Magazine article The Christian Century

Barriers between Israel and Palestinian Territory Also Block Relationships

Magazine article The Christian Century

Barriers between Israel and Palestinian Territory Also Block Relationships

Article excerpt

When Linda Casher moved to an Israeli collective near the Gaza Strip as a young American woman in the 1970s, she would often mingle with Palestinians at outdoor markets amid the mounds of pomegranates and rows of hanging chickens. She even welcomed Palestinian women from Gaza to her kibbutz.

But the closest she has gotten to a Palestinian from Gaza lately was when Hamas gunmen emerged from the sea onto a nearby beach in last summer's war.

Two miles south of this community stands a towering cement wall at the Erez checkpoint, the only Israel-Gaza border crossing for travelers. Israelis have not been allowed to enter the Gaza Strip in years. The number of Palestinian workers crossing daily from Gaza into Israel has dropped from tens of thousands to zero.

"We have a great big barrier between us and the Arabs, so we don't see them," said Casher, who sees the separation as imperative for security.

Twenty years of fruitless negotiations, three conflicts with Gaza in the past six years, and growing fears of extremism in the Palestinian territories and around the Middle East have all contributed to a skepticism among many Israelis that peace is possible. As hopes for a resolution have retreated, Israelis have increasingly walled themselves off from their Arab neighbors.

An Israeli who used to work as a lifeguard at a beach in the Gaza Strip remembers that not long ago he could ride his motorcycle to and from his home in Israel. Now he's barred from crossing into Gaza, an area he called home for more than 15 years.

The man, who did not want to be named, spent long nights on the sea with Palestinian fishermen, who split their profits with him. He helped them outside of work, too, sometimes resolving problems with Israeli tax authorities.

He and his Palestinian colleagues shared the attitude, "If you need something, I will help you."

Then, in the 1990s, Israel built a barrier around the Gaza Strip and handed control of civil affairs over to Palestinians. One day one of his Arab workers came to him and said he'd been detained, interrogated, and beaten by Palestinian authorities. They suspected him of feeding intelligence to his Israeli boss--wrongly presumed to be a security officer.

"They almost killed me because of you," the worker told him. "I will never come [to work] again. I just wanted to come and tell you."

In the West Bank, Israel erected a serpentine barrier and heightened security coordination with the Palestinian Authority. Although 30 percent of the barrier has yet to be constructed, a Palestinian suicide bombing hasn't happened in the area since 2009. Some say that stems less from the wall and more from the role of PA security forces and a realization that violence doesn't pay. But in many minds, the barrier stands as a defense against terrorists.

In fact, barriers--reminiscent of the ancient Judean fortresses--are now widely embraced as an effective way to fortify modern Israel despite the international opprobrium they bring. In 2013, Israel completed a 145-mile fence along the Egyptian border at a reported cost of 1.6 billion shekels ($430 million).

The same year, Israel refurbished its outdated fence along the Golan Heights border with Syria with concertina wire, electronic sensors, and infrared cameras. With a long barrier already in place along the Lebanese border, that leaves only one section of Israel's land boundaries unfenced--a section along the peaceful Jordanian border--and plans are under way to erect a barrier there as well. …

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