Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Fortress Israel?

Something there than doesn’t love a wall.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

President Bush’s speech outlined well enough the general parameters of peace — Israeli security, a new democratic government in Palestine without Mr. Arafat, return of most of the West Bank et al. Whether such promised autonomy will ensure a cessation of suicide murdering in the here and now is another matter — so is the advice to seek help from the “Arab states” in helping the Palestinian people find a “constitutional framework” and “a working democracy,” as well as “multi-party local elections” — inasmuch asnot a single Arab state would itself allow such things within its own borders.

All that being said, for the time being to implement Mr. Bush’s vision there first must be a mechanism to stop the suicide-killers, which means either eliminating them in the West Bank or keeping them out of Israel — or both. In response to that dilemma, a little-heralded wall across the so-called Green Line is slowly taking shape, whose ultimate repercussions may be as important as the president’s speech.

Walls, of course, are often dismissed as Neanderthal solutions, and have a rather dubious reputation as unworkable even among military historians and generals alike. The fiery General George S. Patton, as his massive Third Army blasted through the Siegfried Line and romped into Germany in spring, 1945, once wrote: “Pacifists would do well to study the Siegfried and Maginot Line, remembering that these defenses were forced; that Troy fell; that the wall of Hadrian succumbed; that the Great Wall of China was futile. In war, the only sure defense is offense.”

As in the case of André Maginot’s vaunted line on the French-German border and the Great Wall of China, such linear fortifications can be bypassed or even attacked from the rear. The Spartans felt walls of all sorts had a bad effect on morale: By refusing to build fortifications around their acropolis, they claimed that for 700 years they had maintained an offensive ardor in their youth that provided far better security than a few stacked stones.

Modern diplomats do not like walls either. For them the problem is not that they are ineffective, but that they work too well — ending utopian hopes of eventual reunion between warring parties. They would rather gamble that changed Palestinian hearts and minds, not a bastion of concrete and wire, will save the lives of school-age Israelis.

Consequently, acrimony from almost every quarter has met the news of Israel’s bold plan to fortify the so-called Green Line that more or less marks the 1967 borders. The Israelis envision an eventual 225 miles of fence — millions of dollars worth of barbed wire, ditches, occasional parapets of massive concrete, electronic sensors, obstacles, and service roads.

Two-hundred-thousand settlers in Judea and Samaria may be on the wrong side of the new Fortress Israel. So is almost the entire West Bank. But instead of being delighted, the Palestinian Authority is fuming. Mr. Arafat has called the construction an “act of racism,” adding that the fence is nothing less than “a fascist apartheid measure,” one that he “would not accept” — all this from a leader whose media spouts unadulterated daily racism, whose government really is fascist, and who can neither accept nor reject much of anything.

The United States is also wary on a number of grounds. We are uneasy with such a unilateral, permanent, and nonnegotiable definition of the disputed border. Our State Department feels that the fence brings a finality to the ongoing crisis that gives little hope for eventual brotherly reconciliation. Diplomats apparently seek something in Palestine like the open Canadian-American border where Palestinians can “resume work and a normal life.”

Yet given the nearly daily litany of suicide-murdering, the Israeli public supports the barrier and thus the massive construction project is likely to go ahead. What are we to make of such a crude throwback in human relations, a cordon that conjures a medieval rather than a modern acceptance of the human condition?

First, General Patton was not entirely correct in his assessment of the dismal efficacy of fortified borders. Both the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain were not meant as absolute lines of resistance, but rather proved often effective in channeling opposition into more defensible passes. Thus the present-day Gaza fence has more or less worked and directed suicide-murderers to cross over through less fortified areas — hence the present scheme to rectify those gaps. The Athenian Long Walls tied the city to the Piraeus, and kept the port and city safe for nearly 70 years. Indeed, so fond of fortifications the Athenians became that they later built walls and forts all over the Attic countryside in hopes of keeping out Spartan and Theban ravagers — mostly with good success. The helot city of Messenia — whose extant circuits are the most impressive remains of the ancient world — was kept safe from Spartan aggression by gargantuan towers and bastions. They eventually did normalize relations with Sparta — but never tore down their vast fortifications.

