How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On January 28, in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to construct a wall on the U.S.–Mexican border, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted: “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.” Netanyahu was right. Although it is hard to say whether Trump’s plan for a wall along the U.S.–Mexican border is viable, Israel’s border-security projects were both popular and successful at achieving most of their stated aims.
Israel has built three major barriers over the past 15 years, and despite provoking heated debate and international criticism, its experience with them has been mostly positive. The first, a separation barrier between Israel and the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, helped contain a Palestinian suicide bombing campaign in the mid-2000s. The second, a border fence on the Egyptian–Israeli border finished in 2013 (which Netanyahu referred to in his tweet as a “wall”), completely put a stop to unauthorized African immigration. And a third fence, hardly noticed by the international community, secured Israel’s border with Syria after the latter descended into a devastating civil war.
Each of Israel’s three barriers was built at a different time in response to a different threat. The most important of the three, because it directly helped to stop a deadly terror campaign, is the West Bank barrier. Israel began considering the possibility of building a fence along the “Green Line” (which marks Israel’s borders up until 1967, excluding East Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights) in the 1990s. At the time, the Oslo Accords, which promised peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, were in the process of being implemented, but groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad had begun to send suicide bombers from the Palestinian territories into Israeli cities. No actual construction work on the fence was done, however, because Israeli governments feared that doing so would be perceived as a de facto acceptance of the 1967 border, which was controversial, especially for those on the political right.
Israel’s border-security projects were both popular and successful at achieving most of their stated aims.
A barrier only became an urgent necessity with the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000. By 2001, Israel faced suicide attacks on a weekly—and later on an almost daily—basis. Terrorists assembling bombs or recruiting volunteers for suicide missions operated freely in Palestinian cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Ramallah. Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority either turned a blind eye to these attacks or actively abetted them, while Israeli security forces found them extremely difficult to stop. The absolute lack of any physical barrier between Palestinian towns and Israeli cities such as Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem meant that, despite the presence of scattered checkpoints, terrorists were less than an hour away from Israeli buses, cafes, and shopping centers.
The violence of the intifada increased the pressure to achieve some sort of border security, but Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, had grave reservations about building the barrier. Sharon—known today as the father of the Israeli settlement program—shared the fear that any construction along the Green Line would be interpreted as an Israeli recognition of the 1967 borders. He was adamant about this position until the night of Passover in March 2002. That evening, a Palestinian suicide bomber from Tulkarm easily travelled ten miles from his town to the Israeli city of Netanya, where he detonated himself at the Park Hotel, killing 30 Israelis who were attending the Seder ritual. In response, Sharon ordered the Israeli army to occupy all West Bank towns as part of operation “Defensive Shield.” But after three months of occupation, with thousands of Israeli soldiers in Palestinian towns, bombs kept exploding in Israel. In June 2002, Sharon succumbed to public pressure and his government approved the construction of the first stage of the barrier.
Sharon, however, insisted on doing things his way. Instead of constructing the barrier along the 1967 border—which would have received wide international support—he built it east of the Green Line, which meant a de facto annexation of eight percent of West Bank territory. Sharon’s decision provoked worldwide criticism of the Israeli government, and in 2004, the International Criminal Court in the Hague ruled that the barrier violated international law and that Israel should halt any further construction.
The Hague decision, along with successful Palestinian petitions to Israeli courts, gradually brought the project to an end by 2007. Of the planned 491 miles of barrier, only 267, or 54 percent, were completed. By that time, however, the barrier had already served its purpose. By 2006, the second Intifada had died down due to a combination of factors, including the brutal effectiveness of the Israeli army, police, and internal security service as well as the death of Arafat and his replacement by Mahmoud Abbas, who openly rejected terrorism. Yet the fence had made committing acts of terrorism more difficult by creating a physical barrier that lengthened attackers’ paths to their targets. Potential suicide bombers from Northern Palestinian towns now had to travel for hours in order to enter Israel through the few remaining openings in the barrier near Jerusalem, giving Israeli security forces more time to monitor and intercept them. As the attacks became less lethal and effective, terrorists in turn lost some of their motivation. As a result, by 2007 only 13 Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks, down from 450 in 2002. The Israeli public, unsurprisingly, largely ignored international criticism and supported the fence.
