The security barrier

The security barrier. Photo: Bethsabée Süssmann
By Roland S. Süssmann
An Arab lorry loaded with merchandise for the Israeli market comes to a stop. He shows his papers, and while he is getting them back, an electronic arm goes over his lorry, scanning its contents. The whole thing takes less than three minutes. But where are we? At a crossing point of the famous security barrier that separates the West Bank from the rest of Israel. This is what happens daily in most cases, when Arab traders or farmers bring their merchandise to Tel-Aviv, Haifa or Jerusalem. Things start getting complicated when the inspectors have good reason to suspect a vehicle. In that case the check is stricter, more meticulous and can go as far as unloading and opening up all the goods.
However, let’s recall the whys and wherefores of this barrier that has generated so much ink. Wall of Shame, Apartheid Barrier, Berlin Wall, and other misleading names and insults have been proposed for the security barrier Israel has been obliged to put up. This followed terrorist acts perpetrated by Arabs living in Judea and Samaria in the years 2000 – 2005, in the period known as the “Second Intifada” – which was nothing more than a title given by the PLO to a series of acts of terrorism that sought to murder and maim as many Jews in Israel as possible. The objectives were the same as in 1948, to weaken the Jewish State by obtaining by force every sort of concession, especially territorial, with the ultimate target being its disappearance. Thus during this fateful period more than 1,000 people were killed and over 7,800 were wounded, a large number handicapped for life.
The international community has defined terrorism as a crime against humanity. In this context, and since Israel was and is a permanent target for terrorist attacks, it is its duty to do everything to protect its citizens and limit the impact of Arab terrorism. We should also remember that before the barrier was built, there were no obstacles, apart from patrols by the Israel army, that prevented the infiltration of terrorists from the Arab towns and villages of Judea and Samaria, whereas almost all the attempts to get in from Gaza were foiled because of the barrier that had already been there for several years. We should not forget that between Kalkilya, a town of 160,000 Arabs, and Netanya, the distance as the crow flies is 8km, without any natural or man-made barrier to prevent a terrorist from moving from one town to another.
The barrier has also been considered necessary since the PLO has flatly refused to take the steps required to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, which quite logically it had never had any intention of doing since it itself is a terrorist organization.
To understand the usefulness of the security barrier and how it works, you need to know that it represents a major element in the fight against terrorism. It does not just serve to prevent terrorists getting through, but also arms and explosives that will be used later on. The history of the barrier is quite complex and its route has had to be modified several times, generally as a result of legal action taken by Arab villagers. However, on June 30, 2004, Israel’s Supreme Court handed down a decision that questions of national security take precedence over humanitarian issues that were the concern of Arab villagers, and the barrier could be built according to a new plan drawn up by the Ministry of Defense. Having said which, we cannot forget that the barrier is an interim structure and that its route has been primarily defined by the imperatives of security. However, no Arab land has been annexed to Israel and the barrier does not constitute a frontier. It should also be stressed that farmers who had planted olive or citrus trees on land temporarily requisitioned (and not confiscated, it remains the property of its owners) to build the barrier received assistance to replant their trees. The army has specially hired companies for this work and to date 90,000 olive and citrus trees have been replanted.
Everybody is talking about this barrier, and left-wing organizations from around the world regularly send delegations to Israel to demonstrate at what they call “the wall” and to provoke the army. However, few know how it works and what is its concept. Both offensive and defensive, it has highly sophisticated electronic equipment to detect anyone who enters a prohibited area. However, a large number of Arabs living in Judea and Samaria continue to work and conduct their business in the other parts of Israel, to the west of the barrier. The same goes for many Israelis, though in the opposite direction. That is why many crossing points for both pedestrians and vehicles have been built and operate well, obviously in both directions. These crossing points are equipped with advanced inspection equipment that helps shorten the delays, and are in fact not much different from the international border posts one sees in Europe.
The question everyone is asking is whether or not this barrier is useful and effective. It is one of the essential components in the reduction of Arab terrorism in Israel, the two others being the presence of the army throughout Judea and Samaria and the checks made at the crossing points. The facts speak for themselves: in 2006 there were two suicide bombers in Tel-Aviv; in 2007 there was a single attack in a bakery in Eilat, and the terrorist had come from Gaza; in 2008 to date there has been just one such attack. Israel clearly has an interest that the economic situation of the Arab population of the West Bank should improve. Thanks to the checks carried out at the crossing points, the number of Arab workers from the territories working throughout the center of Israel has risen from 11,000 to 21,000. Further, the local economy is developing and countries like Turkey and Germany will probably build industrial areas. At the humanitarian level, almost 2,000 persons pass daily through the control points to receive treatment in Israel. Yet despite all these “benefits” the motivation for terrorism has not disappeared, far from it. It is not rare that the inspectors find fertilizers and acids in the trucks on their way to one or other Israeli town, that are intended to be used to manufacture explosives. However, there is another way to harm Israel, by bringing in tainted agricultural products to poison Israelis. Every transfer of this type of merchandise from the West Bank into Israel must be authorized by the Israel Ministry of Health, which must stamp the approval. The highly sophisticated production of forged stamps takes place in the West Bank. Here too the barrier crossing points have demonstrated their usefulness and effectiveness. Specialists capable of detecting such forgeries are there alongside the soldiers, who themselves can easily recognize a falsified identity card, a fake permit or travel warrant.
To better understand the ins and outs of how the crossing points operate, we met Bezalel Traiber, head of the crossing points administration.

In a few words could you explain to us the idea behind the security barrier and how it works, and what are the direct consequences for the Jewish and Arab populations who live on one side or another of the structure?

