Following the recent terror attacks in Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv, both of which were committed by Palestinians from the northern West Bank who had crossed into Israel illegally, the security barrier separating Israel from the West Bank is the subject of heightened attention. Among many Israelis and perhaps even more so among American Jews, the security barrier is viewed as a singular success in both arresting the suicide bombing campaigns of the Second Intifada nearly two decades ago and preventing terrorism inside Israel today. This treatment of the security barrier as the ultimate solution to the dilemma of preventing terrorism is why there is suddenly so much focus on the gaps in the barrier and the tens of thousands of Palestinians who evade the barrier daily while crossing into Israel. Nevertheless, the conversation that has broken out in the past weeks about the barrier is filled with a number of misconceptions about just how porous it is and why it is so easy to traverse.
The unfortunate string of attacks in the span of two weeks juxtaposed against years of a fortunate paucity of successful terrorist attacks has created political pressure to respond. Since the Bennett-Lapid government wants to—wisely in my view—stick to its policy of increasing economic improvements for Palestinians rather than impose a shutdown on the West Bank during Ramadan, it has honed in on illegal entry to Israel rather than institute widespread closures at the legal crossings. It has also highlighted in particular the sections of the barrier that have been breached, have fallen into disrepair, or are easily evaded. Two weeks ago following the Bnei Brak shooting, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi toured the section of the barrier containing an unattended agricultural gate where the terrorist crossed. The day before, State Comptroller Matan Engelman examined a broken section of the barrier that runs along the northern West Bank and declared the barrier to be no longer relevant given its state of disrepair. Samaria Council head Yossi Dagan, who is one of the most influential settler leaders, wrote a letter to the Defense Ministry demanding that the breaches all get fixed and threatened to sue the government in the Supreme Court if it does not do so.
In response to all of the uproar, the government has sent IDF troops to guard hundreds of spots in the barrier where there are holes and intends to keep them there through the end of Ramadan. The government also estimated that it will require between 2 and 3 billion shekels to fix the various spots in the barrier that need to be repaired or upgraded, and has started the process of identifying sections that will be fixed or rebuilt. On Sunday, the cabinet approved an expenditure of 300 million shekels to transform a 40-kilometer stretch of the barrier in the northern West Bank from metal fencing to concrete wall in the hopes that it will keep out any potential copycat terrorists coming from the same area as the two recent attackers.
The alarm about the ease with which the security barrier can be traversed is understandable given that the point of building it was to keep Palestinians out of Israel who do not have permits to be there. But what many don’t realize is that the breaches in the barrier are actually a distraction from the real issue, which is that the barrier was purposely never completed. The breaches and long unguarded stretches make it easier to cross along virtually any part that someone chooses, but they are not what enables evading the barrier. What enables evading the barrier is that just under 40% of the planned route—about 200 miles worth of fence—was never actually built, including gaps east of Gush Etzion and Ma’ale Adumim that are tens of miles long. Focusing on holes that have been created through vandalism and neglect as what allows potential terrorists to get into Israel only makes sense if you think that the barrier would otherwise be an uninterrupted impediment, when that is nowhere close to being the case.
The reason that the barrier has these large unbuilt portions has nothing to do with security and everything to do with politics. Completing the barrier between Bat Ayin and Beitar Illit, for instance, would hem in Efrat from expanding further south and east, deeper into the West Bank. Efrat’s newest planned neighborhood, Givat HaEitam, consisting of 7,000 units that were approved by then-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett in May 2020, is on the wrong side of the planned route of the barrier, which provides a concrete example of why such a long portion of the barrier was never built in Gush Etzion. It was purposely left unconstructed to enable settlement expansion on land that would be unavailable otherwise, which explains why Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi is opposed to completing the barrier adjacent to Efrat and came out this week against upgrading the section of barrier in the northern West Bank from a fence to a wall. A similar situation reigns in the Ma’ale Adumim area, where completing the barrier would cap Keidar from expanding south and Mishor Adumim from expanding east, and it was therefore left open. It is a fiction that the barrier is about security and security only; political and territorial considerations have governed both its route and its construction, and the manner in which the barrier’s alleged ability to deter terrorism has become an article of faith has somehow skipped over the fact that the barrier is quite literally a half measure. Pointing to all of the holes misses the point.
The irony—or perhaps more accurately, abject chutzpah—in Dagan demanding that the barrier’s holes be plugged is that it is the settler leadership that has opposed the barrier’s completion, a dynamic that still remains following the recent terror attacks. There is an inherent tradeoff in the West Bank between security and territory, and the more territory that goes to settlements and the more land that is preserved for future settlement expansion, the more difficult it is to secure it. In this instance, it not only makes it more difficult to secure settlements themselves, but to secure Israel proper, as completion of the barrier—which would help, though not solve everything—has been purposely sidelined to benefit Israeli residents of the West Bank. Dagan and others who are decrying the real lack of security that they face can blame successive governments and the IDF all they want, but they are partially to blame as well for the deliberate choice they have made for years to prioritize eastward growth while assuming that security will just take care of itself.
To state the obvious, completing the barrier and plugging the holes in the already-built portions may be a start, but that won’t be the end of the matter. A 475-mile barrier, the majority of which is not a concrete wall but a fence that can be climbed over or cut, must still be patrolled constantly, and the manpower for that does not exist unless the IDF wants to ignore every other threat that Israel faces. When I was in Ramallah earlier this year, I drove in right past one completely unmanned IDF checkpoint and watched all of the cars leaving Ramallah on the other side of the road speed past the same unmanned IDF checkpoint. The IDF will never be able to be anywhere and everywhere all at once, and literal and figurative gaps will always exist.
A completed and repaired barrier might prevent the majority of attackers who fall into the categories of emotionally troubled or economically frustrated, and turn to terrorism as a way out because doing so is not terribly hard. But the kind of terrorist who is deeply motivated and plans an operation beforehand is not going to be stopped by having to drive a few more miles to find a good place to cross an unguarded stretch of fence. Ultimately, the only way to achieve real security is a combination of intelligence, operational capability, and a political solution, as without that last element, it is always going to be a game of whack-a-mole. Placing one’s faith in a better barrier without anything else to buttress it or address the deeper problems is bound to end in disappointment.