from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Israel’s Sinai Fence

November 20, 2011

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Fifteen percent of the entire annual steel consumption of the State of Israel is now being targeted at the construction of a Sinai fence. If this barrier ever has a name, perhaps it could be called the Arab Spring Memorial.

The demise of the Mubarak regime has left the Egyptian army focused on Egypt’s largest cities, and the Sinai has become an even more lawless place. Bedouin smugglers, Hamas terrorists, and African migrants seeking to cross into Israel now face Egyptian police or military action only in the aftermath of a serious incident, such as occurred in August when terrorists struck near Eilat. But a lawless Sinai is a nightmare for Israel, so it has decided to build a serious barrier to infiltration (as an excellent article in Haaretz describes).

Until now, all that has separated Israel from Sinai was a barbed wire fence that would not have defeated a boy scout. This new Sinai fence will ultimately be 240 kilometers long, from Gaza in the north to Eilat at its south end. About one hundred kilometers will be finished by January, and the rest by the end of next year. Israel is constructing a fifteen-foot high metal fence, to be supplemented by army patrols, observation balloons, and sensitive electronic backup. The lesson Israel learned from the fence it has built to stop Palestinian terrorists from the West Bank is that these measures work. The wave of suicide bombings a decade ago, blowing up cafes and buses in the so-called second intifada, was stopped in large part by the physical separation of Israel from the West Bank in just the way it will soon be separated from Sinai. And while the building of the fence to stop West Bank terrorists produced endless Palestinian and international wailing, every inch of the Sinai barrier is being built inside "Green Line" Israeli territory. There can be no Egyptian or international complaints this time.

Will good fences make good neighbors? Certainly this fence can help avoid difficult problems for Israel and the Egyptian military, with which it seeks good relations. After any terrorist attack from the Sinai, Israel will want to seek out and strike or capture the perpetrators--who may have slunk back across into Egyptian territory. Thus Israel would have to choose between violating Egyptian sovereignty or seeing the terrorists escape. Stopping these attacks can thus not only save lives in Israel but also avoid diplomatic incidents that might get out of hand.

This barrier is no more an answer to restoring law and order in the Sinai than the West Bank fence is to building Palestinian democracy. Just as only Palestinians can choose to reject Hamas and other terrorist groups and build the institutions of a democratic state, only Egypt can in the end provide economic opportunities other than smuggling for Sinai Bedouins, and only Egyptian forces can prevent Egyptian, Palestinian, and international terrorists from operating in Sinai. Israel’s only option is to fence itself off, defend itself, and wait for better days. The bulldozers constructing the Sinai fence are not building a path to peace, but they are saving lives and buying time. These days, that’s quite an achievement.

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