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ISRAEL: Good neighbors make fences

December 23, 2009 |  7:25 am

While Egypt's steel barricade draws both ire and fire from Gaza, it isn't the only neighbor fencing in its property. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to build a fence along the country's border with Egypt.

The border sprawls about 143 miles through sand-land and mountainous terrain, and with the exception of the official crossing at Taba, it is wide open. It is largely a peaceful area, but in recent years it has become increasingly exploited by a wide range of factors that are evolving into a real threat.

Trade still flourishes along these ancient routes, but the modern commodities are spicier. About 100,000 tons of drugs (mostly marijuana) make their way into Israel from Sinai every year; thousands of African migrants and asylum seekers too. Until recently, most women trafficked for prostitution entered Israel via Egypt, and lately Bedouins have taken to importing brides from Sinai, where their dowries are lower and their ways less Westernized. Tremendous amounts of explosives and no small number of weapons loop their way into Gaza and Israel, and the border is becoming a crossroads for terror headed in various directions.

The terror threats are immediately obvious. Other issues are breeding long-term demographic issues, such as the African migrants. Netanyahu recently pointed out that one can walk from Africa to Tel Aviv. "This can present a demographic, economic and security problem. The sooner we build a physical barrier along the border, the better off we'll be," he said. Human rights organizations say about 17,500 migrants from Africa have entered Israel from Egypt since 2005. Israel is already dealing (not terribly well) with an estimated 300,000 illegal foreign workers, most who entered legally but outstayed their permits. Failure to adopt a clear and timely policy to deal with the migrants, as well as refugees and asylum seekers, is proving costly. 

Shmuel Riffman, mayor of Ramat Hanegev, has been warning about the border situation for years. The illegal infiltration is "Israel's next social time-tomb," he said. "There are said to be half a million migrants waiting next door in Cairo, where the average monthly salary is $10, compared to $1,000 in Israel."  Israel's a democracy, he says, but can't be a suicidal one: "The border's got to be closed; this isn't Europe."

Two Israeli teenagers illustrated the point this week. On Monday evening, the pair of 19-year-olds bicycled across the border into Egypt, resolved to do "something daring" on the eve of their induction into the army. The brakes on this joy ride were applied swiftly when an Egyptian soldier detained them at gunpoint. Also watching were members of the Israeli Defense Forces. A monitoring unit picked up the arrest and reported it, sending authorities into high gear, as initially the two youths were feared kidnapped. They were released after a few hours of questioning -- and reportedly a bit of roughing-up too.

All this took place as the Israeli inner Cabinet was deliberating in issues surrounding seized Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, reiterating the strategic threat of abductions. Israel could have been negotiating with Hamas or Al Qaeda, said Zvi Fogel, formerly a senior commander in the region. "Building a fence is cheaper than negotiating over hostages."

Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch says a simple fence will do. But Yom-Tov Samia, former chief of the southern command, said recently that any fence without tight cooperation between Israel and Egypt would be a waste of money. The only thing that might seal the border and stop smuggling, he said, would be a 300-foot moat filled with water and crocodiles.

-- Batsheva Sobelman  

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