Gazan breached border fence for moshav attack

The Gaza Palestinian who stabbed a woman in an Israeli farming town near the Egyptian border had breached an unguarded border fence.

The attacker entered the Sde Avraham home of Yael Raam-Matzpun early Monday morning. Raam-Matzpun managed to send her four children to safety and fight off the attacker, sustaining stab wounds to her face and shoulder.

She locked the assailant in the bathroom, but he escaped through a window. Israeli soldiers pursued the attacker, and he was shot and killed him when he put the soldiers' lives at risk, according to reports.

The breach in the border fence came during a protest by Palestinians on Nov. 23 near Khan Younis, according to Ynet.

Raam-Matzpun and other residents of the southern Israeli moshav said they were lucky the attack did not end like the one in March 2011 in Itamar, a West Bank settlement, when five members of the Fogel family were killed by two assailants.

Israel begins building barrier on Egyptian border

Israel began construction of a barrier along its border with Egypt.

Engineers were scheduled to fan out along Israel’s southern border Monday and prepare the ground of for the construction of the barrier and electronic fence.

The nearly $375 million, 155-mile project is being undertaken in order to prevent migrant workers from entering Israel as well as to deter terrorists and drug smugglers.

Hundreds of illegal migrants from Africa enter Israel each week. Nearly 11,000 have entered Israel since January, according to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority. Most are economic migrants searching for work, though a couple hundred asylum seekers have been granted refugee status in recent years.

Dozens of migrants, who pay smugglers thousands of dollars to help them cross the border from Egypt into Israel, have been shot and killed by Egyptian soldiers.

Israel Prepares for Fence Court Case

Israel claims that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has no jurisdiction to rule on the West Bank security barrier, but at the same time, the government is preparing detailed legal, security and diplomatic arguments and an intensive public relations campaign.

The government also announced this week that it may make significant changes in the fence’s route, ahead of the Feb. 23 proceedings at The Hague.

In the run up to the hearing, two major decisions will be taken that could have a bearing on the case: Whether it’s better to dispatch an Israeli legal team to appear at the ICJ or to rely on a written affidavit, and whether to alter the fence’s route for humanitarian reasons.

Most top Israeli officials are against sending a legal team, on the grounds that it would imply the very recognition of the ICJ proceedings that Israel is at such pains to deny.

As for the route of the fence, there could be changes before the issue reaches The Hague. In an address Feb. 8 to the 40th Munich Conference on Security Policy, Giora Eiland, Israel’s new national security adviser — who has been given a free hand by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to draft a new route for the fence — declared that Israel had not fully taken into account the way the barrier could disrupt Palestinian lives. Israel will do what it can — possibly even changing the fence’s route — to avoid causing unnecessary suffering, Eiland said.

Following Palestinian claims that the fence, which is being built in places on West Bank territory, is illegal, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution in December asking the ICJ for an "advisory opinion." The United Nations followed that up with a 600-page affidavit that, according to Dan Gillerman, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, ignores the basic reason for building the fence: Palestinian terrorism. Israel responded by questioning the competence of the court, the wisdom of a court action and the neutrality of one of the 15 judges, an Egyptian who previously has expressed anti-Israel views.

The legal-diplomatic brief, drafted by British-based international law expert Daniel Bethlehem, rejects the court’s authority, as well as "the propriety of the process." In a 131-page affidavit, Bethlehem maintains that the court has no right to rule on what is basically a political dispute, and that doing so will undermine political efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A court ruling probably would drive the parties to adopt more radical positions and thus would make political negotiations less likely, the argument goes. It will undermine diplomatic initiatives like the internationally approved "road map" peace plan and cause more suffering and hardship, Israel will argue. In other words, Israel says, the court is an inappropriate forum for dealing with a political conflict.

This argument already has struck a receptive chord. Several dozen countries, including the United States, Russia, Canada, Australia, South Africa, all 15 European Union members and the 10 waiting to join have submitted affidavits rejecting the court’s jurisdiction, on the grounds that a hearing would do more harm than good.

