Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Israel’s New Separation Barrier: Isolating Gaza from the West Bank for Good?

Israel- Gaza fence
A picture taken on February 4, 2019, from Erez in southern Israel shows construction work on the new border fence with the northern border of the Gaza Strip. Photo AFP

In February 2019, Israel moved into the last phase of construction of a six-metre-high galvanized steel fence that will completely surround the Gaza Strip. The fence will run for 65 kilometres, from Zikim in the north to the Kerem Shalom crossing in the south, and will sit above an underground concrete section fitted with advanced sensors and monitoring devices.

It will also connect to a barrier built out into the Mediterranean Sea following the 2014 war, when Israeli forces killed four Hamas gunmen who managed to cross into its territory by sea. The underwater wall and breakwater were completed in January 2019.

The construction is being jointly carried out by the Israel military forces, Defense Ministry Borders and Security Fence Directorate. The overall project is due to be completed by the end of the year, according to the Israeli army, and is expected to cost around $830 million.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the fence was needed to “prevent the infiltration of terrorists into our territory”. It is part of a broader security strategy aimed at building barriers between Israel and all neighbouring states to protect the country from what Netanyahu called “wild beasts”. These barriers include a 200km fence on the border with Egypt, a 70km fence on the border with Syria in the contested Golan Heights, a 130km fence on the border with Lebanon, a 30km fence on the Jordanian border and a separation wall around the West Bank, which, according to the United Nations, will run for 712km once completed.

Although the Israeli authorities have invoked security reasons for building the latest fence, they are also pursuing political goals. According to an analysis by Masarat, the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, Hamas’ ability to create an effective offensive force during the 2014 war sparked controversy within Israeli security circles, prompting a rethink of their strategy to avoid similar failures in the future, in particular regarding the neutralization of attack tunnels under the border.

Approval for the construction of the Gaza fence is thus a response both to a perceived security threat and to complaints from the leaders of the settlements in the areas immediately adjacent to the strip, who say the Israeli army is failing to protect them. In addition, the fence aims to further separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, potentially ending for good the possibility of a two-state solution.

According to journalist and researcher Basem Aly, the fence may also seriously compromise any Palestinian strategy to obtain concessions from Israel. In his opinion, the shrinking space for armed struggle will deprive Palestinians of a significant tool in any negotiation process.

Gaza wall
Sources: Wikipedia and Click to enlarge. ©Fanack
In the past, he wrote in an analysis piece, armed struggle has been a key element of the Palestinian strategy to reach a meaningful agreement with Israel. During the Oslo process in 1993, for instance, Israel agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in exchange for an end to confrontation and conflict. Indeed, Palestinian leaders opted for decades for a dual approach combining both diplomacy and paramilitary operations.

On the one hand, diplomacy has successfully increased international support for Palestine’s statehood ambitions, as highlighted by UNESCO’s decision to grant Palestine full membership in 2011 and the UN General Assembly vote to accord Palestine non-member observer status in 2012.

On the other hand, despite regular clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli forces on the Israel-Gaza border, the fence is likely to erode the pressure Palestinians can effectively exert on Israel. To Aly’s mind, it is no coincidence that the expansion of settlements over the past decade combined with increased control over the Palestinian territories have intersected with “a decline in the number of terrorist attacks, mainly due to the presence of the West Bank barrier that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon built in 2002 in response to Israeli public pressure”.

Between 2015 and 2018, Israel military forces reported a  gradual drop in West Bank terror attacks, proving the wall’s efficiency in the eyes of Israeli authorities who now want to obtain similar results with the Gaza barrier. However, Gaza is ruled by Hamas, which is the only major stakeholder in the Palestinian political arena still using a confrontational military strategy against Israel. As a recent example, during the last military confrontation on 4-5 May 2019, Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, fired a guided missile at an Israeli vehicle in northern Gaza, killing one Israeli.

Despite several official and unofficial statements from Hamas denying the potential impact of the fence on its activities, it is hard to see at this stage how the movement will be able to continue attacking Israeli targets once construction is complete. A source from the al-Qassam Brigades told al-Monitor that the barrier “will not stop the resistance from firing guided missiles at Israeli vehicles in any new confrontation”. In the same article, Hamas spokesperson Abdel Latif al-Qanou said that the wall would neither bring safety to Israel “nor prevent the resistance from dealing its blow”.

What the fence is likely to achieve is a deterioration in the already dire human rights situation. Israel’s near-total blockade of Gaza since 2007 has restricted access to most basic needs, including electricity and medical supplies. In addition, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, between 30 March 2018 and 22 March 2019, 195 Palestinians, including 41 children, were killed by Israeli forces in the Great March of Return demonstrations, including during the weekly protests and night-time activities near the perimeter fence and protests against the naval blockade at the beach. A further 28,939 Palestinians were injured, 25 per cent of which by live ammunition, in these demonstrations.