Harriet Sherwood legitimizes characterization of Israel’s border fences as ‘sign of weakness’

Cross posted by Anne, who blogs at Anne’s Opinions

Harriet Sherwood, the Guardian’s official Jerusalem correspondent, has produced a strange article which both sneers at and condemns Israel’s border fences on ALL its borders (not just the West Bank), citing “critics who call it a sign of weakness” and yet brings no evidence that her point is valid besides the opinion of one Israeli op-ed writer from Ynet.

The article is accompanied by a graphic (below) of Israel’s borders, captioned “Israel’s barriers”.  Besides the slanted headline, the graphic actually emphasizes Israel’s vulnerability, especially when taken together with the smaller inset picture beside it, showing Israel’s tiny size in relation to the rest of the vast Middle East.

And now let us analyse the “facts” as seen by Sherwood and her “critics” (as I pointed out above, in fact one only critic):

It cuts a steel swath through the stark wilderness where Israel and Egypt meet, glinting in the desert sun as it snakes across barren hills and sandy plateaus. Wielding blowtorches at the base of the five-metre-high (16ft) barrier are some of the very men the border fence is in part designed to keep out: illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, now working as cheap construction labour for Israeli contractors.

So Sherwood objects to Israel employing illegal immigrants. I wonder how she would react if Israel refused these immigrants any employment at all.

Israel’s newest frontier fence is being erected at high-speed along the 150-mile boundary between the Sinai and Negev deserts. Its construction, due to be completed by the end of this year, was accelerated after last summer’s cross-border attack in which eight Israelis were killed, and amid rising alarm about the number of refugees crossing into the Jewish state.

Once it is finished, Israel will be almost completely enclosed by steel, barbed wire and concrete, leaving only the southern border with Jordan between the Dead and Red Seas without a physical barrier. That, too, may be fenced in the future.

The government says fences along its actual and claimed borders are necessary as deterrents against terrorism and illegal infiltration. Regional upheavals over the past year – particularly in Egypt and Syria – have added to Israel’s sense of being, in Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s old phrase, a “villa in the jungle”.

But in a scathing commentary in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper, respected defence analyst Alex Fishman recently wrote: “We have become a nation that imprisons itself behind fences, which huddles terrified behind defensive shields.” It was, he said, a “national mental illness”.

This is where Sherwood’s prejudices shine through. In her words, the Israeli government “claims” – always the sneering dismissive tone when quoting Israeli officials. But all credibility is given to one obscure reporter. Do we really need to care that deeply what one commentator in one Israeli newspaper has to say?  Does Mr. Fishman address himself to the reality in which his own country finds itself – surrounded on all sides by hostile nations and terrorist entities, all sworn to eliminate Israel, and who have attempted to do so multiple times. How about talking to the families of the victims of those terrorist attacks that took place at that very border spot precisely because there was no border fence in place.

The latest stretch, along what the Israeli military calls the new “hot border” with Egypt, from the Red Sea almost to the Mediterranean, consists of latticed steel, topped and edged with razor wire, extending at least two metres below ground and in some sections reaching seven metres above ground. Ditches and observation posts with cameras and antennae will line the route.

An electronic pulse will run through the fence, setting off an alarm on contact that will allow the Israeli army to locate the exact spot of attempted infiltration. On the Israeli side, a sandy tracking path will show the footprints of interlopers, and an asphalt military patrol road will give unhindered access to army units.

I’m delighted to hear how well-armed the new border fence will be. It’s about time.


The smuggling of immigrants was a major factor in the decision to build the fence. According to Lieutenant Colonel Yoav Tilan of the Israeli Defence Forces, 16,000 people – originating mainly from Eritrea and Sudan – crossed the border illegally in 2011 in “an industry of crime”. But the “constant, daily threat” of terrorism and the smuggling of drugs are also important factors, he said.

I cannot see why there would be anything for either Sherwood or Fishman to object to. Every other country in similar geo-political circumstances constructs similar border fences. I would refer you to the US-Mexico border fence; the Saudi-Yemen border barrier; the Bangladesh-India border; the Chinese-N. Korea border, and of course how could we forget the Egypt-Gaza border?

About seven miles short of the Mediterranean, the southern barrier will meet the fence Israel has built around Gaza. It runs for 32 miles, with a buffer zone, which Palestinians are forbidden from entering, extending up to 1,000 metres inside the narrow Gaza Strip, swallowing prime agricultural land. The fence has kept Palestinians inside Gaza but has not stopped rockets being fired by militants into Israel, nor did it prevent the cross-border kidnap of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006.

The failure of the border to stop rockets from being fired or the kidnapping of Shalit is not a reason to take down the border fence. On the contrary, it is a prime motivator to strengthen the border.

As to Sherwood’s snide little reference to the border fence swallowing prime agricultural land, I cannot testify as to the quality of the land, but since the Palestinians were handed Gaza on a plate, with all its greenhouses and farms intact, and these were destroyed the very next day by the activists terrorists of Hamas, they obviously do not care very much for agriculture.