To back up the legal-diplomatic argument, Israel also is preparing a detailed security brief. A team under Brig. Gen. Mike Herzog, the defense minister’s adjutant, is putting the finishing touches on a three-part document that describes the terrorist onslaught that led Israel to build the fence, explains the thinking behind the route and outlines its effectiveness at preventing terrorism.

Noting the number and nature of Palestinian suicide bombings, the document invokes Israel’s inherent right to self-defense according to Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. It also defines the Palestinian intifada as a "hostile confrontation" that entitles Israel to take forceful measures, such as building a fence in disputed or occupied territory.

Israelis’ right to life, the document argues, takes precedence over Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement.

In his Munich address, Eiland explained that Israel decided to build the fence in the spring of 2002, after 135 Israelis were killed in 17 suicide attacks in a single month. He underlined how effective it already has proven: In the sector where the fence is complete, only three Israelis were killed last year, compared to 58 the year before.

Even if Israel decides not to dispatch legal experts to appear in court, it will send a public relations team to The Hague. There also will be an exhibit recalling the June 2001 bombing of Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium disco, in which 23 young Israelis were killed, as well as the gutted hulk of a bombed Jerusalem bus.

The main thrust of the Palestinian case is that the fence is not being built exclusively on Israel’s own territory, and that it causes humanitarian problems for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

On the territorial issue, Israel has developed a two-pronged legal argument. First, Israel argues, the U.N.’s use of the term "occupied Palestinian territory" is questionable, because the West Bank never legally belonged to the Palestinians. Rather, Israel argues, the land should be considered "disputed territory," in which Israel, one of the disputing parties, has rights. Moreover, Israeli officials say, even if the term "occupied territory" is granted, an occupier facing armed hostilities has the right to take defensive measures.

On the humanitarian issue, Israel has another two-pronged claim. The argument in principle is that saving human life takes precedence over nonlethal hardship. But Israel now adds that it intends to do all it can to relieve Palestinian suffering, even if that means building the fence closer to the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank, known as the Green Line.

Eiland is working on a new route that will take the fence closer to the Green Line and not snake around some Palestinian villages, cutting them off from both Israel and the West Bank.

The problem of the "ringed villages" is most acute in Jerusalem. Human rights activists contend that it is not only inhumane but self-defeating. The misery it causes will spawn even more suicide bombers, they say.

Eiland and others in Sharon’s circle now say that the rings will not be built, alleviating humanitarian problems and reducing the length of the fence by as much as 125 miles.

The bottom line is that for all its detailed preparations, Israel sees the ICJ more as a public relations battle than a legal one. If the court decides to proceed with the case and ultimately deems the fence illegal, Israel almost certainly would ignore the nonbinding advisory opinion and would go on building it.

The detailed preparations and presentations, then, are mainly intended to build understanding for Israel in the international community if and when the court rules against the fence.

Dividing Lines

About two miles northwest of Bethlehem, Israel’s much-discussed security fence comes to an end — not with a bang but with a whimper.

A massive pile of coiled razor wire lays in a tangled heap beside the completed portion of the fence, which here separates the newly built Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa — a pile of stone-fronted apartment houses plopped onto a mountaintop — from the Palestinian city across the valley.

Israel’s Ministry of Defense doesn’t call the fence a fence. Spokespeople there refer to it as the ma’arechet, or "the system." The system, designed to prevent Palestinian terrorists from infiltrating Israel, is actually a two-sided series of barriers. The layers go as follows: a razor wire fence, an anti-vehicle ditch, a patrol road, a gravel road raked to betray footprints, an 8-foot-tall fence studded with cameras and electronic sensors; then, on the other side of the electronic fence, the mirror image: gravel road, patrol road, vehicle ditch, razor wire. The remote sensors relay information of trespassers to army posts, which can dispatch a patrol in minutes to race up the roads and investigate.

