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Israel’s Indefensible Borders

Yesterdays incident at the Gaza border, where an Israeli soldier was shot at almost point blank range by a Palestinian standing on the other side of the fence  – and is still fighting for his life in hospital at the time of writing –  raises, yet again, the nature of Israel’s borders in the twenty first century and whether borders do indeed provide the security and the defense that we attribute to them. 

Israel has become one of the most heavily bordered countries in the world. During the past fifteen years, a series of fences and walls have been built along almost all of Israel’s borders, including those such as with Egypt and Jordan which for the previous two to three decades had been left largely unfenced and only loosely patrolled.   But following the protype security fence which was erected around the entire West Bank , along with a dual desire to prevent unhindered migration into Israel from African countries (through Sinai) and/or the infiltration of fundamentalist terrorism from neighbouring countries, the construction of walls and fences has been expanded. Along with the heavily fortified borders  with Lebanon and Syria, Israel has transformed itself into the largest walled in ghetto in Jewish history, as we attempt to preserve our sovereign integrity and safety of our citizens. 

But these borders, like borders throughout the world, only provide a limited form of defense. The changing technologies of infiltration and the ways in which borders are crossed, raise many questions concerning their effectiveness.  While Israel and the USA cooperate strongly on research aimed at preventing border infiltration,  and pour many billions into anti missile defense systems – which have proved themselves in no small way in Israel – they have not prevented new challenges from presenting themselves on an almost daily basis. 

Missiles: Until twenty years ago, all of Israels wars were fought in the territories of the neighbouring countries. With the advent of ballistic missiles from Sadam Hussein’s Iraq in the early 1990s, this changed dramatically, resulting in the creation of the Homeland Command in the Israeli army. As we have witnessed in recent years, whether it be Hamas from Gaza or the Hizbollah from Lebanon, the missiles have not stopped coming, only now they are not fired from hundreds of kilometers away, but from hundreds of meters, just over the border, and reaching not only Sderot in the south or Haifa in the north, but easily reaching the crowded metropolitan centers of Gush Dan in the center of the country. No border wall or fence, however high, or however strongly built, can prevent the simplest of rockets of flying over and causing untold economic and human damage. Of even greater significance is the fact that in the periods of missile attacks and wars with Gaza, regular life in the regions affected inside Israel come toa  virtual stop, civilian populations – especially the children – are temporarily evacuated from their homes and this, in itself, is perceived as a victory on the part of the Palestinians, regardless of Israel’s even stronger response which wreaks havoc on the Gaza Strip. 

Proportional or disproportional response is a meaningless argument. Israel’s response with its own airforce is far stronger than anything offered by the Palestinians. But were it to be truly proportional, one missile in return for one missile, fired blindly across the border  in retaliation, it is likely that the damage caused would be far far greater than the existing situation. 

Tunnels: Over the past twenty years, both Hamas and the Palestinians have become experts in the construction of tunnels which cross the border underground. There have been cases where the tunnels have remained undetected for relatively long periods of time, although the Israeli technological response has become much more sophisticated in recent years with the use infra-red and heat surveillance to detect the location of the tunnels. They often wait for the tunnels to be almost completed before undertaking an operation to completely destroy the infrastructure, thus wreaking significant human and economic destruction. But tunnels continue to be built and it is a constant war of one upmanship to detect them and to decide on the exact moment to destroy them. There have been many cases where Israeli farmers living in the rural communities in close proximity to Israel state that they can hear the tunnel construction going on, and are fearful for their lives and the lives of their families, until the army steps in to destroy them – always from the Israeli side so as not to have to enter into any armed conflict and not to be accused of infringing the sovereign territory of the other side.

Balloons: Every time the anti-missile Star Dome system is used, it costs the country many hundreds of thousands of dollars – although there is currently talk of the existing systems eventually being replaced by laser anti-missile technology which would be even more effective and accurate, and would cost next to nothing to operate. Notwithstanding many billions have been poured into the existing systems which are now to be found facing both the Gaza and the Lebanon  borders , ready for operation whenever missiles are filed into Israel.  For their part, the Palestinians have “invented” a far simpler, less technological and cheaper way to  cross the border. Buy a bag of party balloons for a few shekel, blow them up, attach a small fire bomb or incendiary to the balloon, wait for the wind to be blowing in the right direction, and simply let go. These have caused major damage to the fields and the crops of Israeli farming communities near the border, and in some cases even causing fires in built up areas. One would not like to think what would happen if ten thousand balloons, costing almost nothing, were to be released at the same time and if only 5-10 percent of them got through before being destroyed – if indeed there is any available technology for such a  threat to be combatted. 