Yet Israel’s wall is not strictly military — in the sense of discouraging armored assaults from Jordan or Egypt through the West Bank. It is being built instead to dissuade civilians, and thus properly must be compared to our own recent and far less impressive fixtures near San Diego. By all accounts, such barricades in California and elsewhere have been remarkably successful in reducing illegal entries — if unfortunately channeling aliens to the undefended, but far more perilous deserts of Texas and Arizona. Whatever the complexity of evil that marked the Berlin Wall, few believe that more East Germans got out after than before its creation.

Moreover, the delicate equilibrium between assault and defense is never static. Fourth-century B.C. catapults prompted stouter construction methods that prevailed for a while against torsion artillery until the rise of gunpowder. In turn, earthen embankments, reinforced concrete, and steel often withstood even the heaviest artillery barrages. More recently, even well-armed and equipped individuals rarely can find success against walls outfitted with new electronic sensors, especially high-voltage fences, and macabre novel brands of razor-wire. Gangs, at least for the present, are not easily breaking into American prisons to free their brethren nor are inmates breaking out to join them.

So whatever one thinks of Israel’s easily caricatured and reductionist solution to suicide-murdering, there is ample ancient and modern evidence to suggest that such a rampart will be mostly successful in keeping out Palestinian terrorists. The wall will not be breached by land nor subterranean assault, but only through aerial barrages. Yet the firing of such missiles and rockets will only leave the attackers vulnerable to counterstrikes from the Israel air force. The wall will also have a powerful effect on those Arabs inside Israel, both citizens and resident aliens. The partition will make their daily intercourse with kin on the West Bank far more difficult, and so redefine — and shrink — their own universe to one of being surrounded by Jews rather than of Jews being surrounded by Arabs.

Walls, for better or worse, also bring to disputes both political and moral clarity— especially in the manner that they reveal exactly who wants to broach them and in what direction. The Berlin Wall and the DMZ in Korea made it clear that purportedly content communists wanted out of their countries more than supposedly exploited Westerners wanted in. Indeed, since a sudden attack was always more likely to come from the communist Russian or Korean militaries, such barricades were especially revealing: It was more important for the commissars to stop refugees from leaving their own societies than it was in placing obstacles in the very path of their own planned armored assaults.

The United States and Mexico are often criticized for sharing an ambivalent policy toward illegal immigration: The borders stayed porous as we played down our enormous appetite for unskilled aliens, while they claimed that American, not Mexican, pathology was the engine of mass flight from their beloved motherland.

But the growing fortifications in the American Southwest now reveal that at least officially the United States does not want illegal aliens to broach its borders and that Mexicans most surely do. In the same manner, the new Israeli wall has now brought a great deal of light to the heat of the Middle East. Since the contours of the fortifications are not all that different from the 1967 borders, Palestinians should be rejoicing at being walled off from their hated enemies. But now we are learning that it simply is not so.

While a majority of Palestinians praise their countrymen who sneak into Israel to blow up Jewish women and children, thousands apparently also do not want such murder to result in being completely cut-off from the Jewish state — the source of jobs, capital, and ideas that it turns out many Palestinians appreciate.

Mr. Arafat, whose state-run media glorifies suicide-murdering more than his aides pro forma denounce it, is aghast for other reasons. With this new fence, he really will have his own private state of sorts — a land cut off from the Jews but with an open border to all his beloved Arab neighbors. His ire, rather than delight, suggests that the Palestinian Authority is parasitic on Israel: It wants an open border with a free, democratic, and economically vibrant neighbor for profit and fun — but it also needs an indefensible populace “a stone’s throw away” that it can threaten and from time to time vent frustrations at due to the failure of its own corrupt government. Without accessible Jews, who is Arafat to terrorize or profit from?

The settlers are a different matter; they will soon find themselves like Roman frontiersmen in the age of Augustus on the wrong side of the Rhine or Danube. For better or worse, the Israeli government has de facto now admitted that in the not-too-distant future it can and will defend well only those citizens that reside roughly in the vicinity of the 1967 borders — ending in a blink the idea of a greater Israel that has a right to considerable biblical lands on the West Bank. History suggests it is better to be behind rather than in front of a border wall.

So the problem with this wall is not that it won’t work or solve problems — but that it may do all that and more, all too well. Consequently, expect the barricade to be damned daily even as it inches irreversibly forward.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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