At the northern end of the country, a fence built in the 1970s along the boundary with Lebanon was reconstructed, and in some places its route adjusted, after Israel withdrew its forces in 2000 following a 22-year occupation. It did not prevent the killing of five Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants in a cross-border ambush in 2006, nor the firing of thousands of rockets during the ensuing 34-day war.

Once again, the fact that the border fence did not prevent either missiles or a kidnapping is not a reason for its dismantling but for its strengthening.

Last month, Israel confirmed plans to replace the fence with a five-metre-high wall for half-a-mile stretch around the town of Metula, which is situated on a finger of Israeli territory and surrounded by Lebanon on three sides. Just a few hundred metres from Metula’s supermarket, civilian traffic and UN armoured cars travel along a Lebanese road. According to Fishman, the new wall is intended to deter anti-tank missiles and sniper fire, but locals also speak of a flourishing drug-smuggling trade along this stretch of the border.

Excellent! I’m all in favour of a stronger border fence.

Further east, an Israeli fence sits on the ceasefire line drawn at the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, running between the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied for almost 45 years, and Syria. Hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators breached the fence last May, in the Golan and along the Lebanese border. Around a dozen people were killed and scores injured when the IDF opened fire.

Sherwood is referring to the “Naqsa Day” border breaches, and with a little research she would discover that the “pro-Palestinian demonstrators” were no such thing at all; rather, they were in it for a quick buck, since they themselves revealed that they were paid by Syria and Hezbollah to invade Israel’s borders.

Sherwood continues with her whine about Israel’s dastardly borders, always sitting on prime agricultural or fertile land until she comes to her main gripe: the Separation Wall.

Around a third of the way down this stretch, the fence abuts the infamous huge steel-and-concrete West Bank barrier. This runs along or inside the 1949 armistice line, or Green Line, swallowing up tracts of Palestinian agricultural land, slicing through communities and separating farmers from their fields and olive trees. Israel says the barrier is a security measure that has deterred suicide bombers, but many believe it marks the boundaries of a future Palestinian state, taking around 12% of the West Bank on to the Israeli side. About two-thirds of its 465-mile length is complete, mostly as a steel fence with wide exclusion zones on either side.

Around 10%, mainly in urban areas, is a bleak, imposing eight-metre-high concrete wall.

Either it is a huge concrete and steel barrier or it is a steel fence. She really ought to make up her mind, and I can help her along with that.


The international court of justice ruled the barrier illegal under international law in 2004.

However, the ICJ’s ruling  is non-binding, and, as the dissenting American Judge Buergenthal wrote in his statement:

[…] I am compelled to vote against the Court’s findings on the merits because
the Court did not have before it the requisite factual basis for its sweeping
findings; it should therefore have declined to hear the case

In other words, the ICJ heard a case put before it without all the relevant information. Some balanced justice!

Harriet Sherwood continues citing Alex Fishman:

[…Israel’s only open border, through the Arava desert from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea resort of Eilat, may be fenced in the future, according to Fishman.

“The moment the border with Egypt is sealed off, the drug dealers, human traffickers and terrorists will take a longer route, go through Sinai into Jordan, and from there infiltrate Israel. The defence ministry and the IDF are already planning to… erect a fence in the Arava too, along the border with Jordan,” he wrote. Then Israel “will have finished our disengagement from the Middle East”.

Does Fishman really want these terrorists, drug smugglers and human traffickers entering Israel freely?


Israel is not alone in erecting barriers: fences exist or are being built or are planned along other countries’ borders, mostly to counter illegal immigration and drug smuggling. But even the most heavily militarised borders fail to completely stop terrorism, smuggling and people determined to reach a better life.

And yet no one calls for their dismantling or ridicules their existence.



But, the IDF admits, the barrier is not infallible. In the expectation that smugglers and militants will dig tunnels, cut steel and seek alternative routes, the fence is reinforced with armed patrols, surveillance, intelligence-gathering and trackers.

According to Fishman, all this is symptomatic of the Israeli psyche. Every fence and wall, he told the Guardian, was built for a valid reason. “Every decision was the right decision for its moment. But it’s like pieces of a puzzle – you don’t know what will be the picture at the end, but then when you see the whole picture, it shocks you.

He’s correct there. The picture is certainly shocking when you realise that most of Israel’s immediate neighbours are either in a permanent state of war with it, or are encouraging and sponsoring terrorist proxies.

The last word goes to Alex Fishman who concludes:

“We have become a nation that is burying itself behind walls, behind fences. It shows we are going much more towards isolation. Mine is a very patriotic standpoint – and my disappointment comes from this patriotic standpoint. A fence is a kind of weakness. I’m not a psychiatrist but it shows something of the mentality of a nation.”

No Mr. Fishman. We have become a nation buried behind walls because of the seemingly immutable hatred of Israel possessed by our neighbours. I do believe you are patriotic but also seem incapable of recognizing even the most intuitive regional political realities – determined to see things not as they are but as you want them to be. 

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