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Summer 2004  
Vol. 32, No. 4

WARNING SIGN

by Yehoyada Amir

iven our reality, building a security fence between Israel and the Palestinians is tactically necessary. And we Israelis are not alone. Terrorism is an international problem requiring all societies to take actions--including actions they may not like--to protect their citizens. The U.S. has a fence along its border with Mexico. Israel, too, has a long history of building fences on its borders; if you consider, for example, the fence between Israel and Lebanon or the fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip, you can understand that they function as they should. And we've already seen a decline in terrorism in those areas where the new fence has been built in areas monitored by the Israel Defense Forces.

But all of this doesn't prove that in the long term Israel's fence won't be more harmful than helpful.

The problem is not the fence itself, but where it is being built. A fence on the Green Line between Israel and the territories would be totally acceptable, legitimate, and effective. It would help to secure mainland Israel, and at much less cost--not only financially speaking, but also in terms of disrupting Palestinian lives. But, instead, the Israeli government is building a fence within the occupied territories that separates people from their towns, their land, their hospitals, their economic resources. And as a result, this fence has stopped being primarily a security fence and has become instead a wall--a wall that is meant to divide, to maximize Israel's land and settlements, to exclude as many Palestinians as possible. The very fact that Israel is acquiescing to U.S. pressure to change the location of the separation barrier demonstrates that the lines of this fence are not solely determined by security considerations; otherwise Israel would not have budged. And when action is taken regardless of the suffering, regardless of the political consequences, regardless of the degree of terrorism it is evoking, the fence becomes a miserable idea.

Why isn't the Israeli government building the fence along the Green Line? I believe the real reason is it's harboring an illusion that the fence will ultimately determine Israel's borders. This is never stated explicitly, but the thinking is apparent. Ultimately, though, I don't think such unilateral Israeli action can change the reality that the Green Line--which the international community regards as the real border of the State of Israel--will be the basis of a future Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

In summary, I believe Israel is handling a very difficult situation in a rather mature and admirable way. The Palestinians thought that by starting a second intifada in 2000 they would disintegrate Israeli society, but that didn't happen. Israel remains a democracy. Yet while the fence could have been a reasonable, practical, effective deterrent of terrorist acts--though of course it would never stop terrorism completely--what we are doing now is harming ourselves, the Palestinians, and the peace process. It is fueling Palestinian hatred and despair, and if it is not removed in a relatively short time, it will damage our prospects for peace, now and in the future.

If our best solution to terrorism is to hide behind a fence, the fence becomes a symbol of running away rather than confronting our problems. Instead of delving into the deep questions, we are trying to solve the symptoms. And in that sense, symbolically, the fence is for us a warning sign--a sign that says it's time to change course before it's too late.

Yehoyada Amir is director of the Israel HUC-JIR rabbinic program and a professor of modern Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University. He was formerly an active member of Peace Now.


First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
and a Benefit of Membership in a Union Congregation

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