Marc Luria, an American immigrant to Israel who is lobbying the Knesset for full and speedy completion of "the system," drove me through an open gate and up the empty patrol road — a bit of a thrill considering the traffic that chokes the country’s real roads — to the place where the fence ended. Construction equipment lay scattered about nearby, and workers backed cement trucks up to the spot. But the workers weren’t completing the fence: they were building a road that would bisect the system and continue on deep into the West Bank, to the Jewish settlement of Nokdim. Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman happens to live in that settlement, so Israelis, for whom a cynical sense of humor is practically a birthright, have taken to calling the nascent road "Lieberman Street."

The intersection of Lieberman Street and the system is as good a place as any to try to understand this small, divided and complex country. Here are the symbols of Israeli prowess — modern development, military might, technological ingenuity. Here, too, is the proof of Palestinian presence: The system separates several Palestinian homes from the homes across the wadi and from a mosque some 500 yards up the opposite hill. Lieberman Street goes out to a settlement inhabited by religious Jews who believe their presence there is a God-given right that cannot be compromised.

Even a large drainage pipe running beneath the fence resonates. A sensor is affixed to its iron grill as well, because five months ago, a terrorist shimmied through such a pipe beneath a northern section of the fence, emerged onto Israel’s new transnational highway, and fired on a passing car, instantly killing a 7-year-old boy.

But of course the most obvious symbol is the fence itself. To many Israelis it is a sign of increased security. To many Palestinians it is a sign of conquest. But there is no denying that it is an all-too-convenient image for a deeply divided land and society.

The most profound political division I found in Israel on this trip is the same one I found 19 years ago, when I lived for two years on a quiet street near the center of Jerusalem: what is to be done with the Palestinians and the territories?

In 1967, following an attack on Israel by Arab armies, Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, along with the Sinai and the Golan Heights. The conquest tripled the size of the land Israel controlled — from 8,200 to 26,000 square miles — and brought 1 million Palestinians under Israeli control.

Analysts estimate that within a few years, the Palestinian population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will exceed the Jewish population. The loss of a Jewish majority within Israel’s post-1967 borders will force Israel to face the choice of being either a non-democratic Jewish state or a binational state that is no longer Jewish. One day in the next two or three or five years, said former Speaker of the Knesset Avrum Burg, a Palestinian baby will be born who will tip the population balance between Jews and Arabs in the land called Greater Israel. "If the Palestinians put down their weapons and go for one vote," Burg said, "that will be the end of the Jewish State as we know it."

Burg said these dire words to participants in the United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) General Assembly (GA), which brings together representatives of Jewish communities throughout North America (see story, page 24). Five years ago, UJC planners decided to hold the assembly in Israel, and went ahead with their plans despite the increased terror and a State Department warning against travel to Israel. The turnout astounded organizers: 5,000 Jews attended from around the world, making it the largest GA in the meeting’s history.

Organizers took heat from some Israelis for not presenting some of the serious problems facing the country, a charge North American co-chair Susan Gelman denied. "We didn’t run away from any issue," she told reporters at an opening press conference.

What the program’s Israeli critics didn’t understand is that the goal of every GA is first and foremost to rally the fundraising troops. The GA always includes Israel, but it is never all about Israel. The divide between the American and the Israeli Jewish experience is such that, with the exception of a small percentage of passionate activists, Israel is more of a symbol to American Jews than a reality. Israel is their team, and they show up for the big games (war, peace treaties), but they don’t follow every game, or even every season. This GA, held in the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, may have had Israel as its focus, but it also devoted time to issues of concern primarily to the North American audience: addressing dwindling affiliation rates, philanthropic leadership, gay and lesbian inclusion, alternative spiritual expressions, etc.

But either out of design or accident, this year’s GA tried to draw delegates much deeper into the game. In the past three years, when Israel has been on the agenda, the forums have tended to be less than sharply critical and the Israel-oriented events more cheerleading than scrimmage. This week some of Israel’s strongest and least critical American Jewish supporters got a taste of the political debate that has defined so much of Israeli society.

At the opening ceremony, delegates leapt to their feet and cheered when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared, "Our enemies have yet to understand that the Jewish people can’t be broken, and will never be broken."

