Sunday, September 18, 2005

Alfei Menashe, the Fence, and I

The Separation Fence and I did not enjoy an instant romance. When I heard how much money was to be spent building the thing, my first reaction was to imagine how many more Israeli lives would be saved if we put the same money into traffic safety – after all, even in the worst years of the “al-Aqsa Intifada”, more than twice as many Israelis were killed in traffic as were killed by terrorists (this year, the ratio will probably be five-or-more to one). And I’ve never been comfortable with strategies that rely on static defenses; the Separation Fence immediately brought to mind the Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line, and our own Bar Lev Line, none of which was terribly successful. (To be honest, the Great Wall did work pretty well – for a while.) Barrier defenses like these lead to a garrison mentality, a kind of passive wait-for-the-suckers-to-try-getting-over-that-wall attitude that is antithetical to the IDF’s traditional doctrine of mobility and “forward defense”. (The lack of instant adoration was apparently mutual, by the way: the Fence has consistently ignored me since the day we met. That’s typical of my love life.)

But, as sometimes happens in arranged marriages, things have warmed up a bit over time. The Fence, after all, does seem to be working – at least in the places where it exists in reality and not just on paper. OK, one walking bomb did get through – but that was because he’d paid off an Israeli criminal to smuggle him through a checkpoint. (It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the Great Wall worked until the barbarians bribed a Chinese garrison commander to let them through – plus ça change and all that.) And while the Fence hasn’t exactly smiled at me yet… well… OK, OK, it’s still completely ignoring me. But I live in hope.

Now it appears that the current route of the Fence in my own neighborhood – I live in Alfei Menashe, a.k.a. Qalqilia Illit (“Upper Qalqilia” for those of you who won’t get the joke even in translation) – is going to be changed. The current Fence route encompasses several Palestinian villages inside an Israeli “bubble”, and cuts off their 1,200-or-so inhabitants from schools, medical clinics, and pretty much everything else except for a portion of their olive groves, a few goats and donkeys, and some jobs in Alfei Menashe itself. (The Fence also cut Qalqilia off from its principal suburb, Habla; after residents complained, Israel built an elaborate underpass to permit traffic between the two towns.) Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that the government must examine alternatives to the current route that will impose less hardship on the residents of these villages – presumably meaning that the “bubble” will shrink to be closer to the boundaries of Alfei Menashe itself. It’s also likely that the new Fence route will involve abandoning the current access road and building a new one running south of Habla, joining “Israel proper” between the border villages of Matan and Nirit, and connecting directly to Route 6, the newish superhighway that connects nowhere-in-particular at the fringes of the Negev with nowhere-in-particular in Israel’s not-quite-North. The new picture might look something like the border proposed in Yossi Belin’s Geneva Accord.

Dangling Partition: Fencing a Nonexistent Border

The whole concept of the Separation Fence has been controversial from the beginning – and not only because of its route. With all the current arguments about exactly where the Fence should and should not go, we easily forget that there is a much more fundamental disagreement about whether Israel should have an effective border or not. When the Fence was first proposed (by center-Left politicians like Haim Ramon), it was intended to run along the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank. Many Palestinians protested vigorously against this idea, as did Israeli right-wingers. Neither of these groups was willing to countenance an effective border between Israel and something else – call it Palestine, call it not-Israel – within the area west of the Jordan River. Those who are willing to live with such a border constitute the broad center among Israelis and Palestinians alike: people who believe that we need to partition the available territory between two peoples. Exactly where such a border should go is, of course, hugely contentious; but at least the various “partitionists” are speaking roughly the same language, and agree in principle (whether they realize it or not) that they are talking about a two-state resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, wherein each side would recognize the validity of the state on the other side of the border.

When public pressure to build the Fence grew (encouraged by a long string of deadly Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians), Ariel Sharon faced a dilemma: How could he give the Israeli public the security benefits of an effective border without paying the political price of creating such a border? Clearly, a fence built along the Green Line wouldn’t do; that would mean effectively conceding all the territory of the West Bank to the Palestinians before final-status negotiations had even begun, and would deny protection to all Israeli settlers. (We must remember here that the Green Line has never been a political border; it was merely the armistice line after fighting was brought to a halt in 1949. The armistice agreements that formalized the end to active fighting explicitly state that neither side recognizes the Green Line as a political border, and that neither side abandons its territorial claims across the Green Line. This is why Israel never fenced the Green Line in the past – even in the days before the Six Day War, when it served as the de-facto border with Jordan.)

A “maximalist” fence wouldn’t work either: a fence enclosing the vast majority of Israeli settlements would either be impossibly long and squiggly (and thus even more expensive to build and hard to patrol) or else would include so many Palestinians on the Israeli side that it would be useless as well as politically untenable. (There’s no point, after all, in building a fence to keep your enemies out if you place it so your enemies are already inside.) Just as we couldn’t afford to build a fence that would concede the entire West Bank, the United States wasn’t going to be too happy with our building a fence that would effectively annex a large proportion of the West Bank.

A Brilliantly Inept Solution

The solution was a classic and under-appreciated stroke of pure Israeliness: build the Fence along a route so bizarre that nobody would ever take it seriously as a final border between Israel and Palestine. Leave room for some settlements to expand even if they don’t want to expand. Leave some eminently viable settlements out. Incorporate some Palestinian villages inside the Fence, for no obvious reason. Make it clear that the Fence is only a security measure, even though its route in many places clearly wasn’t chosen purely on grounds of security. And at all costs, don’t explain anything.

As a result of this strategy, we have a Fence that indeed saves lives, creates fertile ground for litigation, and preserves the eventual jobs of final-status negotiators on both sides. Aberrations like the over-large Alfei Menashe “bubble” give us a sterling opportunity to rectify them – an opportunity that would never have existed had we avoided them in the first place. And since nobody gave any coherent reasons for the routing of the Fence in the first place, nobody is made to look dishonest when the government later finds that it is able to pick a better route after all.

This strategy – the apparent complete avoidance of rational planning – is, as I said, a master-stroke. It’s impossible to tell whether it was all worked out in advance as the best approach to providing security to Israeli civilians without pre-empting eventual negotiations over a real border; or whether the Fence route was in fact a product of pure incompetence and negligence. In fact, after living in Israel for eight years, I’m not even sure if the two explanations are mutually contradictory.


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