Terror attack exposed gaps in West Bank barrier, but some say holes help keep peace

Israeli leaders reacted with shock and anger last week when it emerged that a Palestinian who shot dead five people in Bnei Brak had entered Israel through a hole in the West Bank security fence big enough to drive a car through. . But for years, Israeli officials have apparently turned a blind eye to gaps in the barrier that are used daily by thousands of Palestinian workers to enter Israel illegally.

Once tensions ease, some experts believe Israel will revert to its allegedly unspoken policy of leaving the security fence – and its loopholes – largely unguarded, providing a key valve to release economic pressure in the West Bank.

Diaa Hamarsheh, 26, left her home in the West Bank village of Ya’bad near Jenin on Tuesday. Armed with an M-16 assault rifle, Hamarsheh walked through an open gate that had been set up for Palestinian farmers to access the fields on the other side of the fence and drove into the ultra town. -Orthodox from Bnei Brak, in central Israel.

There, in a normally quiet residential area just outside Tel Aviv, he opened fire, killing four civilians – two Israelis and two Ukrainian nationals – as well as a policeman, before being shot himself.

“The terrorist took advantage of an agricultural pass intended for the well-being of the Palestinians and their economy to carry out a deadly terrorist attack,” military chief Aviv Kohavi said at the scene on Friday. He ordered the gate to be sealed and additional troops deployed to the area.

Many in the Israeli defense community believe that keeping it closed will bring its own security issues.

Palestinians working in Israel, even illegally, earn much higher wages than in the West Bank and are therefore an essential element in keeping the often faltering Palestinian economy afloat.

Palestinian laborers enter Israel illegally from the West Bank through an opening in a fence, south of the West Bank city of Hebron on August 30, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israeli security officials have long stressed the security benefits of Palestinian economic stability. Give people a way to make a living and they will be less likely to risk their lives committing terrorist attacks – or so it is believed.

“Everyone knew about it,” MK Merav Ben Ari, chair of the Knesset’s Internal Security Committee, told the Kan state broadcaster recently.

Even in times of heightened tensions, officials have pushed to continue allowing Palestinian workers into the country and even to increase the number of permits granted, facing the wrath of hawks and extremists who prefer punitive measures and security crackdowns.

Bad fences, better neighbors

The West Bank security barrier was first suggested in the 1990s by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who saw it as a way to separate Israel from the Palestinians. But the project never materialized due to internal opposition.

It was only during the second Intifada, as Israel fought off waves of suicide bombings and other attacks emanating from the West Bank, that the idea was revived and kicked into high gear.

Many credit the barrier with helping to end this uprising, which lasted from 2000 to 2005, although of its planned 708-kilometre (440-mile) route, only 62% had been completed by 2022.

The security barrier near Beit Horon, on Route 443 in the West Bank. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Security has not come without controversy, however, as the wall has sparked local protests and international condemnation along its route, weaving into the West Bank through seized Palestinian fields and at times cutting off farmers from their land.

About 85% of the barrier runs inside the West Bank, with the remaining 15% running along the Green Line – the pre-1967 ceasefire line that delimits Israel from the West Bank – and inside the territory Israeli. In total, the barrier would have cost the country some 9 billion shekels ($2.8 billion) according to the Knesset Research and Information Center.

For most of its route, the barrier consists of a chain-link fence equipped with surveillance cameras and other sensors, protected by barbed wire and a 60-meter (200-foot) wide exclusion zone. In more urban areas – including around Jerusalem and Bethlehem – the barrier is not a fence but a concrete wall eight to nine meters (26 to 30 feet) high.

Palestinians have long found ways around or through the fence to sneak into Israel. But according to Dror Etkes, who heads the progressive Kerem Navot Association, Israeli security forces began looking the other way around two and a half years ago when the coronavirus pandemic began.

‘Before that, you would get shot if you approached the border,’ the same way Israel often enforces the border with the Gaza Strip, Etkes told The Times of Israel, though such incidents are rare. .

Israeli soldiers stand guard at a breach in the security fence that has been used daily by thousands of Palestinian laborers to enter Israel illegally for work, near the Meitar checkpoint, south of Hebron in the West Bank, the April 3, 2022. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

He said there were more than a hundred holes in the fence, most of them small, but some large enough that there were makeshift parking lots next to them on the Israeli side, where people transport Palestinian laborers to Israeli towns, often Arab-majority.

According to Etkes and others, Israel’s unspoken policy has been to allow as many Palestinian workers as possible to enter Israel to avoid economic hardship that can lead to desperation and create terrorists.

But some have wondered if it might not have been wiser to simply increase the number of legal permits for vetted Palestinian workers.

“There was a kind of policy that said, after all, we want people to work in Israel, kind of a blind eye,” Ben Ari told Kan last week. “It is not the job of IDF soldiers to be on the fence and arrest illegals. The gaps need to be filled and more doors opened.

A Palestinian protester cuts through part of the security fence near the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 17. (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Yizhar David, a former senior Shin Bet officer who spent most of his years with the security agency in the West Bank, disputed the existence of such a policy. “It’s recklessness, a blunder or the culture of ‘trust me, it will be fine’, until a mistake happens,” David told The Times of Israel.

“It’s not a policy,” he said, then became sarcastic. “Someone smart once said, ‘Let’s build a fence with many gaps, and we won’t close them, and when there’s a terrorist attack, we’ll wake up.’

“The policy is that there should be a separation barrier, checkpoints, enforcement,” he said.

He saw the Bnei Brak attack as a wake-up call that could finally spur authorities to close security gaps, as happened when other security lapses were revealed by events like such as the assassination of Rabin in 1995 and the escape of six convicted terrorists from a prison in northern Israel last year.

Military leader Aviv Kohavi visits the security fence in the West Bank, April 1, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Indeed, the army has deployed hundreds of soldiers in breaches of the fence in recent days.

But retired Major General Gershon HaCohen said the deployment was mainly for show. “It’s for public concern,” HaCohen told Kan. “The army doesn’t even have the number of soldiers needed to manage the border.”

In an interview with the Ynet news site on Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the Israeli military had not prioritized guarding the fence, but rather “other areas where the risk factor is much higher and the freedom of action is much lower,” likely referring to Israel’s security. efforts to counter Iranian enrichment on its northern border.

Officials have admitted that Israel has lost its ability to act freely against the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon, fearing its capabilities should it escalate.

Palestinians climb a section of the Israeli security fence in the village of Al-Ram, June 26, 2015 (Flash90)

“Nevertheless, these days we are re-examining the whole question of the fence, and we will try to start [repairing the barrier], in stages, according to a list of priorities,” Gantz said. “But there are many other threats that Israel and I have to deal with.”

Etkes does not believe there is a quick and lasting solution to Israel’s attempts to balance security doctrines. Ultimately, he said, the holes will remain, tacitly tolerated by Israel, “unless a third intifada begins tomorrow.”

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