Colonel Danny Tirza, a retired IDF commander, walks along a road overlooking the fence between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and reminisces about once having to build a wall along the road because of Hamas snipers in the valley firing into Israeli apartments. He tells of the urgency he felt, believing that deaths because of inadequate security were his responsibility. The way you view Israeli security measures is often based on your narrative rather than on the facts, he explains, as with recent the unrest.
Over the last few weeks Israel and the West Bank have been caught in a cycle of violence that started on July 14, when three gunmen cut down two Israeli border security officers with weapons smuggled onto the Temple Mount before they were killed by responding security forces.
This led to the installment of metal detectors and responding outrage from the Islamic community. Three Palestinian protesters were fatally shot on the afternoon of July 22, and by that night a 19-year-old Palestinian had entered an Israeli settlement and stabbed three Israelis to death at Shabbat dinner. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the removal of the metal detectors after meeting with his security cabinet, and the tensions seemed to ease for the moment.
This cycle of Palestinian aggression, Israeli crackdown, and escalating violence till Israel relaxes is not a new phenomenon in the region. Israelis in Jerusalem uneasily recalled that it felt like the escalation that occurred in 2014. One might assume this cycle predicts that a general relaxing of Israeli security would lead to the opportunity for more peaceful coexistence, but a day spent visiting the security fence and checkpoints in Jerusalem reinforces the continued necessity of such precautions.
I had the opportunity to spend such a day with IDF Colonel Danny Tirza, the man who built the separation barrier.
Tirza was given the order to construct the fence in 2002 during the Second Intifada, after terror attacks on a grade school and then a hotel forced the issue. The security fence is 451 miles long, roughly following the green line set in the Oslo Accord.
Only 5 percent of this fence is the iconic concrete barriers you see around Jerusalem. The majority is just two fences with a road in between. These are not regular fences, they send a signal to security cameras that will scan the area for intruders if they are touched or cut, before a unit is dispatched to respond.
It took Colonel Tirza five years and 11 million shekels (about $3.1 million) to construct, with a 32-member staff to plan the route for the fence alone. This team of lawyers and religious liaisons found a route that accommodated the many faith communities in Jerusalem and did not have to destroy or evacuate a single Palestinian house. This was no simple task, including changing the route on the request of the Vatican and the United States State Department.
The effectiveness of the barrier was undisputed initially, being credited with an almost 90 percent reduction in terrorist attacks in Israel. Even so, there is building frustration with the barrier and claims are being made that it is no longer necessary and is in fact a detriment to peace. But a review of the checkpoint between Bethlehem on the Palestinian side and Jerusalem on the Israeli side is demonstrative of the security barrier's continuing importance.
The Bethlehem checkpoint looks like a large bus station with a vaulted roof and large vents to allow the explosive force of a bomb to escape without destroying the building. Palestinians cross the checkpoint on a daily basis to work on the Israeli side of the Green Line, mostly in construction jobs. This checkpoint can process 1,000 people in a single hour and has an average of 7,000 people pass it in a day. The process is not unlike a streamlined security check at an airport.
While there is outcry for the checkpoint to be opened because of delays, the average wait time at the terminal is only 20 minutes. In 2016, this single checkpoint caught 22 individuals trying to enter Israel with pipe bombs. These were shocking attempts to walk through IDF security with a bomb to commit a terrorist attack, while knowing that being caught means prison.
This is why the barrier and the checkpoints must remain.
The Israeli government has a responsibility not to let their people become the victims of terrorism and to ensure their ability to live in peace. The West Bank has to realize that Israel cannot lower its guard so long as they are still regularly blocking threats.
At the end of the day, Colonel Tirza turns to us and says, "I want to be the man who removes the first brick from this wall when we have achieved peace." This wall is a temporary security measure for Colonel Tirza, but it has also become his life's work and the means by which he has saved countless lives, both Israeli and Palestinian.
Peter Burns (@peterburns_1861) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a member of the Philos Leadership Institute class of 2017.
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