Ever since the start of construction of the barrier, which is only a wall for about 6% of its length, it was clear that it would involve major changes in the lives of those passing through, both Jew and Arab. As the barrier grew, the importance of the crossing points became increasingly clear. With time, three major problems have appeared, security, the economy and justice. Today, from the barrier’s most northerly point on the Gilboa to its end in the south on Har Hevron, there are 35 open crossing points that operate 24 hours a day and that are essential for the traffic between the two sides. They serve three types of traffic, goods, pedestrians and vehicles. As far as goods go, for which we have built 6 crossing points, this is the transportation of produce from areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PLO) to Israeli towns on the west side of the barrier, to Israeli ports or to Gaza, and vice versa. As far as pedestrians are concerned, Arab inhabitants of the West Bank are not allowed to cross the barrier by car. For vehicles there are currently 17 crossing points open. They serve Israelis living in Judea and Samaria or elsewhere in Israel who want to go to or through the West Bank, diplomats and all those with a security travel warrant, as exists for all roads in Israel. In addition, a dozen crossing points are open for Arab pedestrians, workers, business people and others. In Jerusalem, on account of the special layout of the barrier that goes round certain areas, it means that Israeli Arabs live on the other side, so we have built 13 crossing points. These points have been designed to let a growing number of vehicles or persons cross over. We have to be ready to face up to every type of situation. On average, a crossing point today gets 750 to 800 vehicles a day in each direction. If tomorrow the economy expands and the number rises to 2,500 or 3,000 vehicles per day, we will still be able to carry out checks without enormous lines forming, thanks to state-of-the-art inspection technologies we possess. Obviously, despite everything, these checks take time and have to be taken into account by the population concerned in the time they leave for their journeys.

What are these techniques?

Today we have the most modern techniques in the world in this field, to make the passage of goods flow as well as possible. A truck coming up to a control point goes under an electronic arm installed on a truck. This arm is in fact a scanner, which in just a few minutes lets us see everything in the truck and if there are any suspicious goods. We also make use of specially trained dogs to sniff out explosives.
As far as pedestrians go, we scan them automatically. These scanners do not show us people’s anatomical details but provide a holographic image. We see if someone is hiding a knife, a suspicious box or something else. This operation takes between two and three seconds. Recently, a man was very surprised when we told him that he had concealed something in his underpants; he was hiding a pack of dollars. The holographic image had shown us that there was something beyond the usual in his underpants. We are the first in the world to use these technologies, which in due course will be installed at customs and airports around the world. What’s more, we are always on the lookout for new ways to make the checks faster and more efficient. We do not use dogs to check people or foodstuffs.

Don’t you think that the presence of the army at the crossing points has a negative psychological effect on the Arab population?

Gradually, under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense, we are starting to hire civilian companies to carry out certain inspection tasks. Obviously, those responsible for security issues remain State employees. Our idea is to gradually replace soldiers where it is reasonably feasible at each of three types of crossing point. You realize that we are a governmental agency, that our inspections have a customs side to them, and we require seeing official invoices for all goods that pass through. Unfortunately, some Israelis try to smuggle items (often from the Palestinian areas). So our inspections are not greatly appreciated by that type of person.

We visited one of the goods crossings and we were struck that while the Arab trucks were certainly inspected, they pass through free of charge. We cannot forget that Israel was obliged to build this barrier solely on account of Arab terrorism committed against the Israeli population. How come there is no payment for passage?

For various legal reasons, that is not the case at the moment. However, we are in fact thinking of charging the goods vehicles from next year. As far as pedestrians go, we have no intention of taxing them. But you should know that operating a single crossing point costs us between NIS 15 and 20 million each year.

What is the difference between the crossing points in Judea and Samaria and those in Gaza?

The difference is enormous. Firstly, Gaza is an entirely hostile territory, and as such everything that enters and leaves Gaza is fully checked, unloaded from the trucks and opened up, crate by crate. The same goes for the about 200 people who pass through daily, the majority of whom are humanitarian cases and business people. For a year now nothing has left Gaza, nothing at all. Since Hamas seized power we have had no cooperation with officials on the other side. When we let merchandise through, we drop it there without worrying what will happen to it. The same goes for the people we let through. We work in what is known as a “blind system”. In Judea and Samaria the system is free and we do not get involved in the transportation of goods. After they have been inspected the trucks pass freely. The only thing is that the drivers’ cabins change. Like it is many countries, including between Canada and the USA, a truck driver arriving at the frontier leaves for example his Canadian driver’s cabin and takes an American one. On the way back he takes back his Canadian cabin. It’s the same for trucks coming from the Palestinian areas on their way to Haifa or Tel-Aviv for example.
However, in Gaza this is not the case. All the merchandise is unloaded and scrupulously inspected, using technology, by hand and with dogs. This is true for everything going into Gaza, and even more so for everything that comes out. We have to be very careful, because a few months ago a truck loaded with four tons of fertilizer exploded at the Erez Checkpoint. We cannot let through things that first sight appear to be totally innocent. Thus pipes meant for irrigation are used to make Kassam rockets, while computers for schools are used to publish anti-Israeli propaganda on the Internet etc. Some short time ago we authorized the entry into Gaza of carbonated drinks and shoes. But this can change from one day to the next.

To sum up, we can say that the security barrier, which has in no way limited the flow of humanitarian aid, the growth of trade or the passage of Arab workers, has proven its effectiveness. Infiltrations by terrorists, particularly suicide bombers, are down by almost 90%. In the light of the most recent outrages that took place in Jerusalem, we must, however, ask the question whether this situation has not to some degree increased the motivation and terror activities of Israeli Arabs, since the freedom of action of their brethren on the other side of the barrier has been seriously curtailed.