One fence among many

When the International Court of Justice in The Hague starts hearing complaints against Israel’s security fence in the West Bank on Monday, India will be busy constructing a fence of its own.


After 15 years of fighting in Kashmir that have left more than 65,000 dead, the Indians are using cement, razor wire, and electronic sensors to stymie a menagerie of Pakistani guerrilla forces.


“The fence will be a permanent barrier at the border to prevent militants from entering,” the head of India’s Border Security Force in Jammu and Kashmir told The Washington Post last summer. “Why should we wait for them to come in and attack our people?”


Parallels abound between India’s barrier and Israel’s – and to another case even closer to home as well.


Saudi Arabia chafes at comparisons, but the security fence that it is building along the border with Yemen has all the elements of the one that Israel is erecting to frustrate suicide bombers in the West Bank: a barrier made mostly of chain-link fence that also includes concrete sections, cameras, and electronic surveillance equipment, designed to stop bloody infiltrations. Even the aversion of both governments to refer to their barriers as “walls” is identical.


“The Saudis would always be extremely reluctant to accept any comparison with the situation in Israel, but the problems that both countries face have certain similarities,” former ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold told The Jerusalem Post. “They would argue that their fence is on the border… but much of the border is undetermined, so it is greatly similar.”


Gold, who has written on the rise of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, said the remote mountainous region along the Yemeni-Saudi border has become a refuge for al-Qaida operatives since they were routed from Afghanistan by the United States. Al-Qaida has long been connected to bases in Yemen, tied to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and separate car bombings in the Saudi capital of Riyadh last year.


Another impetus for the fence, which the Saudis prefer to call a “cement-filled pipeline,” is rampant smuggling from their southern neighbor. In December, authorities claimed to have apprehended more than 4,000 infiltrators and confiscated vast amounts of weapons and drugs.


To repel these threats, the Saudis have asked a European firm to build a fence that would reportedly cost more than $8 billion. Yemeni tribes claim the part already in place intrudes as far as 7 kilometers into their territory, and are threatening a battle.


Fences are becoming something of a fad. A Zimbabwean official recently accused Botswana of creating “a new Gaza Strip” by erecting electrified fences along its borders to keep out livestock and refugees from three neighboring countries.

In the late 1990s, the European Union funded fences to keep North African immigrants from streaming into the Continent through Spain. And the United States has spent over a decade constructing a mammoth, militarized, three-layer fence along the 3,200-kilometer Mexican border.


What sets the Indian and Saudi projects apart from most others – and makes them nearly identical to the Israeli one – is that they are being built on highly contested land, after years of tiresome conflict and often fruitless negotiations.


Kashmir has been contested since Indian and Pakistani independence from Britain in 1947, with both sides claiming the entirety of the Muslim-majority province. War then was followed by another in 1965; fighting continued through the bilateral agreement over delineation of the Line of Control in 1972.


Nonetheless, Pakistani militias have kept pouring into Indian territory. A cease-fire in 2000 broke down almost immediately, and another war was feared – between foes that had become nuclear powers in the meantime – after Pakistan-based terrorists massacred 13 people at the Indian Parliament in December 2001.


“Both the [Indo-Pakistani and Arab-Israeli] conflicts have wider regional implications, and both have been frustratingly difficult for successive American administrations,” noted Paul Patten, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Tel Aviv.

The US supports Israel’s fence in principle but is concerned that, if its route differs dramatically from the post-1967 Green Line, it “could have political implications” akin to those of the Line of Control.


The border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen has been a matter of contention since the 1930s. A breakthrough agreement in 2000 over the border’s trail was to have put an end to the skirmishes that marred the area throughout the 20th century, but terrorism and smuggling forced the issue anew. In all three cases, no side had recognized an international boundary, nor considered one of lasting value.


Also in all three cases, the threat of a fence has given recalcitrant foes a sense of urgency. India and Pakistan are sounding peaceful tones in a renewal of high-level talks. Yemeni diplomats have convinced the Saudis to stop expansion of the project, but not to tear down the 25 kilometers of fencing already installed. The West Bank fence has put pressure on terrorists and Palestinian Authority officials alike.


PA Negotiations Minister Saeb Erekat is caught between condemnation for Israel’s barrier, and justification for Saudi Arabia’s.


“Both nations have the right to self-defense,” he told the Post, “but build [a barrier] on your own territory.”


Saying that he approves of a fence to divide Israelis from Palestinians, but not Palestinians from each other, Erekat added: “In principle, I believe in bridges, not fences.”


That there are many more fences these days than bridges is a prominent point in the information campaign of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. And the lesson, spokesman Yonatan Peled said, does sink in.


“There are so many fences these days… The whole world recognizes Israel’s right to build a fence to defend itself,” Peled said. “They know that [the furor] is merely a cynical use by the Palestinians of deceitful propaganda, of their twisting the picture.”


Still, quietly acknowledging that Israel’s fence is part of a common phenomenon doesn’t prevent some countries from singling it out as a worrisome development.


“People do understand that our fence is not the only one in the world,” Peled concluded. “It’s just that no one is going to The Hague over any of the others.”