For real bor­der se­cu­rity, learn from our al­lies

The News Tribune - - Opinion - BY BRET STEPHENS


Other than the Korean Penin­sula’s DMZ, there’s prob­a­bly no bor­der in the world as fraught with the po­ten­tial for sud­den vi­o­lence as this one, known lo­cally as the Blue Line.

Since Pres­i­dent Trump thinks bor­der se­cu­rity is the issue of our time, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing how Is­rael – with tight bor­ders, real threats, and a no-non­sense at­ti­tude to­ward its se­cu­rity needs – does it.

What I saw Wed­nes­day while trav­el­ing along the Blue Line was. … a fence. A fence stud­ded with sen­sors, to be sure, but by no means an im­pos­ing one.

Is this Trump’s idea of a “big beau­ti­ful wall”? It it even the “steel slats” the pres­i­dent now of­fers as his idea of an aes­thetic con­ces­sion to Democrats? Not quite. Yet for the last 19 years it was all the fenc­ing Is­raelis thought was nec­es­sary to se­cure its side of the Blue Line.

That started to change in De­cem­ber, after Is­rael an­nounced it was con­duct­ing an op­er­a­tion to de­stroy tun­nels dug by Hezbol­lah un­der the bor­der.

The tun­nel con­struc­tion – se­cretly de­tected by Is­rael some four years ago – was in­tended to in­fil­trate hun­dreds of Hezbol­lah fight­ers into Is­rael in the event of war.

As an ad­di­tional pre­cau­tion, Jerusalem is spend­ing an es­ti­mated $600 mil­lion to re­place about 20 kilo­me­ters of the fence with a con­crete wall, mainly to pro­vide greater peace of mind to the 162,000 Is­raelis who live near the Le­banese bor­der.

Such a wall may look for­mi­da­ble. But it won’t stop tun­nel con­struc­tion or mis­sile fir­ing, the two prin­ci­pal threats Hezbol­lah poses to Is­rael.

Nor has Is­rael felt the need to erect con­crete walls along most of its bor­der with the Gaza Strip, de­spite Ha­mas’ mul­ti­ple at­tempts last year to use mass protests to breach the fence.

Is­rael’s bor­der with Egypt is marked by a tall and sturdy “smart fence” packed with electronic sen­sors, but not a wall. And Is­rael’s long­est bor­der, with Jordan, stretch­ing some 400 kilo­me­ters (about 250 miles), has fenc­ing that for the most part is prim­i­tive and min­i­mal.

So how does Is­rael main­tain bor­der se­cu­rity? Two ways: close co­op­er­a­tion with neigh­bors where it’s pos­si­ble and the use of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy and ef­fec­tive de­ter­rence where it’s not.

I saw tech­nol­ogy at work on a tour of an Is­raeli mil­i­tary base on the Golan Heights. In a crowded, win­dow­less room within a bunker-like struc­ture, 20 or so women sol­diers, some of them still teenagers, sat at screens pa­tiently watch­ing ev­ery inch of Is­rael’s bor­der with Syria.

Why an all-fe­male unit? Be­cause the Is­raeli mil­i­tary has de­ter­mined that women have longer at­ten­tion spans than men. Last Au­gust, the unit spot­ted seven Is­lamic State fight­ers, wear­ing sui­cide belts and car­ry­ing grenades, as they were in­fil­trat­ing a no man’s land on their way to Is­rael.

An airstrike was called in. The men never reached the bor­der.

None of this is to say that phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers are in­vari­ably point­less or evil. Is­rael’s fence along the Egyp­tian bor­der all but ended the flow of il­le­gal African mi­grants, though most il­le­gal im­mi­grants in Is­rael ar­rive legally by plane and sim­ply over­stay visas.

The much-ma­ligned wall

(most of which is also a fence) that di­vides Pales­tini­ans from Is­raelis in Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank played a ma­jor role in end­ing the ter­ror­ism of the Second In­tifada.

Yet the Is­raeli ex­pe­ri­ence also sug­gests the best way to pro­tect a bor­der is to rely on the tools of the 21st cen­tury, not the 12th.

Walls only oc­ca­sion­ally pro­vide the most re­li­able se­cu­rity. They can be dan­ger­ous for pro­vid­ing the il­lu­sion of se­cu­rity. And there are vastly more ef­fec­tive means than con­crete to de­fend even the most dan­ger­ous bor­ders.

Why can’t Democrats and Re­pub­li­cans sim­ply agree to build ad­di­tional smart fenc­ing in places where it’s miss­ing and call it, for po­lit­i­cal ef­fect, an “Is­raelistyle bar­rier”?

The good news for the U.S. is that we don’t face Hezbol­lah, Ha­mas or ISIS across our bor­der, only peo­ple who over­whelm­ingly want to re­lieve their own plight and con­trib­ute their la­bor for ev­ery­one’s bet­ter­ment.

Bret Stephens is a New York Times colum­nist.

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