Drones: Drones have become a sophisticated and inexpensive way of crossing borders. Operated by both sides, they can be used for espionage purposes by taking photos from the other side of the border, especially of closed military areas which cannot be seen even through simple technologies such as Google Earth, and relaying them back in real time before they are shot down. They can equally be used to carry small incendiary devices which could potentially explode on impact. Israel uses sophisticated drones and unmanned devices for its own purposes and these have been copied, even with the use of simple drones costing no more than a few hundred dollars, by combatants on the other side of the border.

Demonstrations:  On a number of occasions there have been mass demonstrations on the other side of the fence at the very point of the fence itself. Where it is a fence ad not a wall it would not take any major effort for a mass crowd to pull down the fence and simply walk through. Until now such demonstrations have been carefully orchestrated and controlled by the Palestinian side. Israel’s initial response is to try and disperse the crowds with rubber bullets, water cannons and gas canisters – lethal in themselves – and, if the threat infringes upon the border., to use live ammunition. But both sides are well aware of the huge casualties that could result from such a confrontation, and the resulting impact that such a  response would have on world opinion, as mighty Goliath Israel retaliates with lethal force to a demonstration taking place on the other side. It was at the backend of one such demonstration that the Israeli soldier was shot yesterday, the shooter simply extending his arm beyond the fence and shooting directly at the nearest Israeli border patrol guard. 

Holes in the Fences:  There are many places  along the course of the border fences with the West Bank, Egypt and Jordan, where there are holes in the fences, to the knowledge and acquiesence of the Israeli border patrols. These may have decreased in recent years, but they are still present.  This allows a sort of “breathing space” for many Palestinians who do not have the necessary work permits to enter Israel legally at the five crossing points and to seek work – although it also enables the occasional terrorist to enter under the guise of a worker and undertake a shooting incident in one of Israel’s cities. One only has to drive by these places, often very close to the official crossing points which are heavily guarded and patrolled, to watch the daily theatre of Palestinian cars stopping, their passengers getting out and running across the border, only to be picked up by employers waiting for them on the other side, in constant cross border communication through the simplest of mobile phones – which know no borders other than their charging rates. In many cases, the border patrols sit in their command cars watching the theatre unfold and only take occasional action as a means of showing who, or so they believe is “in control”.  Indeed, the official crossing points have become major car parks with thousands of cars being left there during the day as those with legal entry documents have to cross on foot. Visit at 5am or 3-4 pm and it is a hub of activity with small commercial and food enterprises having sprung up to cater to the thirsty and hungry people waiting to have their documents and bags checked as they cross and recross on a  daily basis. Crossing through a hole in the fence: Source Times of Israel. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90

There is a triple system of entry and exit through these borders. Palestinians have to abandon their cars, come through on foot and have all their documents checked in a long, tiring process. Israeli citizens driving across the border passages simply have their car waved through, although in many instances – depending on license plate registration –  cars belonging to Arab-Palestinian residents of Israel are stopped and the travellers asked for their identity documents which are then checked on the national computer. This three fold means of crossing the border is clearly discriminatory, but nevertheless – according to the Israeli defense chiefs – highly effective as indeed the systems deployed at Israel’s international airport when entering or leaving the country. 

Many of these border crossing points are franchised out to non army defense related organisations, composed of ex army personnel, who  operate within the framework of a national policy. Human Rights NGO’s, such as Machsom Watch, who record activities at some of the crossing points, often show that it is the non army franchisees who are tougher and more stringent in the way they manage the border crossing process.  

COVID 19: Although beyond the scope of this brief review, The Corona virus has proved just how difficult it is to manage borders as a means of preventing people from entering or leaving the country. No amount of travel bans, tests at the airports or origin and destination, have succeeded in sealing the country in the face of infection, especially of new variants. Covid has tested, and continues to test, border control to its utmost capability and while draconian entry and exit procedures may have had a  limited (albeit important) impact, it will never be complete.  Corona crosses the most fortified borders. Source: Open access borderc caricature collection David Newman

Some of Israel’s borders have yet to be finally demarcated, but that does not mean that Israel is an unbordered country. Quite the contrary. But while in the past, borders have sought to prevent all “undesirable” elements from entering the country, their effectiveness is constantly being brought into question.   It is a constant battle to  out perform the  ways in which the other side find a way of crossing the border – whether it be to wreak violence or just to find employment – and this does not always necessitate the use of the most expensive or highly technological means at their disposal. Managing and controlling the country’s borders faces new challenges on a monthly basis.  Even if and when the country’s borders are finally demarcated as part of peace agreements with their neighbours, there will be many unanswered questions concerning the best ways to manage the borders – assuming that they will never be entirely open with free access to anyone entering or leaving the country.