July 30, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Fencing in the Middle East

A serious war against terrorism requires both an offense and a defense. Offense means using force, in a variety of forms, to detain or destroy terrorists wherever they live, recruit, train and plot – but before they get near their intended victims. When offense fails, defense has to kick in. Defense means “homeland security,” and homeland security boils down to the three G's: guards, guns and gates.

Israel's offense has included “targeted killings,” an unsavory tactic but one that can't really be avoided. In the past, American officials have criticized Israel for targeting Palestinian terrorist leaders. Now, we almost routinely target al Qaeda terrorists in places like Afghanistan and Yemen, not to mention Baathist terrorist masters in Iraq.

Israel's homeland security program consists of guards and guns almost everywhere you look in that country. You can't get into a restaurant or a shopping mall without being scrutinized by a sentry of some sort, usually armed. And there are gates all over, too: security checkpoints along roads, and a high fence separates Israel from the Gaza Strip (Egypt's property until 1967 when then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser – the “pioneer of Arabic socialism” — used it as a platform for launching a war against Israel).

That fence has been effective in keeping terrorists from entering Israel, despite the fact that Gaza is the main base for such terrorist groups as Hamas. So Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has begun constructing a similar fence to separate Israelis from Palestinians living in the West Bank.

The fledgling Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, has been complaining about the fence and the Bush Administration has tentatively taken up the cause. Secretary State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice and even President Bush have expressed “concerns.”

Their argument is that a “wall snaking through the West Bank” makes it difficult to develop confidence between Israelis and Palestinians. This is kind of a chicken-and-egg question. Israelis are not confident – or rather they are quite confident that at this very moment (and despite the hudna, the temporary ceasefire) terrorists are building more than 1,000 new Kassam rockets that can reach deep inside Israel, and constructing bombs to strap on teenagers who will at some point be sent into Israeli schools, cafes, shops and buses. As troops pull back from Palestinian cities and towns in compliance with the Road Map, Israelis feel a greater need for security – and a fence may help provide it.

Israelis might feel differently if they knew that Mr. Abbas were arresting or even just disarming terrorists. But despite his clear obligations under the Road Map, Mr. Abbas recently said that “cracking down on Hamas, Jihad and the Palestinian organizations is not an option at all.”

Meanwhile, he is pressing Israel to free thousands of Palestinians from Israeli prisons. Mr. Sharon has, in fact, released hundreds of prisoners as a good-will gesture. Among them: Ahmed Jbarra who was serving 28 years-to-life for murdering 14 people in Jerusalem with a booby-trapped refrigerator. Mr. Jbarra is now saying how encouraged he is that in recent days fewer and fewer “martyrs” are managing to kill more and more Jews. Mr. Sharon now says he will release no more prisoners “with blood on their hands.” President Bush says he agrees.

But even the hardest of Israeli hard-liners understands that Israeli parents don't really want their sons and daughters spending years manning checkpoints, enforcing curfews and patrolling Palestinian towns.  If Mr. Abbas continues to refuse to dismantle the infrastructures of terrorism, what other options are there? The fence is a way to free Palestinians from occupation, while also granting Israelis a measure of security.  Mr. Abbas should welcome such a compromise – and only ask that Israelis reaffirm their willingness to remove the fence once they become confident there is no longer a need for it.

There is one other thing that Mr. Abbas could do to help inspire confidence: Finally recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. He has never uttered those words. In an interview published last weekend, Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth asked Mr. Abbas directly: “Many Israelis are convinced that Palestinians do not accept Israel as a Jewish state. Would Israel retain its Jewish character in your vision of peace?”

Mr. Abbas answered indirectly, saying that “we have accepted Israel since 1988…” and that, “We recognize U.N. resolutions 242 and 338 and the right of the states in the region to live in peace and security …” and so on. But in the final analysis, his answer was “no.”

“The majority of Palestinians accept Israel as a state,” he said. That doesn't imply that they accept Israel as a Jewish state; it implies that they believe that one day Israel will become a majority Arab state — or even an Islamic Republic.

In fact, transforming Israel by flooding it with refugees exercising their “right to return” is precisely what many Palestinians are demanding. It is presumably on this basis that Mr. Abbas has been attempting to persuade the leaders of Hamas and similar groups to give up terrorism as a means.

Ms. Weymouth did not press Mr. Abbas on the question. Nor, it appears, did President Bush at their recent meetings. We should recognize that until someone does, there is little prospect for tearing down the walls that really divide Israelis and Palestinians; scant opportunity to build real confidence — at least on the Israeli side of the fence.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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