Sorry, Trump, Israel’s Border Walls Are No Model for the Mexican Border
Walls are a stop-gap measure that preserve the status quo. They are also the means to block migrants without forming a policy to deal with the ones you already have inside.
A shared love of walls was cause for yet another public display of the budding Trump-Netanyahu relationship last week.
“A wall protects. All you have to do is ask Israel. They were having a total disaster coming across and they had a wall. It’s 99.9 percent stoppage,” Trump told Sean Hannity.
His praise was answered on Saturday by Netanyahu, who tweeted, “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.”
Netanyahu’s tweet — which referred to Israel’s border fence with Egypt and not the infamous West Bank barrier — was met by a harsh rebuke from the foreign ministry of Mexico.Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro also called the tweet “very troubling.”
Like a gambler at the Trump Taj Mahal, Netanyahu has gone all-in on his relationship with the new president. He is wagering that Trump will be a bulwark against anti-Israel measures in the U.N. and will take a far more hands-off approach to Israeli actions in the occupied West Bank than previous presidents. For Trump, Netanyahu helps him tout his pro-Israel credentials and perhaps stave off concern among many Jews over his administration’s popularity with anti-Semites and white nationalists.
But Trump’s analogy couldn’t be flimsier. Israel’s security barriers are vastly different than any wall that Trump would potentially build on the Mexico border. None of Israel’s border fences and walls cover anywhere near the distance of the U.S.-Mexico border and for the most part traverse far less difficult terrain, without a major river like the Rio Grande complicating the route.
Though Trump didn’t specify which Israeli wall he was talking about, the West Bank one is by far the most well-known barrier Israel has built.
With hundreds killed in bombings and shooting attacks and fear crippling the country in 2002, the wall was welcomed by countless desperate Israelis when construction began that year. It covers some 400 miles in the West Bank, and runs deep into Palestinian territory, encircling Israeli settlements and cutting off many Palestinians from their land. It diverges widely from the 1949 Armistice Line and is widely seen by Palestinians and the international community as a land grab, an attempt by Israel to “make facts on the ground” without a diplomatic settlement with the Palestinians. The barrier is nonetheless seen as a success in Israel, even though it has never been a hermetic barrier and thousands of Palestinians cross through, or over, the wall illegally every day.
Though much less well-known, the Israel-Egypt border fence more closely resembles what Trump may hope to achieve with a wall on the border.
Construction of the steel and barbed wire fence began in 2010 to stop the flow of African migrants — most of them from Eritrea or Sudan — who were being smuggled by the thousands each month into Israel by Bedouin trafficking gangs based in Sinai. It was finished in 2013 at an estimated cost of well over $400 million, covering just over 150 miles of desert terrain.
According to the Israeli Interior Ministry, only 43 African migrants (“infiltrators” in the politically incorrect language used in Israel) illegally entered the country in 2013, a miniscule fraction of the more than 17,000 in 2011.
Perhaps most importantly for the Israeli public, construction of the fence began when the Arab Spring was in full swing, and Egypt and other neighboring countries fell into chaos. In August 2011, terrorists based in Sinai launched a series of coordinated cross-border attacks near the border, leaving eight Israelis dead and dozens wounded. Since then, the lawless desert peninsula has been the site of repeated warfare among armed gangs and jihadi groups battling the police and the army. There are few Israelis who would feel comfortable without a fence on the southern border.
Israel’s vaunted fences and walls have achieved success in terms of security and the fight against human trafficking, but they have also served at times as a substitute for policies or statecraft. When lacking a partner or a diplomatic vision, walls are stop-gap measures that preserves the status quo. They are also the means to block migrants without forming a policy to deal with the ones you already have inside. Fences have become the de-facto demarcation lines for a country without a single border that is universally accepted by the international community.
The wall has also played a powerful role in creating a situation where most Israelis, besides soldiers and settlers, rarely encounter Palestinians or visit their towns or cities. Isolation and walls have saved lives, but they’ve also extended the distance between two people living on the same land.
Geography and politics aside, the comparison between the Trump wall and Israel’s walls doesn’t take into account the differences between Israel and the United States in self-image and ideology.
Israelis look around their region and see a tidal wave of death and chaos washing over the enemy states that surround them. They look across the Mediterranean Sea at European cities targeted repeatedly by jihadis claiming allegiance to ISIS and pull further inside.
They live in a state of perpetual conflict, and more than ever, see their nation as “a villa in the jungle,” in the words of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak
Is this Trump’s vision for America? A threatened, vulnerable country surrounded by chaos and lethal dangers, with no choice but to build walls and draw inward?
Judging by his recent actions, it just might be.
Photo by Gueorgui Tcherednitchenko via Flickr.