdom. Thus the Palestinian information campaign has succeeded in persuading the world that the fence is a “wall”, even though only a few small segments out of hundreds of kilometers are configured as walls (mainly where they separate Palestinian urban concentrations from large numbers of Israelis scarcely meters away who have been, and could again be, shot at by Palestinians). This tactic is particularly successful in winning over European opinion to the Palestinian cause, because Europeans in the post-Cold War era react viscerally to the notion of walls and forced physical separation, even though Israeli-Palestinian circumstances are radically different from those of Cold War Europe.
Then too, by focusing on the human suffering among innocent Palestinians created by the fence wherever it diverges from the green line, the Palestinian campaign has successfully diverted the attention of the international public from the original purpose of the fence: to alleviate Israeli suffering by preventing suicide bombings. In this regard, the many successes already registered by existing segments of the fence in stopping incursions into Israel by suicide bombers are of little interest to the world, because there is nothing visually dramatic about non-events.
Now the Palestinian leadership has persuaded the United Nations General Assembly to take the case against the fence to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The potential success of this move is less clear. For years the Palestine Liberation Organization avoided having recourse to the ICJ because the outcome of such an appeal is far from a foregone conclusion. It gives Israel an international forum for making its case against Palestinian suicide terrorism and in favor of the international legality of its diverse activities in the West Bank and Gaza. And no matter what the court decides, its findings and recommendations will end up at the Security Council, where the US can prevent any definitive action being taken.
As Sharon’s fence-building proceeds apace in and around the West Bank and its original purpose gets hopelessly obscured by geography and politics, it behooves everyone concerned, and especially Palestinians, to bear in mind the original and most fundamental truths about the fence. The idea began with the suicide bombings, a quasi-existential threat to Israelis. The fence works. Israelis have every right to defend themselves.
But the fence is extremely expensive, it’s ugly, and most Israelis do not seek to cause hardship to innocent Palestinians. Israelis have no biological or psychological predisposition toward fences. If the Israeli public could be unequivocally persuaded that there would be no more suicide bombings, support for the fence would drop to near zero. Sharon could not proceed with the project.