Other than the Korean Peninsula’s DMZ, there’s probably no border in the world as fraught with the potential for sudden violence as this one, known locally as the Blue Line. Since President Donald Trump thinks border security is the issue of our time, it’s worth considering how Israel — with tight borders, real threats, and a no-nonsense attitude toward its security needs — does it.
What I saw Wednesday while traveling along the Blue Line was. … a fence. A fence studded with sensors, to be sure, but by no means an imposing one. As the accompanying photos show, here is what a long stretch of the border between two sworn enemies looks like.
And here is a Hezbollah observation post, masquerading as an environmental group operating under the slogan, “Green Without Borders.” (Green is the traditional colour of Islam.) The Israelis maintain an equally visible, if outwardly low-key, security presence.
Does that look like Trump’s idea of a “big beautiful wall”? Does it even look like the “steel slats” the president now offers as his idea of an aesthetic concession to Democrats? Not quite. Yet for the last 19 years it was all the fencing Israelis thought was necessary to secure its side of the Blue Line.
That started to change in December, after Israel announced that it was conducting an operation to destroy tunnels dug by Hezbollah under the border. The tunnel construction — secretly detected by Israel some four years ago — was intended to infiltrate hundreds of Hezbollah fighters into Israel in the event of war. As an additional precaution, Jerusalem is spending an estimated $600 million to replace about 20 kilometres of the fence with a concrete wall, mainly to provide greater peace of mind to the 162,000 Israelis who live near the Lebanese border.
Such a wall may look formidable. But it won’t stop tunnel construction or missile firing, the two principal threats Hezbollah poses to Israel. Nor has Israel felt the need to erect concrete walls along most of its border with the Gaza Strip, despite Hamas’ multiple attempts last year to use mass protests to breach the fence. Israel’s border with Egypt is marked by a tall and sturdy “smart fence” packed with electronic sensors, but not a wall. And Israel’s longest border, with Jordan, stretching some 400 kilometres (about 250 miles), has fencing that for the most part is primitive and minimal.
So how does Israel maintain border security? Two ways: close cooperation with neighbours where it’s possible and the use of modern technology and effective deterrence where it’s not.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi recently attested to the depth of cooperation in an interview last week with 60 Minutes — so deep, in fact, that the Egyptian government made an attempt to stop the interview from airing. Jordan’s border patrol typically does its work facing east, not west, to prevent possible penetrations into Israel. Security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority also runs deep despite political differences, since Mahmoud Abbas shares Israel’s interest in suppressing Hamas.
As for technology, I saw it at work on a tour earlier Wednesday of an Israeli military base on the Golan Heights. In a crowded, windowless room within a bunker-like structure, 20 or so women soldiers, some of them still teenagers, sat at screens patiently watching every inch of Israel’s border with Syria, noticing patterns, prioritising potential threats, and relaying information to operators in the field.
Why an all-female unit? Because the Israeli military has determined that women have longer attention spans than men. Last August, the unit spotted seven Islamic State fighters, wearing suicide belts and carrying grenades, as they were infiltrating a no man’s land on their way to Israel. An airstrike was called in. The men never reached the border.
None of this is to say that physical barriers are invariably pointless or evil. Israel’s fence along the Egyptian border all but ended the flow of illegal African migrants, though most illegal immigrants in Israel arrive legally by plane and simply overstay their visas. The much-maligned wall (most of which is also a fence) that divides Palestinians from Israelis in Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank played a major role in ending the terrorism of the Second Intifada.
Yet the Israeli experience also suggests that the best way to protect a border is to rely on the tools of the 21st century, not the 12th. Walls only occasionally provide the most reliable security. They can be dangerous for providing the illusion of security. And there are vastly more effective means than concrete to defend even the most dangerous borders. Why can’t Democrats and Republicans simply agree to build additional smart fencing in places where it’s missing and call it, for political effect, an “Israeli-style barrier”?
The good news for the US is that we don’t face Hezbollah, Hamas or ISIS across our border, only people who overwhelmingly want to relieve their own plight and contribute their labour for everyone’s betterment. If we really wanted to secure the border, our first priority should be to make it easier for them to arrive through the front door rather than sneak in through the back.
© 2019 New York Times News Service