The Israeli ‘Occupation’ Tour
On my last visit to Israel, I thought it would be interesting to take a tour of the West Bank from the perspective of critics of Israeli governmental policy. I went on the tour with Machsom Watch, an organization of Israeli women who, among other things, monitor the Jewish state’s checkpoints. Our guide, Daniela, said that the tour would not be political; in reality, it was essentially a day-long diatribe against Israel’s efforts to defend itself against terrorism.
The Orwellian logic of the tour began just outside the Palestinian town of Qalqilya. We had a good view of the security wall that separates the town from Israel. Roughly five percent of the security barrier consists of a wall rather than a fence; the reason for this stretch of concrete is that Palestinians used to shoot at Israeli motorists on the nearby highway. Daniela said that there had not been any terror attacks from Qalqilya in years — suggesting that the wall was unnecessary, as opposed to demonstrating its effectiveness.
She later quoted from an article written by former Defense Minister Moshe Arens arguing that the fence should be torn down because of its impact on the Palestinians, and the fact that terrorists can get around it because it has not been completed. Arens’ argument is contradicted by the dramatic decrease in terror attacks since the fence was constructed. If the wall around Qalqilya were torn down as Arens and Machsom Watch would like, nothing would prevent snipers from targeting cars on the highway again. Furthermore, terrorists could literally walk across the street to infiltrate Israel and launch an attack, rather than hunt for an opening miles away.
One of the main messages of the tour, after visiting with three Palestinians, was that the checkpoints and gates inside the West Bank make life burdensome for Palestinians.
Some Palestinians spend an inordinate amount of time waiting at these checkpoints to travel through the area, and get to and from their jobs. Some fences separate farmers from their fields and groves. And, according to our tour guide, some are only permitted to pass through the gates at certain times, some of which are restricted to a few times per month or year.
On a different tour, I saw that when Palestinian farmers wanted to tend to their crops, they would simply shake the fence until Israeli soldiers arrived and opened it for them. Daniela also did not mention that Arabs benefit from the fence because it brings quiet, and helps the economy.
Although I personally did not witness any delays, it is true that Palestinians are inconvenienced by these restrictions, and that many feel humiliated by the way they are treated by Israeli soldiers who are responsible for ensuring that they are not carrying weapons or planning a terrorist attack. Unfortunately, this is the price that many Palestinians must pay for the decisions of their leaders to support terrorism. And their discomfort is temporary, whereas the deaths of terror victims are permanent.
I understand, and sympathize with, the argument that Israel should do more to ease the plight of the Palestinians — and that it is in Israel’s best interest to find a long-term solution that will provide the Palestinians with a path to statehood without jeopardizing the lives of Israelis.
I was offended, however, when Daniela said that Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint had signed up to defend their country, not to stand bored at checkpoints where they were like grocery clerks. In reality, these young soldiers are at the forefront of protecting their nation. If someone shoplifts and a grocery clerk fails to catch them, the store loses money but no one is hurt. If a terrorist smuggles a bomb past a soldier at a gate, people may die.
Shortly after our tour, for example, two sisters from the Gaza Strip were arrested after they were caught at the Erez crossing with Gaza smuggling explosives for Hamas (which were hidden in medical supplies). This was just the latest example of the extremes to which terrorists will go to in the hopes of getting past those “grocery clerks.”
While most Palestinians are peaceful, it only takes one with a bomb to create mayhem. Palestinians armed with everything from knives to explosives are regularly caught at checkpoints. And thanks to the pay-to-slay policies of the Palestinian Authority (i.e., stipends paid to prisoners and the families of “martyrs”), Palestinians have an incentive to engage in terror. Moreover, it is the presence of Israeli security forces beyond the fence that prevents many potential infiltrators from getting as far as the checkpoints. Just a few weeks before my tour, the director of the Shin Bet reported that his organization had foiled more than 400 potential attacks in 2016, and that threats emanating from the West Bank were escalating.
The women of Machsom Watch are hardly alone in objecting to the construction of Israel’s security fence. The truth is that no Israelis wanted a barrier, and that Israel resisted building one for 35 years. It was not until more than 1,000 Israelis were murdered in the Second Intifada, many in horrific suicide bombings, that Israel’s leaders decided a fence was necessary. If suicide bombs were routinely exploding in Israel today, I wonder if Machsom Watch would still be protesting.
Creating a barrier to infiltrators is unremarkable; after all, Israel has fences on its borders with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and now Egypt. Countries all over the world have fences, including Saudi Arabia, Ireland and the United States. In fact, when the UN was pillorying Israel for building the fence, the UN itself was planning its own barrier to defend its headquarters from potential terrorists.
Daniela expressed understanding of the need for border checkpoints, but objected to the fact that the fence was not built strictly along the Green Line. But the Green Line is not an internationally recognized border; it was an armistice line between Israel and Jordan pending the negotiation of a final border. As Israel’s Supreme Court noted in its ruling approving the route of the barrier, building the fence along the Green Line would have been a political statement — but would not have accomplished the principal goal of the barrier (i.e. stopping terrorism).
The route of the fence must consider the topography, population density and threat assessment of each area. To be effective in protecting the maximum number of Israelis, it also must incorporate some of the settlements in the West Bank. Still, most of the fence runs roughly along the Green Line (in some places, the fence is inside this line), and as a result of a June 2004 Israeli Supreme Court decision, the barrier was moved closer to the 1967 cease-fire line to make it less burdensome to the Palestinians. On several other occasions, the court has considered the grievances of Palestinians (who can petition the court without being Israeli citizens), and ruled that the Israeli government had to reduce the infringement upon local inhabitants by altering the path of the fence.
Daniela also talked about the great expense required to build the security fence, and it has indeed been a multibillion dollar project. Israelis, I’m sure, would have preferred to have spent that money on pressing social needs. I had a simple question for Daniela: How much is an Israeli life worth? She didn’t have an answer.
The Palestinians we met all said that they were interested in peace, and Daniela wanted us to believe that Israel is to blame for the ongoing conflict. The next day, coincidentally, a story was published about an analysis by Daniel Polisar of Shalem College, who studied 400 surveys of Palestinian public opinions, and found that the Palestinians collectively believe that Israel has no historical or moral claim to exist, is inherently rapacious and expansionist, and is doomed to extinction.
It would also be easier for me to take Machsom Watch’s concern for the Palestinians more seriously if they demonstrated equal concern for the Palestinian Authority’s denial of civil and human rights. Roughly 98% percent of Palestinians are under the jurisdiction of their own leaders, and the fact that they are denied freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, women’s rights or gay rights has nothing to do with Israeli checkpoints or fences.
Israel has significantly reduced its number of checkpoints over the years, and perhaps more can be done to reduce or eliminate the deprivations and inconveniences that they cause. And neither the checkpoints nor the security fence need be permanent. The shattering of the land for peace myth following the disengagement from Gaza; however, has placed the burden on the Palestinians to prove that they are willing to live in peace.
The Palestinian people have it in their power to make the barriers disappear; all it takes is the will to negotiate a peace agreement that will make Israelis feel secure. The well-meaning women of Machsom Watch would have a better chance of achieving their goals if they focused their ire on the Palestinian leadership, rather than on Israel’s security forces (and fences).
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.