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IDF launches major engineering drive to strengthen defenses along West Bank barrier

Move to build trench across 20 kilometers in Judean Desert comes after several terror attacks committed by Palestinians who slipped through fence earlier this year

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday announced it had launched a major engineering operation to strengthen defenses along the security barrier with the West Bank, following several terror attacks earlier this year that were committed by Palestinians who easily managed to cross the existing security fence.

The IDF said 60 engineering vehicles and three battalions, led by the commander of the military’s Combat Engineering Corps, Brig. Gen. Ido Mizrahi, were working to build a barrier in the Judean Desert area of the West Bank.

The plan included digging a deep trench over some 20 kilometers (12 miles) to prevent the passage of people and vehicles.

Five kilometers of the trench have already been dug and another seven-and-a-half kilometers have been prepared, in coordination with the Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority, the IDF said.

The military said in a statement that the work has already led to a “significant decrease in the number of illegal infiltrations into Israeli territory.”

“Along with forces in the area, we are protecting an area that several months ago was totally open,” said the engineering commander of the IDF’s Central Command, Col. Ido Journo. “I believe this plan will prevent the passage of [people for] terror attacks as well as criminal activity.”

An illustrative video published by the IDF on July 21, of a trench being built along the border with the West Bank. (Israel Defense Forces)

Last month, the Defense Ministry began to upgrade a section of the barrier in the northern West Bank, and in April, the IDF began to patch up holes in other areas of the fence.

The work began following a spate of deadly terror attacks between mid-March and the beginning of May, including several in which terrorists from the northern West Bank entered Israel via large holes in the barrier.

On April 7, a Palestinian gunman — who entered Israel through a gap in the barrier — shot dead three people in Tel Aviv. A week earlier, a Palestinian who also crossed through the barrier illegally — with a vehicle — shot and killed five people in Bnei Brak. And on May 5 in Elad, two Palestinians who entered Israel illegally killed three people in an ax attack.

“The construction at the barrier is a clear example of the development of our capabilities. The project was established with the goal of reducing the number of illegal infiltrations into Israel. By working on the barrier, we thwart terrorist attacks,” IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said in remarks provided by the military.

“Our mission is that there will be zero terrorist attacks, and we will continue to operate as needed to stop this wave of terror and complete the mission,” he said.

In this image issued by the Israeli military on July 21, 2022, engineering vehicles work to dig a trench along the border with the West Bank in the Judaean Desert area. (Israel Defense Forces)

In recent years, thousands of Palestinians had been entering Israel every day through the gaps in the fence for work.

But in recent months, the IDF has dispatched thousands of troops to the seam zone area — a swath of West Bank land on the Israeli side of the barrier — to prevent Palestinians from crossing into Israel.

The West Bank security barrier was first proposed in the 1990s by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who saw it as a way to separate Israel from the Palestinians. But the project never materialized due to internal opposition.

It was only during the Second Intifada, as Israel fought waves of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank, that the idea was revived and kicked into high gear.

Many credit the barrier with helping end that uprising, which lasted from 2000 to 2005, though of its planned 708-kilometer (440-mile) route, only 62 percent has been completed.

Illustrative: A Palestinian man walks along Israel’s security barrier, in the West Bank town of Aram, as a taxi drives in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, May 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

The security barrier did not come without controversy, as the fence sparked local demonstrations and international condemnation over its route, snaking into the West Bank through seized Palestinian fields and sometimes cutting off farmers from their land.

About 85% of the barrier runs within the West Bank, with the remaining 15% running along the Green Line — the pre-1967 ceasefire line that delineates Israel from the West Bank — and within Israeli territory. In total, the barrier is estimated to have cost the country some NIS 9 billion ($2.8 billion) according to the Knesset Research and Information Center.

For most of its route, the barrier consists of a chain-link fence equipped with surveillance cameras and other sensors, buffered by barbed wire and a 60-meter (200-foot) wide exclusion area. In more urban areas — including around Jerusalem and Bethlehem — the barrier is not a fence but an eight- to nine-meter (26- to 30-foot) high concrete wall.

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