Israel’s Separation Barrier: The Best of the Worst

Pretty much everything the critics say about Israel’s separation barrier is true. It causes incredible hardship to the Palestinians; it has been used in many places as a means of annexing Palestinian territory to Israel; and it has caused much environmental damage.

For all that, however, it has achieved its purpose. Since construction of the barrier commenced, deaths in terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank have dropped precipitously. As I note in my article in the current issue of Orion Magazine,

According to figures provided by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 2000 and 2003, Palestinian terrorists carried out 73 attacks, killing 293 Israelis and wounding 1,950. From 2003 to 2006, the period in which the fence was gradually erected, there were 12 attacks, killing 64 Israelis and wounding 445.

The fence should have been built along the Green Line. It should have been coordinated with the Palestinian Authority. And it should have been accompanied by an evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. If the fence is to be our security border, there is no logic to having an Israeli population live beyond it.

But when the Sharon government initiated the construction of the barrier five years ago, it presented peace-minded Israelis with a choice: an imperfect barrier that would help halt a wave of deadly terrorist attacks, or no barrier at all. Like many Israeli advocates of accommodation with the Palestinians, I decided, with great reluctance, to support the project.

In the early years of this decade, the terror offensive of the second Intifada was, for the Israeli public, the major obstacle to a process of accommodation, and a looming threat to Israeli democracy. Peace advocates could shout until they turned blue that an agreement with the Palestinians was still possible, that we Israelis held a goodly share of the responsibility for the failure at Camp David, that Israelis still fundamentally misunderstood what the Palestinians needed in a peace agreement. None of this was going to get through to the Israeli public as long as it saw suicide bombers detonating themselves on buses, in restaurants, in hotels on Seder night.

In the early 1980s, a similar upsurge in terror attacks—with a body count that we could only wish for today—led to a profound sense of insecurity in Israel. Few remember it now, but at that time public opinion surveys showed Meir Kahane’s racist Kach movement winning eleven seats in the Knesset. Fascism flourishes when people feel that their government is not protecting them.

When a person is sick, the first priority is to keep the fever from running wild; then you treat the underlying cause of the disease. Similarly, as Israel faced the new Palestinian uprising, our first priority had to be to get the death toll from terror attacks down. The barrier has helped do that.

But I realized from the start that the barrier could never be a permanent solution. It is a stopgap only.

In my post on Monday about demolishing the homes of Palestinian terrorists, I pointed out the importance of checking our anti-terror policies against the data rather than against our intuitions. Last October, Hillel Frisch of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, published a short empirical study of the separation barrier’s utility. Frisch writes that the drop in deaths from terrorism cannot be attributed entirely to the barrier; Israeli military actions were also an important factor. But the bottom line is that “[E]ven if offensive measures were relatively more effective than defensive measures, there is no doubt from the findings . . . that the fence was an important supplemental measure in achieving greater security.”

Frisch warns, however, that the terrorists will find ways to circumvent the fence. Therefore, its effectiveness will decline over time. It cannot be seen as an excuse for not pursuing, with full force, both military action (to uproot terrorists and maintain a deterrent for as long as the conflict continues) and diplomacy (to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians that will address the root causes of terror attacks).

14 thoughts on “Israel’s Separation Barrier: The Best of the Worst”

  1. Dear Sir,

    I agree with most of what you say.

    I do think that Israel’s flaw is the slowness to come to the conclusion that military means are necessary.

    Unless there’s an overwhelming use of force, diplomacy is useless and has been responsible for the deaths of many Israelis, including the recent 8 victims. Diplomacy comes last, not first.

  2. “It presented peace-minded Israelis with a choice: an imperfect barrier that would help halt a wave of deadly terrorist attacks, or no barrier at all. Like many Israeli advocates of accommodation with the Palestinians, I decided, with great reluctance, to support the project.”

    I can understand why you reached this conclusion, but the concern I have about your post is that it ignores the other side of the equation. The “incredible hardship” and the “annexing Palestinian territory” you cite are not merely ancillary imperfections to the primary aim of stopping terror attacks. They also (I would suggest) push much further away any chance that the Palestinians will support the accommodation you (and I) advocate, since it gives them further genuine and justified grievances against Israel while simultaneously making it harder for Israel to respond fairly to those grievances.

