Tel Aviv — Work on Israel’s controversial separation barrier has ground to a virtual halt as the country’s attention — and budget funding — has shifted away from the threat of Palestinian suicide bombers from the West Bank, say fence advocates.
Started in 2002, the fence was originally envisioned as a two-year project, but the completion date has been continuously delayed. The Defense Ministry said yesterday that the 450-mile network of concrete walls and chain-link fence is “more than half” completed, and that it will take approximately three more years to finish.
“This is unacceptable. It should have been finished years ago,” said Knesset Member Danny Yatom, who sits on the legislature’s foreign affairs and defense committee and is part of a lobby on behalf of the fence. In the absence of public pressure for the completion of the fence, the Defense Ministry has shifted some of the funds allocated to the barrier, he said.
“The public mistakenly thinks that everything is quiet and there are no suicide attacks,” Yatom continued. “Therefore the public’s attention goes to the Kassam [missile] attacks on Sderot.”
It’s been nearly a year since the last suicide bombing in an Israeli city, which killed three in Eilat last January. At the same time, 20 months have passed since the last such attack in a city in central Israel — the region the security fence was designed to insulate.
The barrier project, which is credited with that drastic drop in suicide bombings, may be a victim of its own success. Although there are still holes, the fence separates Israel from West Bank cities that serve as major suicide bombing bases. In the years before the barrier was begun in 2002, there were numerous attacks inside Israel.
“In the public’s mind, the fence is already completed. They might be surprised that the work is slowing down,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “As long as the densely populated areas are done, and there are no attacks, the public sees a successful fence.”
In sections like east Jerusalem, work has been delayed by legal challenges before Israel’s Supreme Court regarding the barrier’s route. But observers say those areas account for only a small portion of the incomplete fence. In areas where the planned fence route cuts deep into the West Bank to cordon off large Israeli settlements like Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim, U.S. pressure has deterred completion.
But ironically, most of the incomplete sections of the fence route are located in the southern West Bank, where the barrier is less controversial because it has been routed along the Green Line border with Israel.
The reason for the slowdown in those areas is that government funds have dried up. Israeli Defense Ministry spokesperson Shlomo Dror said in a statement that the ministry has exhausted budget resources on the fence until it negotiates a sum for 2008. Though the ministry reportedly earmarked about $300 million in 2007 for the fence, budget cuts prompted it to divert part of that money to offset shortfalls elsewhere.
One lobbyist said that some of the money spent this year was as an advance against the funds for next year.
“They literally don’t have any more money to pay for 2008. As a result, the work has stopped,” said Marc Luria, a member of a lobbying group on the fence. “I don’t think there is any intelligence data that has forced the stoppage. It’s simply been lost in the bureaucracy.”
For years, Israel’s security and political establishment opposed the construction of a fence out of the fear that it would become a political border. The reluctance eased following the public outcry on behalf a security barrier at the height of the intifada in 2002.
But now the main violence comes in the form of Kassam rockets from Gaza, a threat that has made Israelis forget the suicide bombing campaign of several years ago.
“The problem is that today it’s hard to bring it to people’s attention — it’s hard to say — without another terrorist attack,” said Uzi Dayan, a former national security adviser and a fence advocate.
In response to Israel’s assassination of some 10 Palestinian militants in Gaza early this week, Islamic Jihad threatened to renew its suicide bombing campaign in Israel. Indeed, as Israel and the Palestinians enter a new round of peace talks, completing the fence will serve as an important form of insurance, Dayan said.
“Building 80 percent is like building 80 percent of a dam against a flood of water,” he said. “Going to Annapolis, going through such a process and doing it without a security fence is very dangerous. It’s like jumping without a parachute.”