Terror attack bared West Bank barrier’s gaps, but some say holes help keep the peace

Experts say despite tough talk from army, unspoken policy of allowing Palestinian laborers to enter Israel illegally for work will remain as a vital pressure release valve

Emanuel Fabian

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

In this September 6, 2020 photo, Palestinian laborers cross illegally into Israel from the West Bank through an opening in a fence, south of the West Bank town of Hebron. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)
In this September 6, 2020 photo, Palestinian laborers cross illegally into Israel from the West Bank through an opening in a fence, south of the West Bank town of Hebron. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

Israeli leaders reacted with shock and anger last week when it emerged that a Palestinian man who gunned down five people in Bnei Brak had entered Israel via a hole in the West Bank security barrier big enough to drive a car through. But for years, Israeli officials have seemingly turned a blind eye to gaps in the barrier that are used daily by thousands of Palestinian laborers to enter Israel illegally.

Once tensions calm, some experts believe Israel will revert to its alleged unspoken policy of leaving the security fence — and the gaps in it — largely unguarded, constituting a key valve for releasing economic pressure in the West Bank.

On Tuesday, 26-year-old Diaa Hamarsheh left his home in the West Bank village of Ya’bad near Jenin. Armed with an M-16 assault rifle, Hamarsheh drove through an open gate that had been put in place for Palestinian farmers to access fields on the other side of the fence and drove to the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak in central Israel.

There, in a normally quiet residential neighborhood just outside Tel Aviv, he opened fire, killing four civilians — two Israelis and two Ukrainian nationals — as well as a police officer, before being shot and killed himself.

“The terrorist took advantage of an agricultural crossing meant for the well-being of the Palestinians and their economy to carry out a murderous terrorist attack,” military chief Aviv Kohavi said at the scene on Friday. He ordered the gate sealed shut, and additional troops deployed to the area.

Many in Israel’s defense community believe keeping it shut will come with its own security challenges.

Palestinians working in Israel, even illegally, earn far higher wages than in the West Bank and they are thus a critical element in keeping the often flailing Palestinian economy afloat.

Palestinian laborers cross illegally into Israel from the West Bank through an opening in a fence, south of the West Bank town of Hebron, on August 30, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israeli security officials have long stressed the security benefits of Palestinian economic stability. Give people a way to earn a livelihood and they will be less likely to risk their lives by committing terror attacks — or so the thinking goes.

“Everyone knew about it,” MK Merav Ben Ari, chairwoman of the Knesset Internal Security Committee, told the Kan public broadcaster recently.

Even at times of increased tensions, officials have pushed to keep allowing Palestinian laborers into the country and even increase the number of permits granted, facing down the wrath of hawks and hardliners who prefer punitive measures and security crackdowns.

Bad fences, better neighbors

The West Bank security barrier was first suggested in the 1990s by the late 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 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% has been completed as of 2022.

The security barrier near Beit Horon, on Route 443 in the West Bank. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The security did not come without controversy, though, as the wall 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.

Palestinians have long found ways around or through the fence to sneak into Israel. But according to Dror Etkes, who directs the progressive Kerem Navot nonprofit, Israeli security forces began looking the other way around two and a half years ago, during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Before that, you would just get shot if you approached the border,” similar to how Israel often enforces the border with the Gaza Strip, Etkes told The Times of Israel, though such incidents were rare.

Israeli soldiers stand guard at a breach in the security fence which has been used daily by thousands of Palestinian workers to illegally enter Israel for work, near the Meitar checkpoint, south of Hebron in the West Bank, April 3, 2022. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

He said there are over a hundred gaps in the fence, mostly small, but some large enough that there are makeshift parking lots next to them on the Israeli side, where people ferry Palestinian laborers to Israeli cities, often majority-Arab ones.

According to Etkes and others, Israel’s unspoken policy has been to allow as many Palestinian workers into Israel as possible to head off economic hardships that can lead to desperation and create terrorists.

But some have questioned whether it would not have been wiser to simply increase the number of legal permits for vetted Palestinian laborers.

“There was a kind of policy that says, we want people to work in Israel after all, a kind of turning a blind eye,” Ben Ari told Kan last week. “It is not the job of IDF soldiers to be on the fence and stop illegals. The gaps need to be closed and more gates opened.”

A Palestinian protester cuts part of the security barrier near the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 17. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Yizhar David, a former senior officer in the Shin Bet who spent most of his years in the security agency in the West Bank, disputed that any such policy exists. “It’s carelessness, a blunder, or ‘trust me, it’ll be OK’ culture, until a mistake happens,” David told The Times of Israel.

“It’s not a policy,” he said, and then turned sarcastic. “Someone smart once said ‘Let’s build a fence with lots of gaps in it, and we won’t close them, and when there’s a terror attack we’ll wake up.”

“The policy is that there should be a separation barrier, checkpoints, enforcement,” he said.

He saw the Bnei Brak attack as a wake-up call that may finally spur officials to fix the security gaps, as has happened when other security blunders have been exposed by such events as Rabin’s assassination in 1995 and the escape of six terror convicts from a jail in northern Israel last year.

Military chief Aviv Kohavi tours the West Bank security barrier, April 1, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Indeed, the army has deployed hundreds of troops to the gaps in the fence in recent days.

But retired Major General Gershon HaCohen said this deployment was mostly for show. “It’s for the public’s anxieties,” HaCohen told Kan. “The army doesn’t even have the number of troops needed to manage the border.”

In an interview with the Ynet news site Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the Israeli military had not prioritized guarding the fence, but rather “other areas where the risk factor is much higher and freedom of action is much lower,” likely referring to Israel’s efforts to combat Iranian enrichment on its northern frontier.

Officials have admitted Israel has lost its ability to freely act against the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon, fearing its capabilities in the event of an escalation.

Palestinian men climb a section of Israel’s security barrier in the village of Al-Ram, on June 26, 2015 (Flash90)

“Still, these days were are re-examining the whole issue of the fence, and we will try to start [repairing the barrier], in stages, according to a list of priorities,” Gantz said. “But there are many other threats Israel, and I, need to deal with.”

Etkes does not think there is any quick, lasting solution to Israel’s attempts to balance security doctrines. In the end, he said, the holes will remain, tacitly tolerated by Israel, “unless a third intifada starts tomorrow.”

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