Ex-Israeli security chief on US-Mexico border wall: “Don’t build it!”

Unrepentant about the wall his own country is building on the West Bank, Uza Dayan wisely warns the US against emulating Israeli strategies in Occupied Aztlan. From Newsday, Aug. 16:

JERUSALEM — Six years ago, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak sidled up to his army’s chief of staff with a serious problem.

“I was convinced that a physical separation between Israelis and Palestinians was necessary for both sides. The question was, how to do it?” Barak recalled recently in an interview with Newsday.

His chief of staff, Uzi Dayan, had the answer: Build a fence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Three years later, building began on the 425-mile, 26-foot-high concrete and barbed-wire fence that is vilified by Palestinians and defended by the vast majority of Israelis.

But as the United States contemplates the construction of a fence along the Mexican border to thwart illegal immigration, Dayan, who was head of Israel’s National Security Council under former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has some advice for Washington: “Don’t do it.” “There have been some serious inquiries from Washington about how to build a fence along Israeli lines. They want to emulate us,” Dayan said. “But I’ve always said that it’s not in America’s best interest. It won’t solve their problem. It’s not cost-effective and it won’t work.”

His answer catches most of his callers off guard.

“Many of them think I am joking,” he said, bemused.

As a long-time advocate of Israel’s security fence as the best way to prevent suicide bombings and terror attacks, Dayan is in many ways an unlikely critic of any U.S. plan to build a wall along its southern border. But as head of Israel’s West Bank security barrier project, he points out that Israel’s motivation is different from Washington’s.

“The United States is trying to solve the problem of illegal workers,” he explained. “We are trying to avoid bloodshed. There is a big difference.”

Since Israel began constructing the fence in July 2003, there has been a significant drop in suicide bombings and terror attacks. Palestinians say that’s because of a March 2005 cease-fire respected by Hamas until recently. Israel credits the fence.

Opinion polls show a majority of Israelis support the fence because they believe it protects them from further violence. But Dayan says that success has come with a hidden cost that the United States, quite literally, can’t afford to pay.

Building and patrolling Israel’s security fence has cost the country about $3.5 million per mile, he estimates. “It’s true that it is expensive, but if we didn’t construct a fence it would cost Israel in other ways,” he said.

Dayan says the fence along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border would be likely to cost more than $6 billion. Some U.S. officials have placed the price tag at half that.

Dayan said it would cost even more to maintain a U.S. fence and its perimeter would be impossible to patrol.

Critics of the Israeli security fence say it is ineffective in other ways, breeding hostility among Palestinians that will only lead to further violence.

“This wall is radicalizing the population in a way that is very dangerous. It’s being used as a tool to humiliate,” says Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli human rights lawyer in West Jerusalem. “It can’t accomplish what it’s meant to accomplish, which is keeping people separate.”

On a recent tour of the security fence, Seidemann pointed out several examples. In the Palestinian village of Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, workers without permits dodge the fence’s security checkpoint through a maze of back alleys. Children often climb the fence.

A few miles away, the Sheih Said crossing is one of the last places around Jerusalem that isn’t sealed off. Soon, it, too, will be closed with a new section of fence.

“When that happens, we will just have to find another way,” Mohamad Musalam, 65, a seller of grape leaves, said as he sat in the shade on the Jerusalem side of the checkpoint.

On the other side, a group of Palestinian laborers already have found a solution, digging the crude beginnings of a tunnel they say will eventually stretch to Jerusalem. They say the barrier has cut Palestinians living in the West Bank off from their families, communities and even their own land.

“It’s only a matter of time before we finish,” one of them said.

Dayan admits Israel’s security fence is “far from perfect.” When the settlement council of Kohav Yair, where he lives, debated building a wall around their community, Dayan spearheaded the movement against it. He believed it was too costly and redundant for a settlement so close to the fence already surrounding the West Bank City of Qalqilya.

“A fence isn’t the answer for everybody,” he said, noting that the United States should look at other options. “If the president called me tomorrow to ask me what to do, I would tell him, go back to the drawing board,” Dayan said.

See our last posts on Israel/Palestine and US/Mexico.