I was fortunate earlier this month to participate as an academic fellow of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies to travel to the state of Israel and see firsthand the thin line of peace that exists between Israel and the Palestinians. There certainly is long standing animosity that pervades any type of relationship between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. The problem goes beyond just that dynamic though. The intrusion of an assortment of other interests has pushed Israel into a situation that requires them to do several things they actually would have preferred to avoid had things been different than they currently are.
The struggle for control of land in the Middle East is one that is centuries old. The Palestinian people have been driven from place to place by a variety of Arab peoples. Jordan did not want them, Syria rejected them, Lebanon put them into camps and this has been in just the last 70 years. The Palestinian people have sought a homeland of their own as have the Jewish people.
The Jewish people have struggled in much the same way, looking for a homeland; they turned to their biblical roots and the "promised land." Whether or not you believe in their historical roots really isn't important, they do. Because they do, when the opportunity presented itself they fought to create a new homeland where they believe they have a right to one, the land where Israel is today.
From the time of the creation of Israel in 1948 there has been one war after another to determine whether or not Israel has a right to exist. The Israeli people have done what they believe is necessary for their continued existence. The Palestinian people believe they have the right to exist and exist on the land Israel is occupying. This resulted in continual conflict between the two groups which continues today.
Negotiations between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel finally resulted in the Oslo Accords in 1993. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority received some security and civil responsibilities. With this sovereignty came the expectation that the PLO, representing the Palestinian people, would recognize the existence of Israel.
This was only to be the beginning in the negotiations. The purpose was to build trust between Israel and the PA which would eventually lead to a comprehensive settlement between the two peoples. This never occurred, the comprehensive settlement nor the recognition of the right for Israel to exist. What did occur was the Second Intifada, a six-year wave of terrorist attacks arising from PA-controlled lands against the Israeli people.
During my stay in Israel I was exposed to a number of different things. The group I was with saw a prison, various units of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), police and bomb disposal units. There are far more of these types of units in Israel than in most countries of the world for very good reason. Most estimates say more than 1,000 Israelis died in suicide attacks between 2000 and 2002 alone.
Most of these suicide attacks use what are called Individual Explosive Devices (IED) or sometimes Vehicle Borne Individual Explosive Devices (VBIED). These bombs are high explosives strapped around an individual's body containing shrapnel in the form of screws and bolts or the most common today, ball bearings. These bombs come in a several types: vests, underwear or pants. Each carries anywhere from 7 to 20 kilos of explosives (14 to 40 pounds). The car or truck bombs contain upwards of 400 kilos (800 lbs) of an explosive like TNT. These suicide bombers were an everyday attraction to the people of Israel. People were afraid to walk the streets, hesitated to go to clubs at nights, or ride public transportation. Though Israel's security forces may actually have thwarted up to 90 percent of the attacks something more needed to be done.
Israel needed more security and they could hardly embrace the next stages of the Oslo process without a viable partner in peace. They tried to curb domestic terrorism unsuccessfully. They eventually used tanks in the West Bank to deter the violence to no avail. Finally, they built a wall/fence. Yes, there are walls in specific areas of high traffic but a vast majority of the barrier is a fence.
This wall/fence and Israel's ability to exploit divisions between Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, have led to a 70 percent decline in terrorists coming over the border of Israel and an even more dramatic decline in suicide bombings in recent years.
This security fence is very controversial both in Israel and throughout the world. The controversy centers primarily on the institutionalizing of the Palestinians as second-class citizens. The barrier prevents their free movement from one part of the country to the next and does create significant inconveniences in their daily activities.
There are checkpoints from Palestinian controlled lands into Israel. They do cause delays in traffic and individuals moving by foot must go through a TSA-like security with metal detectors and identification cards are required from the Palestinian lands into Israel.
The question is does Israel have an alternative? The fence is very expensive and requires a significant amount of manpower to patrol; but, it does reduce terror attacks and some of the need for surveillance of the PA.
If Israel has a right to exist, it has a right to defend itself against those who seek its extinction. This is what is at stake, the very existence of Israel itself. The fence is currently not a border but a deterrent. It may become a border in the near future if the United Nations recognizes the PA as a sovereign nation later this year. There are a number of factors involved in this decision as well.
The relationship between Fatah and Hamas has decreased any possibility of a lasting peace since the Hamas charter calls for at best hudna (a temporary cessation of combat which can be ended at any time of the PAs choosing) or worse case, the eradication of the state of Israel with no compromise possible (the preference of Hamas).
For those who say no, Israel has no right to exist, terrorism seems a justified reaction to Israel's "occupation." If Israel does have the right to exist, then it must defend itself against threats to its existence and use the civilized means at its disposal to do so.
Kerry R. Stewart, a professor of political science at Gainesville State College, recently returned from Israel where he spent nearly two weeks learning about terrorism as part of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan policy institute.