    So I would be interested to know what weight you gave to that possibility in your decision to support the barrier: that the cost of achieving a short-term reduction in terrorist attacks is to undermine the chances of an accommodation in the longer term. I’m sure you must have considered the issue, but you make no mention of it in your post.

  3. To David

    “Long Term” and we all we’ll be dead.

    You have to secure the people’s safety first and now.

  4. Emanuel:

    In the long term we are indeed all going to be dead, but that is the human condition, not a particular consequence of terrorism, and hence has no bearing on this question.

    If you are implying, on the other hand, that terrorists were likely to kill the entire population of Israel had the barrier not been built, I should perhaps point out that the population of Israel is over 7 million, and terrorists at the height of their activity before the barrier was built, according to the figures quoted, were killing approximately 100 Israelis per year. (It would take more than 70,000 years to kill the entire population at that rate.)

    In the same period, more than 400 Israelis per year were being killed in traffic accidents, but I don’t see any political move to ban motor vehicles. Doubtless Israel would ban motor vehicles if doing so had no serious disadvantages. But it obviously would have serious disadvantages, so Israel, like all other countries, is prepared to live with the cars and put up with the 400+ deaths. So too the building of the security barrier (or at least, building it on that route in that way) has serious disadvantages, not least in heightening the hostility and so reducing the likelihood of a peace settlement. This in the long run may even lead to many more people being killed. My question to Haim (and it was a genuine question, not a rhetorical one) was how one should weigh those disadvantages against the unquestioned advantage of reducing terrorist attacks. One should not simply look at the question of immediate security as if it existed in a vacuum and had no negative consequences for oneself as well as (obviously) for the Palestinians.

  5. The barrier is NOT the reason for the major decline in terrorist attacks emenating from Judea/Samaria…it is the ongoing security operations of the IDF which are designed to use forward defense in the Palestinian areas of Judea/Samaria which pre-empt the attacks. The number of attacks fell sharply long before most of the security barrier was built. Just as having a security barrier completly surround the Gaza Strip has not prevented rockets and terror attacks across it, if the IDF were to stop operating in Judea/Samaria and Israel’s defense doctrine were simply to rely on the presence of the security barrier, the same situation would arise there. That is why Olmert dropped his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Judea/Samaria.

  6. Dear David and Son of David,

    I see a basic problem with the argument that, numerically, traffic accidents are more deadly. You miss the psychological effect of terror on the living. Also I see a breezy willingness to sacrifice a few of your fellow citizens so that you’re comfortable. That is the way of death for all of you. Each Israeli is as precious as any other.

    You cannot ransom military prisoners but you can avenge them.

    Get it through your heads – the Arab will not be compromised with. You think that the method of the “shook” will work – if only we could work out a deal, a formula! There is no formula but overwhelming force and violence. Then he’ll leave you alone.

  7. David needs to understand the psychological aspects of political theory better. The lesson of the 20th century was that “Jewish blood is cheap”. That is one of the reasons that it was eventually possible to get a broad concensus among the Jewish people, even among elements that were not nationalistically inclined, such as parts of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community or the “universalist-assimilationist” elements, to support Zionism and the creation of a Jewish State. So if David thinks Israelis are “overreacting” because “only” 1000+ Israelis were murdered in the Palestinian terror offensive starting in the Autumn of 2000 (not just the “100 per year” he states in his comment), he sadly misunderstands the Jewish/Israeli mentality.

  8. Y Ben-David, Emanuel

    The “100 per year” deaths from terrorism is not mine: it came from Haim’s post, quoting the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If you have a problem with that figure, your argument is with them, not with me. In the absence of reliable evidence to the contrary, I shall assume that the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s numbers are correct.

    As to the psychological impact of terrorism as against traffic accidents, you are absolutely right, Emanuel, that it is far greater, and that this a factor that needs to be taken into account. That was a major consideration in Haim’s original argument for the necessity of the barrier, and I was not intending to treat it lightly – the reason I didn’t mention it explicitly is because I was taking it for granted, not because I didn’t think it mattered. My point about traffic accidents was merely to demonstrate that – contrary to what you state – Israel does not treat every Israeli life as precious. In the case of traffic Israel is (rightly, in my view) prepared to weigh up all pros and cons, and decide that 400+ people a year can indeed be sacrificed for the comfort of their fellows. I was suggesting that a similar calculus should be applied to the security barrier, and was asking – not stating, because I don’t have an answer – what the result of that calculus might be.

