In the memorable words of American poet Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Perhaps. But a wall may be necessary for safety and, indeed, for the preservation of life.
The shining example of a necessary wall, although one that has been incessantly castigated by Israel’s critics near and far, is its security barrier. As Palestinian terrorist attacks began to multiply during the 1990s, prime ministers on both sides of the political divide strongly supported it. The initiative came from former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin following the murder of a teenage Israeli girl in Jerusalem. As he sharply stated: Israel must “take Gaza out of Tel Aviv.”
Following waves of Palestinian terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, his successor, Ehud Barak, approved funding for a 46-mile fence. In 2003, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s leadership, the north-south barrier reached 112 miles with further extensions to follow.
By now more than 400 miles long, the barrier runs in part along the 1949 Jordanian-Israeli border, but mostly through what is often identified as “Palestinian” land. Its route was largely determined by the location of the most populated Israeli settlements, among them Gush Etzion just south of Jerusalem; Ma’ale Adumim on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho; and Ariel between Tel Aviv and the Jordan River. All settlements, it should be noted for those who care about history, are located within the boundaries of biblical Judea and Samaria.
In certain locations—determined by the proximity of cities and places where Israelis have been killed by Palestinian snipers—the barrier is a wall and not a fence. Regardless, both have been endlessly lacerated by Israel’s critics, among them human-rights organizations, the International Court of Justice and the U.N. General Assembly. But as anyone who has driven from Jerusalem to Hebron can verify, the wall near Bethlehem that runs parallel to the highway, once the site of frequent terrorist attacks, provides comforting reassurance. Along the way, Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb) is protected by a surrounding wall along the three sides that define Israel’s boundaries. It is an ugly, but unfortunately necessary, intrusion on that ancient holy site, assuring protection to the multitudes of Israelis who come to pay their respects and to pray.
Undeniably the barrier, especially in the more populated northern part of Israel, is an eyesore. Several decades ago, while walking with a friend who lives in Kfar Saba, I noticed the Palestinian town of Qalqilya on a hilltop overlooking the city. As yet, there was no fence or wall to protect Kfar Saba residents from attack. For Haggai, who had served in the Haganah during Israel’s independence war and then lived in a kibbutz near the Gaza border, it was unnecessary. I was not persuaded.
In 2005, the Israeli Supreme Court considered the legality of the fence/wall. In a sharply written opinion, it described the history of violent attacks against Israelis perpetrated by West Bank Palestinian terrorists with easy access to Israeli cities, towns, kibbutzim and settlements. As the court noted, even Israeli military retaliation for terrorist attacks had proven to be an insufficient deterrent: “The terror did not come to an end. The attacks did not cease. Innocent people paid with both life and limb.”
Before the separation barrier was built, more than 75 Palestinian suicide bombings had claimed the lives of nearly 300 Israelis while wounding nearly 2,000. That was more than sufficient justification for a fence or a wall. As it was extended, suicide attacks declined. The Islamic Jihad leader complained that the barrier “limits the ability of the resistance to arrive deep within [Israeli territory] to carry out suicide bombing attacks.” That, of course, was its purpose.
To be sure, Palestinians are inconvenienced and some have lost portions of their land. But Israeli annexation of 9.5 percent of the West Bank for wall construction is a small price to pay for the protection it provides. As Israelis might say, “something there is that loves a wall.”
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel” and “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.