Thursday, 14 January 2010

Two States? Then it’s Defensible Borders.

Is the pattern of a two-state solution for the Israel-West Bank-Gaza region of the Middle East slowly emerging from the mists of the future?

One pre-requisite for Israel – concerned above all for the safety of its citizens, and indeed of the state itself – has always been defensible borders. The tussle over Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, following its capture in the Six Day War in 1967, has always been partly on the grounds of defence and security.

The same security considerations, Israel maintains and Palestinians dispute, underlie the erection of the fence/wall that now separates Arab- from Israeli-occupied areas. From the Palestinian point of view the fence/wall is mainly a land-grabbing exercise whose imposition has taken no account of the hardship it inflicts on ordinary Arab civilians trying to earn their living on their own land, or by working in Israel. Israel points to a dramatic decrease in terrorist activity following its erection, and most commentators now see it – with agreed modifications following a peace accord – as forming part of the defensible borders of both Israel and a future sovereign Palestine.

Which gives particular significance to the announcement by Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier this week about the construction of a barrier along part of Israel’s border with Egypt. The idea is to stem the continuous flow of illegal immigrants across the Egyptian border into Israel – up to 200 a week, according to some reports. Egyptian police, in operations aimed at curtailing people trafficking, are said to have shot at least 17 illegal migrants last year trying to cross into Israel.

Netanyahu says he has decided to close Israel’s southern border to “infiltrators and terrorists” (although Israel would remain open to refugees from conflict zones). Egyptian sources are reported to have no objection, provided the barrier is constructed on Israeli soil. The plan is to do so near Eilat on the Red Sea, and on the edge of the Gaza Strip.

But border fences by themselves would be merely toying with the problem. Israel will need to develop a comprehensive organizational approach to defending the border - the capability to intercept intelligence and to capture smugglers and terrorist elements. To achieve this, a specialised authority may have to be set up – and such a body might also be given responsibility for the border with Jordan.

Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, all with effective and defensible barriers along at least the most vulnerable parts of their borders with each other – this appears to be the way things are shaping up.

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