    But that calculus needs to take into account _all_ considerations, including the long-term effect on prospects for peace. And here my concern is that you are both ignoring the psychological impact on the Palestinians – or rather, you are imagining a psychological impact which is utterly unlike any psychological impact that real-world actions have on real-world people. If your concern is that people perceive Jewish life as cheap, then you do not make them perceive Jewish life as more worthwhile by violently oppressing them – you simply encourage them to think of you as inhuman and to see violent responses against you as justified. In exactly the same way, Palestinian violence against Israelis does not make Israelis more conciliatory (as Haim rightly observed) – it makes Israelis more prone to violent responses themselves, to hit back against those hitting them. Why do you imagine that Palestinians’ psychological response to violence against them is different from your response to violence against you?

  9. I have to say that I am astonished that for Israelis, Palestinian suffering seems to not exist, or doesn’t matter, or Israeli policy has had nothing to do with it.

    I mean I can understand anger at Palestinian actions and so forth but are any of you aware of what the ratio of civilian kill-rates are from Israeli to Palestinians throughout the hostilities, never mind all the other Palestinian grievances that have come with the occupation. Does none of this exist, or does it simply not bother you.

    For sure there is the ‘they started it’ we are only responding but aren’t both sides playing this number. How can it break the deadlock? How can you expect the other side to forgo violence as a tool and yet embrace it so enthusiastically to resolve the conflict.

    I have heard this promise of the overwhelming use of force since for as long as I can remember but I am just wondering what you have in mind this time if the current policy is restrained.

  10. To David and to Chris Dornan


    The primary concern of any nation and head of State is to protect the people.

    You betray your fellows, David, by worrying about the Arab when he is only worrying about cutting your throat. You can live your principles by moving to Ramallah or Gaza and see how long you live. Yet, you try to be tender hearted when you have the Israeli army continually guarding you.

    You and Chris argue like women who are worried that the rapist is uncomfortable and might get mad if they don’t cooperate in their own rape.

    Israel reacts to Arab violence; she doesn’t instigate it.
    A normal country would not build a wall – she’d take out 200 Arabs at random and shoot them for every act of terror.

    Gee, the wall “inconveniences” the Arab, it makes him mad. That’s too bad.

    Is there anyhting that will mollify the a
    Arab except your suicide?

  11. Haim’s ignoring the most important factor: the decision of Hamas to abandon suicide attacks as a strategy.

  12. Emanuel:

    “Israel reacts to Arab violence; she doesn’t instigate it.”

    Funnily enough, Arabs have exactly the opposite perception. They see themselves as merely reacting to Israeli violence, and the Israelis as instigating it. Both sides are largely right about their own motives, both sides are entirely wrong about the other side’s motives. You might do well to read Gershom’s post about “The First Law of Political Thermodynamics”, including the psychological research he references there – and learn the lessons that it teaches.

    “A normal country would not build a wall – she’d take out 200 Arabs at random and shoot them for every act of terror.”

    This is – bluntly – nonsense, and self-serving nonsense at that. Spain does not respond that way to Basque terrorism; Britain did not respond that way to Irish terrorism; neither country has responded that way to Islamic terrorism, even though more people died in a single attack in Madrid in 2004 than have died through terrorist attacks in Israel in the last 5 years put together. You have invented a fantasy “normal country” that doesn’t exist (certainly not among modern democracies), merely in order to convince yourself that Israel is unusually restrained by comparison.

    “Gee, the wall “inconveniences” the Arab, it makes him mad. That’s too bad.”

    If it encourages violence, if it perpetuates endless war – and it may well do both – then it is indeed too bad. But it is too bad for Israel as well as for the Arabs, since Israel herself suffers horrendously as a result of violence and endless war.

    “Is there anyhting that will mollify the a Arab except your suicide?”

    Quite a lot; but as a small first move, abandoning the sort of unpleasant racism that characterizes “the Arab” in these silly terms would be a good start.

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