But the next day they heard Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrachi say, "Solidarity with Israel is not always an uncritical solidarity with the Israeli government. Sharon speaks out of both sides of his mouth. He says he supports the ‘road map’ but he has not removed one illegal settlement from the West Bank."

Ezrachi was the rule, not the exception. At the sessions I attended, speaker after speaker exhorted American Jews to get involved in the debate over the Palestinian question. "We are facing the most difficult historic choice since 1948, and it is imperative that every Jew must take a stand," Ezrachi said.

Arye Carmon, founder of the Israel Democracy Institute, told another audience, "I call on you to agonize with us. The time has come to translate slogans into action."

Israelis and others outside questioned whether it was American Jewry’s place to weigh in on the policy direction of a country they don’t live in. It is not Diaspora Jewry’s role to be nuanced and involved, one resident told me, it is our role to just support Israel in the face of an international community that finds it legitimate to question the existence of Israel but not of, say, Finland.

But in another session, Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s General Security Services, or Shin Bet, directed his remarks — ominously — to just that concern. "You have to think about what will happen as a result of our actions to Jews everywhere," he said. "I’m not sure we [Israelis] understand that."

The debate that marked these particular GA sessions distilled the concerns I found everywhere during my week and a half in Israel. Ayalon made waves internationally just as the GA began by joining with three other former Shin Bet directors in publicly criticizing the direction of the Sharon government. It was an unprecedented moment in Israel’s history when an interview with the four appeared in the Nov. 14 edition of Yediot Aharanot. Sharon, they said, is using terror as an, "excuse for doing nothing," in the words of Carmi Gillon. "In this terrible situation," Ayalon said, "where civilians are slaughtered in restaurants and buses, in my opinion there is no other way but to take unilateral steps."

Ayalon, together with Palestinian activist Sari Nusseibeh, drew up a declaration of principles that they are circulating among Palestinians and Israelis as a way of building grass-roots support for negotiations. Along with his former colleagues, he believes the current government is endangering Israel’s security and its democracy by reacting to terror militarily without a strategy that holds out hope for the Palestinians.

But it is terror that has made the debate over the Palestinian question both more urgent and more difficult. "It is hard to talk about peace and democracy when you are under attack," said MK Tommy Lapid, the leader of the Shinui Party.

I spoke with Israelis who were convinced that the only solution to the conflict was the eradication of the Palestinian people. "I shoot first, then I ask whether they’re interested in peace or not," said a man who had just returned from reserve duty in the Gaza Strip.

A diplomat I spoke with echoed another common idea for addressing the problem: increased aliyah, or immigration, to Israel. One million Jews moving to Israel, she said, would counter Palestinian population growth. Sharon received a standing ovation for saying the same thing to the GA delegates. "It’s so crazy," said one participant of Sharon’s suggestion. "These people are not going to come, and they would think it’s a tragedy if their kids came."

As Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar pointed out, the 30,000-40,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have recently left Israel have made Moscow one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world. The sad fact, said Lapid, is that the Israel he sought refuge in as a survivor of the Holocaust is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a Jew.

The presentations at the GA were Israeli society in a nutshell: vibrant and fearful, cautious and defiant, pessimistic and hopeful. Sometimes, as in the case of Lapid, one speech hit all these notes. Yes, there must be a two-state solution, he said, but don’t expect it to put an end to conflict. "We will give up all kinds of biblical dreams in order to have a pragmatic solution," he said, "but to promise you there’s only a few steps we have to take and they have to take is not enough."

The security fence, Lapid said, may be a system for defense, but it is not a solution.

Israelis harbor deep doubts that their leaders, much less the Palestinian leadership, are able, now and in the foreseeable future, to work out a settlement to their conflict. Lacking that, they know full well the clock is ticking on the demographic issue, a conflict that a temporary security system manages but doesn’t solve. The deepest divide of all here remains the one between the country Israelis and American Jews want, and the one they are likely to get.

