Work on a 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) fence along a southern stretch of Israel’s border with Jordan has begun amid efforts to protect Israel against security threats and to keep migrants and asylum seekers from entering the country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday.
The barrier will run along the country’s eastern border — from Eilat northwards to the Samar sand dunes — and will join a series of other fences Israel has along other borders, including one recently completed on the Egyptian frontier.
The prime minister — during a visit to the planned route of the border fence in the south with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz — said that Israel was not able to take in refugees. He pointed to the European refugee crisis as proof of why Israel needs the barrier.
Netanyahu’s announcement came amid heated debate among Israeli politicians over how Israel, with its national memory of the struggle by Jewish refugees to escape the Nazi regime, should respond to the regional refugee crisis to which the Syrian civil war is a major contributing factor.
“We see, today, what happens to nations that lost control over their borders,” Netanyahu said, referring to the European nations’ scramble to deal with the burgeoning influx of refugees to the continent.
A combination of terrorism and an increase in the number of “work infiltrators” and asylum seekers who try to enter the country — as well as humanitarian disasters occurring in surrounding countries — mean that Israel needs to ensure complete control over its borders, the prime minister said.
Netanyahu also reiterated his statement earlier Sunday that Israel is a small country that cannot take in more refugees, despite the “human tragedy,” because it “lacks depth, both geographic and demographic.” He was referring to Israel’s small territory and the fact that many in the country are loath to do anything that could potentially endanger its Jewish majority.
The budget for the new fence, which is to be finished within two years, is NIS 280 million ($71.4 million). Brigadier General Oren Ofir of the Israel Defense Forces — who directed the building of the country’s fence along its border with Egypt and in the Golan Heights — will lead the project, the Hebrew-language news site Ynet reported.
A fence, replete with sophisticated sensors and regular IDF patrols, already exists on the northern half of the Israeli-Jordanian border, from the northern edge of the Dead Sea up to the three-way meeting point of Israel, Jordan and Syria near the Sea of Galilee.
Speaking hours after putting the kibosh on any talk of granting asylum to Syrian refugees, Netanyahu defended his position, saying that Israel does have “empathy toward the great humanitarian catastrophe occurring around us.
“Israel was the first country that provided humanitarian aid to the victims of the war in Syria,” he said.
Jerusalem also gives aid to Africa, he continued, and it hopes to further increase such assistance with the help of other countries, to treat crises locally, instead of encouraging migration.
The border would replicate the effectiveness of the Egypt border fence, which has stopped illegal migration to Israel, an achievement of which few other countries could boast, claimed the PM.
Netanyahu added that Israel would be careful to respect the sovereignty of Jordan, which it views as a partner in promoting peaceful borders.
Ya’alon echoed the prime minister’s statements, warning Sunday afternoon that Europe’s asylum seeker crisis could have occurred in Israel had the Jewish state not “behaved correctly.” The defense minister praised previous work on the Egyptian border and Golan Heights fences and said Israel has been working “under the assumption that a high fence makes good neighbors.”
He said that the barrier’s technological features, which will include sophisticated sensors, would effectively prevent migrants and terrorists from entering the country.
Ya’alon added that the fence “will allow for safer and more peaceful lives for the residents of Eilat and the Arava region.”
Earlier Sunday, the prime minister made similar comments, rejecting the possibility of Israel taking in refugees from war-torn Syria.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog hit back at Netanyahu’s claims that Israel could not take in refugees, accusing the prime minister of ignoring basic Jewish ethical concerns.
“You’ve forgotten what it is to be Jewish,” he wrote in a statement. “Refugees. Pursued. The prime minister of the Jewish state doesn’t close his heart nor his borders when people are escaping their pursuers, with their babies in their arms.”
Herzog, who chairs the Zionist Union party, urged Netanyahu to emulate former Likud prime minister Menachem Begin, who, in 1977, let 66 Vietnamese boat people — who were escaping persecution — settle in Israel.
Herzog said that the Jewish state cannot turn away refugees escaping danger.
“It is incumbent on Israel to take in refugees from the war and push for the establishment of an urgent international conference on the issue,” he declared.
“Jews cannot be apathetic when hundreds of thousands of refugees are searching for a safe haven,” he said, referring to the plight of Europe’s Jews prior to the Holocaust.
Thousands, including from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, streamed into Germany on Sunday to cheers and “Welcome” signs, joining the thousands who arrived the previous day as Austria called for an emergency EU summit on the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
On Thursday, Reuters reported that Hungary and Bulgaria had turned to Israel for help in building a border fence to keep migrants and refugees out.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.