Israel-Egypt barrier construction - Reuters - November 25 2011
A security guard watches the construction of the Israel-Egypt barrier. Photo by Reuters
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Israel-Egypt border fence map
The fence's planned route (dotted line)

The flood of media reports on the release of kidnapped Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit neglected one detail: The day before the prisoner exchange went through, scores of African labor migrants that had been detained in the Saharonim prison in the Negev appeared on the streets of South Tel Aviv. In order to make room at Saharonim for Hamas prisoners awaiting release in exchange for Shalit, the security establishment had freed the migrants, who scattered around Israel.

It probably won't be long until Saharonim fills up again. It already has 80 new labor migrants who were caught on Highway 10, near the Israeli-Egyptian border, a week after Shalit's release. These kind of events occur daily, and are not reported in the media.

These 80 migrants, like those who preceded them, were brought through the Sinai by Bedouin traffickers. They climbed a fence built by cattle ranchers and then sat down on the road, where the Israel Defense Forces scooped them up by truck. In a few months they will be in Tel Aviv, Arad, Eilat or other cities, working in hotels, washing dishes, cleaning or doing any other job at the bottom of Israel's labor ladder. All these jobs offer pay considered handsome in the places they left.

Over the past five years, 30,000 to 40,000 labor migrants have entered Israel. Most claim to be asylum seekers, and they present the country with huge challenges. This illegal immigration is supposed to end in exactly one year, with the completion of a border fence between Israel and Egypt, a massive project with a NIS 1.35 billion budget.

The politicians will call the problem solved, but not everyone agrees. Yonatan Berman, a lawyer with the Hotline for Migrant Workers, says a physical barrier won't make the problem go away.

"Israel has taken several steps in recent years designed to deter asylum seekers - it has detained people, it has forced them to stay north of Hadera and south of Gedera [outside Israel's center] and it has instituted other measures that haven't achieved the desired effect. Israel and other Western countries haven't understood that there are more comprehensive factors here that go beyond local policies and barriers, and that they influence the influx of asylum seekers and labor migrants."

Meanwhile, the landscape between Nitzana and Eilat, one of the most beautiful in the country, is undergoing a change. Bulldozers energetically flatten low hills. Contractors lay tons of iron on the ground and unfurl barbed wire, and build observation towers equipped with advanced technology to warn of approaching intruders. Once this barrier is complete, the border with Jordan will be Israel's only frontier without one.

The border between Israel and Egypt was drawn in 1906 by British officers, who marked the area between Rafah and Aqaba to define the boundary between the British and Ottoman empires. They simply drew a straight line on the map, without taking demographic or topographical features into account.

"The British drew this border - parts they marked on the map with a line, because there were difficult-to-reach places, and parts they marked with posts and barrels on the ground," says Prof. Elisha Efrat, a geographer and Israel Prize laureate. "This is the first time borders drawn up by the ruling powers, all of them artificial borders, are being massively realized on the ground through fences and trenches, and with orderly crossing points. This doesn't exist along other borders drawn up at that time, like those between Iran and Iraq, Iraq and Jordan or Iraq and Turkey."

A fence to stop infiltrators

So far, 65 kilometers of fence are complete. By January, another 40 kilometers will have been added to that. By October, six months ahead of schedule, the Defense Ministry says the entire project will be completed - 240 kilometers from Rafah to Ein Netafim. The fence will end 14 kilometers north of Eilat, but the southernmost part of the border is full of cliffs, and the security establishment believes it doesn't need a fence. This segment will be secured by technological surveillance and other means.

The fence is about five meters high and is comprised of thick metal bars that should be hard to break. It will be backed by radar systems and cameras, some on 30-meter towers spaced along the border.

"We were instructed to build a fence designed to stop infiltrators. They told us that the fence must stop a person trying to break through for at least half an hour, until the security forces arrive," says Ehud Cohen, CEO of Yehuda Fences, which is building the barrier.

Traces of an earlier fence built by ranchers still line the border. "Discussion of this fence began back in 2001," says Eitan Gorni, deputy director of the Israel Anti-Drug Authority. "IDF commanders took note of the problem since it was a matter of drug smuggling, arms and labor migrants. There were fewer labor migrants then, which might be why they waited."