The second major Israeli barrier, the fence on the Egyptian border, was born out of circumstances that are perhaps more comparable to those facing the United States today. During the second half of the 2000s, tens of thousands of unauthorized immigrants from sub-Saharan African countries such as Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan began arriving in Israel, traveling through Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula to cross the southern border in search of work. Those who managed to survive the dangerous journey and make it into Israel in turn encouraged their friends and family to follow in their footsteps, with the result that by 2012, over 50,000 African immigrants were living in Israel.
As might have been expected, the immigrants, who tended to cluster in the poor neighborhoods of Israeli cities, were not enthusiastically received by the locals. Right-wing politicians were soon demanding their immediate deportation. Anti-immigrant rhetoric reached a peak in 2012, when Miri Regev, currently the minister of culture and sport and then a member of the Knesset for the right-wing Likud party, went so far as to say that “the Sudanese are a cancer in our body.”
Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took office in 2009, was worried by the growing number of unauthorized, unsupervised, Africans, and warned of the security risks presented by a “huge flood of immigrants.” But attempts to deport them progressed very slowly due to legal problems and the reluctance of African states to take back their citizens, and Netanyahu’s argument for building a border fence, based on the argument that Africans might be recruited by jihadi organizations in the Sinai, mostly failed to persuade the public. In the end, just as in the case of the West Bank security barrier, the Egyptian border fence was built as a result of a terror attack. In August 2011, members of a Sinai branch of al Qaeda shot and killed eight Israelis north of the southern port city of Eilat. The attackers had easily penetrated the old barbed wire fences that had previously provided security along the border.
Border security has become a matter of such consensus that public opinion polls hardly bother to ask participants about the border any longer.
Although such attacks are uncommon—hardly any have occurred since, as the Sinai jihadi groups are busy fighting the Egyptian army—the impact of the attack allowed Netanyahu to persuade his ministers and security chiefs to finally support the construction of a more secure Sinai border fence, which had been approved in 2010, but which had mostly languished due to a lack of urgency. Construction of the 152-mile fence took two years, from 2011 to 2013 and cost around $400 million. Unlike the West Bank barrier, the new fence was constructed exactly along the international border. Neither Egypt nor any other country protested. And the fence was also extremely effective at preventing illegal immigration. By 2016, the number of illegal entries had dropped to 1 or 2 a month, down from 13,500 in all of 2011.
The outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 prompted Israel to make a similar change along the Israeli–Syrian border in the Golan Heights. In May and June of that year, the Assad regime, hoping to divert attention from its repression of domestic protest, encouraged thousands of Palestinians from refugee camps near Damascus to attend protests near the Israeli border. When some of the protesters tried to cross the border, which was protected by an old fence constructed in the 1970s, Israeli troops shot and killed close to 20 of them. For the Israelis, this was a wake-up call. Over the next two years, the old border fence was replaced by an improved one, observation posts were constructed along the border, and the army deployed some of its elite units in the area. Since then, the border has remained mostly safe from the Israeli perspective. There has not been a single case of an armed group crossing it during the last five years, and Israel has been spared having to deal with the fallout of the Syrian war in the form of refugees.
Israel’s experience building three fences on three very different fronts leads to but one conclusion. If Israel, as its former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has rather crudely put it, is a “villa in the jungle,” this villa needs to be protected by tall fences. Netanyahu, who has adopted this idea as his own, has taken Barak’s vision one step further. Last year, while visiting the Jordanian border (where, naturally, a new fence is now being built), the prime minister promised to continue constructing fences “in order to keep the predators out.”
Most Israelis seem to agree with him. Border security has become a matter of such consensus that public opinion polls hardly bother to ask participants about the border any longer. For instance, a series of polls conducted in the late 2000s by Tel Aviv University’s Israeli Institute for Strategic showed that a stable majority of 80 percent of Israelis thought that the West Bank barrier was necessary. And with no criticism regarding the Egyptian and Syrian fences, it seems safe to assume that polling results on the issue would be similar.
The Israeli situation is of course different than the one in the United States. For supporters of Trump’s plans to build a wall, Israel’s experience shows that they can be both effective and politically popular, even in the face of international criticism. It is worth recalling, however, that the will to construct Israel’s walls only emerged in the face of an immediate terror threat—something unlikely to occur in the United States—and that a U.S. –Mexican wall would be a larger, and vastly more difficult and expensive project. Netanyahu may have been right that the walls were, from his perspective, a “great success,” but it remains to be seen whether they hold lessons that can be applied elsewhere.