National Security

Israel’s Wall and How it Thwarts Terrorism

Beginning in October 2000, Israel experienced one of the most devastating terror campaigns that any nation has ever faced. Determined to wrangle concessions out of the Jewish State, armed Palestinian militias attacked the Israeli population with a slew of suicide bombings and shootings that wreaked havoc on the country’s morale as well as its economy.

The carnage was horrific. In what seemed like a daily blitz, Palestinian terrorists infiltrated Israel from the West Bank and detonated themselves on busses, in supermarkets, and in schools. Israelis living near major Palestinian cities risked their lives daily on the roads, to a point where many civilians were forced to don bulletproof vests any time they got behind the wheel.

The death toll was unfathomable. By 2005, along with 4000 Palestinians, more than 1000 Israelis were killed in what was known as the “Second Intifada.” In the particularly bloody month of March 2002, 130 Israelis were cut down by suicide bombings and shooting attacks within a single 30-day period.

By 2005, suddenly, the violence came to a screeching halt. If Israel experienced 70 suicide bombings by 2003, only 12 more attacks of the sort occurred by 2006. There are numerous reasons for why the killing tapered off, but a major factor remains the security barrier Israel constructed along its border with the West Bank.

In 2003, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to construct a massive wall separating the Jewish State from the West Bank, a piece of territory Israel captured from Jordan in 1967’s Six Day War that is today home to almost two million Palestinians. The rationale was simple: As the overwhelming majority of terrorists came from the Palestinian territories to carry out attacks inside Israel proper, Sharon wanted to seal off the terror-infested region and bring the bloody period to an end.

Israel’s Defense Ministry invested billions of dollars to construct the 435-mile wall that prevented terrorists from entering Israel at their will and detonating themselves in major population centers. The wall was not, strictly speaking, a wall. While some parts of the barrier are in fact comprised of a hulking 35-foot concrete edifice, the majority of the “wall” actually consists of a barbed-wire fence covered by pressure-sensitive electric sensors. In fact, only 5 percent of the divider would actually be considered a wall, using the classic definition of the term.

As the U.S. government shutdown drags on, President Trump’s proposed border wall to battle illegal immigration from Mexico has become a focal point of discussion. The president has refused to authorize a spending bill that would reopen the government that does not include the $5 billion needed to begin construction, while the Democratic Party claims that the wall is “immoral,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it.

Furthermore, the Democrats seemingly deny that such a wall would have any effect in stopping foreigners from entering the United States altogether. While Pelosi has stated that illegal aliens would simply find alternate methods of entering the United States —for instance, via tunnels— other politicians point to the fact that the proposed wall wouldn’t stretch all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean to contend that the wall would be therefore ineffective.

With the shutdown showing no signs of ending in the foreseeable future, Trump himself has pointed to Israel’s experience with its wall as proof that this success in the Middle East can be replicated on the American border with Mexico. “If you really want to find out how effective a wall is, just ask Israel,” Trump said during a press conference in December. “It’s 99.9% effective, and our wall will be every bit as good as that, if not better.”

With the proposed wall bordering Mexico taking such heightened importance in today’s political discourse, it’s important to examine how Israel’s security barrier succeeded in ending the spate of Arab terrorism. Significantly, many of the arguments against the wall with Mexico were also invoked by those opposing Israel’s barrier, yet were ultimately found to be baseless.

A major contribution Israel’s wall brought to the war on terrorism was its most obvious benefit: The edifice served as a barrier to terrorists that sought to carry out an attack inside Israel. Prior to the wall, militants could simply cross into Israel on foot and head over to the nearest café or bus station before detonating themselves.

With the wall, however, things became much more complicated. Suddenly, terror cells needed to figure out a way to bypass the barrier in order to carry out their plans. While the wall wouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle to an organized terror group such as Hamas, with its considerable funds and logistical resources, it did have an effect in deterring “small time” terrorists that were not part of a larger terror network.

Not all attacks are the result of careful, long-term planning by a terror mastermind. Often, the assailant decides to kill Israelis on short notice, be it in reaction to recent events or the desire to redeem his family name after an embarrassing sex scandal in his village. The new challenge of bypassing the security barrier had an effect in discouraging what can be defined as “casual terrorists,” who decided that it was simply no longer worth the effort. In addition, the time period terrorists needed to plan their infiltration served as a calming effect, not unlike the waiting period imposed on gun buyers in certain U.S. states.

For organized terror groups, however, the wall caused an intelligence windfall. Infiltrating Israel proper meant that they now had to coordinate with border smugglers, which often led to Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency nabbing them before they could set out on their bloody missions.

“In our agency, we say that one plus one isn’t two. It’s 11,” former Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter later recounted. If before the wall, terrorists didn’t need to tell anyone of their plans other than those involved, they suddenly needed to clue-in others due to the need to cross the border. This resulted in an increased intelligence signature. Getting in touch with a smuggler increased the odds that the plans would reach the ears of an informant.

Even if the smuggler wasn’t collaborating with Israel, the communication commonly took place using cell phones and email, both modes that could be intercepted by Israeli intelligence. Before long, Israeli officials said that attacks emanating from areas surrounded by the fence went down to zero.

To illustrate the effectiveness of the wall, we can look to the Arab cities of Tulkarem and Qalqiliya, which had been hotbeds of terrorism before the barrier was built in 2003. Ever since the aforementioned cities were separated from Israel by a wall, however, there has not been a single successful bombing carried out by residents of either city. While terrorists hailing from these cities have indeed attempted to carry out terror attacks, they were stopped at checkpoints or detonated prematurely. Seasoned terrorists such as Islamic Jihad leader Abdallah Ramadan Shalah complained that the fence constituted a major operational challenge that made their lives significantly more difficult.

In a 2006 interview with Lebanon’s Al-Manar television channel, Shalah said that while his group had not stopped planning attacks, “there is the separation fence, which is an obstacle to the resistance, and if it were not there the situation would be entirely different.”

Yet it wasn’t only the physical barrier itself that brought terrorism to a halt. The new wall was constantly patrolled by soldiers who were sent to examine every alarm set off by its pressure sensors. The presence of heavily-armed troops had the effect of a full-court press in basketball. If terrorists had previously enjoyed operational freedom, they now had to contend with combat troops who were alert to any changes occurring in the region.

Numerous times, attacks were foiled not as a result of precise intelligence, but due to soldiers at a checkpoint who noticed something odd. These troops were a direct result of the barrier; had it never been built, terrorist cells would not have to expend their energy on navigating the hermetic closure that the wall constituted.

Like Trump’s potential wall with Mexico, Israel’s security barrier never covered the entire exposed areaeven today, the barrier remains only 60-percent complete. Theoretically, terrorists could drive to a non-cordoned-off area and stroll into Israel. Yet reaching such a spot requires traversing roadblocks and passing scrutiny by trained security screeners, dramatically reducing the odds that the perpetrator will be able to reach his infiltration spot without being exposed.

It’s important to mention that the wall was not the only reason that the bloody Second Intifada tapered off. Contributing to the end of the carnage was Israel’s decision to invade major Palestinian cities in 2002’s Operation Defensive Shield, the death of Palestinian arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat, and the success of frequent Israeli counter- terror operations.

However, it’s beyond argument that the wall played a major role in bringing terrorism to a halt. The construction of a similar barrier on the border with Mexico would likely have similar results, drastically reducing illegal immigration.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Tzvi Lev

Sergeant Major Tzvi Lev served in the Israel Defense Forces in a counter terrorism unit and serves in a reserve special forces recon unit. He is fluent in Arabic and is studying towards his bachelor's degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies

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