Trafficking in women was one of the most egregious problems at the time. Every year, some 1,000 Eastern European women were being smuggled across the border to work as prostitutes in Tel Aviv. Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On, who headed the committee addressing the matter, remembers many proposals to close the wide-open border but nothing happened.

"They kept telling us that very, very soon they would start to build," she recalls. "Ministers would address the committee and say they were budgeting more money for the fence. But in the end nothing happened."

In the meantime, however, thanks to new legislation and aggressive enforcement against traffickers in women, the phenomenon dropped off sharply by 2008, though it still exists.

The current project is based on the security establishment's 2005 Hourglass plan, which called for building a fence and increasing troop presence in the south. About NIS 200 million was invested in the plan, a piddling sum compared to the current NIS 1.35 billion project.

Two significant events in 2005 led to the fence's construction: One was the riots in Cairo targeting refugees from Darfur, which left dozens dead and drove refugees to try their luck in Israel. Others from Sudan and Eritrea crossed over from Egypt in their wake. More people have come every year since then. Egypt currently has an estimated 2 million African refugees, and Israel is concerned they may cross the border in increasing numbers.

The second significant event was Israel's pullout from Gaza and the IDF's withdrawal from the Philadelphi route between Gaza and Sinai. Since then, hostile elements have infiltrated Sinai via Gaza. This resulted in several terror attacks around Eilat in recent years. The most recent - and most deadly - was in August, when a terrorist cell killed 10 soldiers and civilians.

"Back then the challenge wasn't solving the problem for the next few years, but for the next few weeks," says MK Avi Dichter, who was public security minister in Ehud Olmert's government. "People believed that a good fence would deter smugglers more than infiltrators, who want to get caught, and for whom a fence would only delay matters. Therefore, first of all I wanted to set up a facility that could hold all the infiltrators who were crossing the border at the time."

Meanwhile, Israel tried to solve the problem diplomatically. At one point Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised Olmert that Israel could send infiltrators back to Egypt, where they could stay. However, it quickly became clear that Mubarak was not keeping his promise to accept the refugees' return. International covenants prevented Israel from sending the Africans back to their countries of origin unless it knew they would be safe there.

"Mubarak's commitment to Olmert held for only 32 infiltrators," says Dichter. "Thus, the IDF was transporting infiltrators, not stopping them. The hot potato was passed on to the Prison Service and from there to the Interior Ministry, which had to give the sojourners residence visas, and essentially onto the entire Israeli public, in whose midst the migrants live. The biggest problem was that the Foreign Ministry did not reach a serious arrangement that would enable thousands to be returned home."

Political pressure

Ultimately, the issue landed on the doorstep of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, which has faced extensive social repercussions from it, such as demonstrations against foreigners in Tel Aviv's Hatikva Quarter and in Bat Yam, as well as claims that Africans are taking jobs from Israelis. Additionally, a public movement arose calling for a fence along the Egyptian border. But the Netanyahu government was not too keen to build, mainly due to budget considerations.

The government was forced to capitulate in the wake of a private member's bill drafted by National Union MK Yaakov Katz. In December 2009, Katz and 10 other MKs submitted a draft bill calling for construction of a fence within two years and mandating a special budget for the project. About two months later, the Netanyahu government approved the fence project.

"Netanyahu did not really want the law to pass but he realized it had a majority in the Knesset," says Katz. "There were a lot of good people who opposed it because they didn't know where the IDF would get the money."

Katz says the fence ultimately will cost more than was budgeted. "I'm sure it isn't going to cost NIS 1.35 billion, but rather NIS 3 to 4 billion. My bill set a budget of NIS 1.5 billion for part of the border, whereas the current plan is to fence off the whole thing. It will be nearly impossible to complete it with the current budget."

Dichter agrees. "I hope it will cost only NIS 3 to 4 billion," he says.

A Defense Ministry source vehemently disagrees with both men. "This project will cost NIS 1.35 billion," he says. "Many tenders have already been issued and we already know what tenders are needed to complete the project. At most, a few million shekels will be added, if the government decides to add measures in the south where a physical fence isn't being built."

Reasons of military security may boost the numbers of the fence's supporters, but when the plan was approved in January 2010, it was mainly intended to block illegal migrants. In this way it resembles the border fence going up between Mexico and the United States - a fence between the fat first world and the hungry developing world that wants a better life.

