Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Seeing Israel from Aloft: The Perspective from the Skies

In 1998, while still Governor of Texas, George W. Bush was taken on a helicopter tour of Israel by Ariel Sharon, then Minister of National Infrastructure. As yet on the sidelines of power, he had ample time on his hands for such a venture. The view from above forever changed Bush's perspective on the realities of Israel's security needs. While hovering over the narrow 9 mile waist of Israel, Bush was said to have quipped, "we have longer driveways on our ranches in Texas." This gave Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, President and Founder of The Israel Project (TIP) the idea to launch an amazingly successful informational and educational project known as "Intellicopter Tours."

Yesterday, The Israel Project graciously flew me around the country as part of this now legendary offering to foreign journalists. To date, TIP has flown over 600 foreign journalists on these rides. There is nothing like seeing the physical landscape from above to gain an indispensable perspective on the realities of Israel's security concerns. We left Herzilya Airport along the coast of the Mediterranean and within minutes were at the edge of the West Bank, hovering over Tulkarm and Qalqilya. At it's most narrow, Israel's 'waist' is a mere 9 miles wide. The coastal plain, where 80% of Israelis live, is literally minutes away from the West Bank in certain places. The security barrier, erroneously-and often maliciously-referred to as 'The Wall,' is in fact almost entirely composed of wire fence. One can see how it winds around the country, with less than 5% of its ultimate 800 kilometers to be constructed of concrete, or wall. Yes, the barrier is a concrete wall in Qalqilya, but as Calev Ben-David, Communications Director of TIP points out, this is because Qalqilya sits on a hill above Highway 6, a major north-south artery for Israelis, and until the construction of the wall there, Israeli motorists were at the mercy of snipers shooting down on them for the hilltops of Qalqilya.

Following the snaking barrier from the air, one can see that it is predominately a fence until Jerusalem. There, the barrier is in fact a wall and that is where most of the almost 5% of concrete that constitutes the wall portion of the security barrier is located. It seems cruel and harsh until one understands why. As Calev explains, the fence has built in motion detectors and infra-red cameras, allowing the IDF to monitor any suspicious activity approaching. But it detects motion for approximately 3 meters or close to ten feet. This would be completely impractical for the densely populated and pedestrian-heavy streets of Jerusalem, effectively creating a 10 foot no man's land. As much of an eyesore as the wall may be in Jerusalem, it is a more humane solution than prohibiting Palestinians from walking their own streets. As is often the case, perspective is vital to truly understanding the situation on the ground. Calev pointed out again and again that the Fence/wall is a security barrier and in no way a political barrier. In fact, on several occasions, the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that the fence must be re-formatted closer to the Green Line to allow for greater mobility of the Palestinians. Israel is constantly balancing her own very real security needs with humanitarian concerns for the Palestinians. On occasion, the Israeli Supreme Court overrules the Israeli Army and mandates that the route of the barrier be altered, as just happened again earlier this month when the court ordered the route of the fence to be redrawn in Bi'ilin, a West Bank village where Palestinians (and internationalists) brought the suit to the court.

The armistice line of 1949, known by most people as the Green Line, is all that Israel laid claim to up until the 1967 Six Day War. Since then, the territories beyond have remained disputed. What is indisputable though, is that until the beginning of the construction of the security barrier in 2002, young men from Tulkarm, Qalqilya, and hosts of other towns and villages within the West Bank could simply walk across a very porous de facto border, cross an open field, and within minutes be in an Israeli city like Kfar Saba (less than a kilometer away). It was only after dozens of such sojourns by terrorists with explosives strapped to their belts that Israel took action, and began a more vigilant system of protecting its citizenry from suicide bombings. Contrary to all the naysayers, the security barrier works in exactly the way it was intended. Where it is finished, suicide bombing terror attacks are down over 90% from the height of second Intifada, just a few years ago.

We flew on to Sderot, a development town in the south of the country, only a few kilometers away from the border with Gaza. Sderot has borne the brunt of the Qassam missile attacks from Gaza, over 4,000 to date; over 2,000 since Israel withdrew completely from Gaza in the summer of 2005. Calev explained that the Qassams are often mischaracterized as home-made bombs, largely ineffective and landing in stray, open fields. But this belies the fact that when they do land in civilian areas they can indeed be deadly weapons. Moreover, as a weapon of terror they are inordinately successful because of their randomness and unpredictably. In less than 30 seconds from their firing, these missiles land indiscriminately outside (or inside) day care centers, homes, playgrounds, and businesses. There is no effective means of stopping them, short of Israel re-occupying parts of northern Gaza, something Israel is understandably reluctant to do. While the army can detect where the missiles are fired from, the problem with retaliation is that they are often fired from just outside houses in Gaza, and if Israel were to strike back, it would inevitably cause death and injury to civilians.
The most sophisticated of the Qassams now have a range of as much as 12 kilometers, putting Ashkelon in their sites. God forbid, were the power plants of Ashkelon (providing power to not just southern Israel but also to Gaza) to be hit, Israel would be forced to take more stringent measures. In the meantime, Israel is engaged in an unwanted game of Russian roulette.

It's hard not to come away from this tour with a renewed appreciation for the security dilemmas Israel faces, especially with the radical and uncompromising Islamists of Hamas now holding the reins of power in Gaza and much of the West Bank. It's so easy to pass judgement on Israel from the comfort of European perches or American universities, but to see with one's own eyes the very real threats this tiny country is surrounded by must give one pause. In the face of such imminent and daily threats to her security, it is hard to not be in awe of the admirable way Israel handles her citizenry's security needs, ever conscious of the moral (and sometimes legal) mandate to balance those needs with ordinary Palestinians' humanitarian rights. Not an enviable task.

Let me conclude by commenting on the raw beauty and variety of the Israeli landscape. In a land the size of New Jersey, one encounters such a variegated terrain. From tropical Tiberias it is not far to the ski slopes of Mount Hermon in the north; back down to the sandy desert of the Judean Hills; Jerusalem, the city built on seven hills; balmy Tel Aviv and its environs; the arid Negev down to Eilat and the beautiful beaches on the Red Sea. Natural wonders, man-made marvels, and an indomitable spirit all make up the amazing land that is Israel!
david brumer


Lao Qiao said...

Israel builds a wall to protect its citizens against terrorist attacks, and the world condemns it. Read all about this condemnation in "The Mysterious Power of Anti-Zionism" under Politics/Religion on

Anonymous said...

If only the wall is not built on stolen land. If Israel has full right to protect its citizens and if it wishes to, it can bulid a wall that is 2 miles high. But build it on its side of the Green line.