Israel to Build West Bank Fence

One day after a suicide bombing in Netanya, Israel has announced that it will build a security fence separating Israel from the West Bank within the next six months.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer made the announcement Monday during a meeting of Israelis living along the border. The 225-mile-long fence will be equipped with cameras and electronic detection devices, he said.

A total of $46 million has been allocated for the project, which also will include protective walls for nearby Israeli communities, Ben-Eliezer said.

Israelis attending the meeting later were quoted as backing the plan — as long as it is completed quickly.

The idea of a security fence repeatedly has been proposed as a way to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching their targets in Israel.

Supporters say a similar fence along the perimeter of the Gaza Strip has helped block terror attacks.

Detractors say the new fence inevitably will be seen as a border demarcation between Israel and the West Bank, and will harm Israel’s negotiating position in any future talks with the Palestinians.

Sunday’s suicide bombing in Netanya — and another attack Monday in northern Israel in which only the bomber perished — reinforced Israeli officials’ skepticism regarding Yasser Arafat’s call for reform in the Palestinian Authority.

The Netanya bombing came days after Arafat delivered a speech before Palestinian legislators in which he vowed to make reforms.

The Palestinian Authority president also used the speech to denounce Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli civilians — a denunciation that apparently fell on deaf ears among some of his constituents.

Hours before the Netanya attack, Ben-Eliezer said at the weekly Cabinet meeting that Arafat’s call for reforms was just another of his "tricks."

After the attack, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office said Israelis should not believe that Arafat’s criticism of terrorism would result in a halt to such attacks.

The attack also has prompted speculation about whether or how the Israeli military will retaliate.

Earlier this month, Israel planned, and then called off, a military operation in the Gaza Strip following a terror attack at a pool hall in Rishon le-Zion that killed 15 and left more than 60 injured. Another sucide bombing in Rishon le-Zion on Wednesday killed at least two Israelis and seriously injured at least 37.

There have also been numerous Palestinian terror attacks in Netanya. One such attack at a Passover seder prompted Israel to launch a massive anti-terror military operation in the West Bank.

Three Israelis were killed and about 58 injured in Sunday’s suicide bombing.

One of the victims of Sunday’s attack had survived the "Passover Massacre" in Netanya. Arkady Wiselman, 40, worked as a chef at the Park Hotel, where 29 Israelis were killed in the suicide bombing at a Passover seder.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the attack, which was carried out by a terrorist dressed in an Israeli army uniform.

One day before the Netanya bombing, Israel asked the United States and Britain to isolate the leader of the Popular Front, Ahmed Sa’adat. Sa’adat, whom Israel claims masterminded the October 2001 assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, is imprisoned under British supervision in a Jericho jail.

Israel claims Sa’adat has unfettered access to telephones and visitors, allowing him to use the jail as an office to plan terror attacks, including the one this week in Netanya.

The attack came as security forces were on alert in central Israel after receiving information that a suicide bomber was preparing an attack, Israel Radio said.

In another terror attack this week, a bomber blew himself up at a bus station near Afula on Monday when police approached him for questioning. Three people were treated for shock.

The terrorist had tried to board a bus carrying workers to a factory, but was told it was a private bus. Suspicious passengers alerted police.

Last week, Sharon set two preconditions for the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority — a halt to terror and reform in the Palestinian Authority. Sidelining Arafat from the diplomatic process is the chief reform that Sharon is seeking.

At Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Ben-Eliezer said Arafat’s call for reforms was insufficient, adding that it had to be backed up by deeds.

In a move that is likely to provide additional ammunition to those who question Arafat’s sincerity, he hinted in his May 15 speech to Palestinian legislators that any peace treaty he signs with Israel will be temporary.

It was widely reported that Arafat used the speech to call for unspecified reforms in the Palestinian Authority and to tell legislators to prepare for new elections, without mentioing a date.

Arafat also provided yet another reason for skepticism: After issuing the call for new elections, he amended it over the weekend, saying there would be no elections until all Israeli troops withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.