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July 14, 2006

Israel's Failed Strategy: The Writing Is on the Wall


Without a political solution, expect more violence in the Holy Land

by Leon Hadar

Some critics of the security barrier that the Israeli government has been constructing in the West Bank and Gaza have compared it to the infamous Berlin Wall that separated the Soviet-occupied part (East Berlin) of the city from the one controlled by West Germany (West Berlin), and by extension, divided Europe between the Communist bloc and the Free World.

Israeli officials have suggested that the barrier would enhance Israeli security by hindering potential Palestinian terrorists and suicide bombers from infiltrating Israel. But detractors have argued that only a viable peace pact between the Israelis and the Palestinians would provide Israel with real security and that the Israeli wall, like the now-smashed Berlin Wall, would only help to perpetuate the conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land.

In fact, the bashers of the Israeli wall have advanced a misplaced historical analogy. The East Germans and their Soviet backers built the Berlin Wall not as part of an effort to protect themselves from attacks by the U.S.-led alliance but in order to block their citizens from fleeing to the West (and to some extent, the Wall made it harder for liberty seekers to cross into West Berlin).

That the Berlin Wall remained until 1989 reflected the willingness of both parties in the Cold War conflict to preserve the status quo in Germany and in Europe. To put it differently, it was NATO and the Warsaw Pact – and not the Wall – that was responsible for helping to maintain the peace in Berlin.

A more appropriate historical analogy to apply to Israel's security barrier would be the Maginot Line, that is, the line of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, machine gun posts and other defenses that France constructed along its borders with Germany (and Italy) in the wake of World War I, which they believed would help them prevent a German invasion by providing time for mobilization in the event of a German attack and would also compensate for French numerical weakness.

The Maginot Line worked as long as the German military was weak and the German leadership had no plans to invade France. When these two conditions changed, the Maginot Line proved to be nothing more than a – to use a contemporary term – virtual line. In fact, its existence only helped create a sense of misplaced confidence among the French and caused their defeat in 1940.

In a similar way, the Israeli public and leadership assumed that the 465-mile barrier that is expected to be longer and wider than the Berlin Wall and is backed by razor barbed wire, deep trenches, and electronic fences would make it next to impossible for the Palestinians to attack targets inside Israel.

The decision to build the Wall was an integral part of a wide strategy based on the notion that the Palestinian side was either unwilling or unable to reach a formal accord with Israel.

Hence the need to move unilaterally and withdraw Israeli troops from large centers of Arab population in the West Bank and Gaza and to erect the barrier along the lines that Israel regards as "defendable."

And, indeed, Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year, including the dismantling of the 21 settlements there and the removal of over 8,000 Israeli settlers, was considered to be one of the first steps in implementing this unilateral strategy. It was not supposed to provide Israel with a formal cease-fire, but with security.

But it didn't. On June 25, Hamas guerrillas infiltrated Israel from the Gaza Strip through a tunnel, killed two Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped a third who was then dragged back into Gaza through the tunnel under the border.

Moreover, since Israel withdrew from Gaza, hundreds of homemade Kassam rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israel, targeting populated urban centers, including the thriving resort town of Ashkelon. In reaction, Israeli bombers and gunboats have pounded the Gaza Strip, killing several Palestinian guerrillas and civilians while Israeli troops and tanks moved into the northern parts of Gaza.

The Israelis insist that they will continue with their military operation in Gaza until the Palestinians return the Israeli soldier. The Palestinians say that they will do so only if Israel frees a number of Palestinian prisoners. So much for Israel's "security barrier" and "disengagement."

It's true that after erecting the barrier in some strategic areas in the West Bank, there was a drop in terrorist violence inside Israel. But while they give high grades to Israeli's counterinsurgency tactics, many analysts also insist that the drop in terrorist attacks could be temporary and may have to do with a political decision by the Palestinian groups, including the ruling Islamic party Hamas, to maintain an informal cease-fire in Israel.

From that perspective, the recent Palestinian infiltration by guerrillas and launching of rockets into Israel should be seen as a Palestinian response to an earlier assassination of a Hamas official by the Israelis and perhaps also as a way of challenging the current status quo under which Israel maintains an economic siege on the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA).

All these recent developments, including the Israeli punitive measures against the Palestinians in Gaza, suggest that the unilateral strategy of withdrawing from parts of the occupied territories and erecting a security fence may not even provide Israel with short-term security, not to mention long-term peace.

In fact, when it comes to some parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the current Israeli government has stressed that even under its plans for unilateral withdrawal it would maintain control of some of the large blocs of Jewish settlements as well as the Arab parts of Jerusalem.

The security fence that Israel is building will end up dividing Arab towns and villages in the West Bank and make it impossible to form a contiguous and viable Palestinian entity there. Any of the choices that Israel faces in its dealings with the Palestinians will prove to be costly. It could continue controlling the West Bank and perhaps reoccupy the Gaza Strip. But that would make it likely that it would end up being transformed into a Middle-Eastern version of South Africa under which a Jewish minority would rule the Arab majority residing between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

Or it could grant these Arabs full Israeli citizenship, which would mean that Israel would cease to be a Jewish state and become a binational entity. In order to avoid such scenarios, the Israelis have decided to take steps to withdraw from the occupied Arab territories either under a peace accord with the Palestinians or through the combination of a security fence and a unilateral disengagement policy. But such moves seem to lead to a dead end, or more specifically, to continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The only alternative is to negotiate with the current Palestinian leadership, which Israel and the United States (as well as the European Union) have rejected as an option as long as Hamas refuses to abandon its call for the establishment of an Arab-Muslim state in the area between Jordan and the Mediterranean (including Israel).

Some observers are speculating that Israel, with U.S. support, will try to destroy Hamas (which ironically came to power through elections promoted by the United States). But it's doubtful that what would replace Hamas would be a stable PA with the will and legitimacy to make a deal with Israel.

Instead, such a move would probably ignite even more chaos and violence in the Palestinian territories instead of creating the conditions for the revival of the peace process.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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