During the discussions regarding the fence bill in early 2010, officials from the Defense Ministry, with the support of their boss, Ehud Barak, insisted that they should contribute as little as possible to the fence's budget. They argued that the fence was intended solely for civilian purposes, that Israel was at peace with Egypt and that the money would be better used in developing the Iron Dome anti-rocket system and securing other borders. Ultimately it was decided to split the budget equally between the Finance Ministry and the Defense Ministry over several years.

"What is the role of the defense establishment? To protect the country," says a senior Finance Ministry official. "The Brodet Committee, which delved deeply into the defense budget, explicitly stated that this project should be funded from the Defense Ministry budget. But that's how it is with them. Like Eyal Gabbai, the former director general of the Prime Minister's Office, said, 'If the soldiers are sitting, the Defense Ministry demands more money for them to stand.'"

Winners and losers

The two companies that are building the fence - and which are apparently receiving most of the money - are Yehuda Fences and Be'er Sheva Fine Metals. The earth-moving contractors are also getting a pretty big piece of the cake. It's the defense industry that's feeling left out and believes it could have gotten a larger share.

"All of the industry very much wants a part of this project," says Ittai Bar-Joseph, chief operating officer of DefenSoft, which planned parts of the fence. "The moment it emerged that we had won the tender to plan the fence, I received dozens of calls from fence or electronics companies offering to sell equipment. Some tried to influence the planning process to include their technology."

His company withstood the pressure and ultimately saved the defense establishment 30 percent on the costs of building the fence near Eilat, he says.

Bar-Joseph refuses to name names, but one of the companies directly pressuring the defense establishment is veteran fence company Magal Security Systems Ltd, headed by former Shin Bet chief Jacob Perry. The company, whose fences line nearly all of Israel's borders, wants the Egyptian fence to be an indicative fence, too - meaning an electronic partition that brings troops rushing in every time it is touched. Magal and the defense contractor Elbit are the only companies authorized to install this kind of system within Israel. If Magal's proposal is accepted, this means the project would cost 10 to 12 percent more than the current NIS 1.35 billion budget.

Magal officials have been campaigning almost since the moment the government decided to build the fence, but the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the August terror attack provided them with a tailwind.

"When the fence was approved, the goal was to block infiltrators, but since then things have changed and Egypt isn't stable anymore," explains former Shin Bet chief Perry. "Experience defending Israel's borders shows that the most effective fence is an indicative fence."

Eitan Livneh, the company's CEO, says installing a Magal fence is worth the additional cost. "In terms of costs versus benefits, it's logical. If they want to add electronic defenses once the fence is already built, it will be more complicated and costly," he says.

The past few years have not been good for Magal. In 2010, for example, the company lost $6.2 million, though it has shown signs of recovery this year. "It's unbelievable that the company is taking advantage of its executives' connections to get jobs, while it's pretty clear that the fence [as originally planned] is a reasonable fence," says a defense industry source. "This is nerve. An indicative fence is last generation. This fence and its electronic means [as currently planned] are the right choice. They let soldiers from the Golani and Givati brigades try to climb it, and they couldn't."

Livneh rebuts the criticism. "True, I do have an interest, but I believe in what I say. The final decision lies with the Defense Ministry authorities. Radar systems have dead zones and problems in certain weather conditions. Therefore indicative is best. It's working well along all the borders - why wouldn't it work along the Egyptian border?"

The last time the IDF approved the Magal and Elbit fence standards was in 2001. Since then, it has not conducted new tests, so other companies in the field cannot offer the IDF fences of their own. This means that if Magal does persuade the defense establishment to build an indicative fence, it is almost certain to receive a large share of the work.

Six months ago, for example, the defense establishment called on Magal - without a tender - to build a fence along the Syrian border, after the Nakba Day riots there. A Defense Ministry source said other bids were not solicited because other parts of that border already had a Magal fence.

Defense sources have not yet made a final decision regarding Magal's recommendations but "We want to build the best barrier possible. The budget needs to be realistic. If the fence needs additions, [like those that Magal is proposing] we will consider as many possibilities as we can," says a top Defense Ministry official.

This certainly would not please Magal's competitors that have not yet won IDF approval. "The civilian systems are far more advanced than the army-approved systems," says Cohen from Yehuda Fences. "It's infuriating that someone who passed a test 10 years ago gets the job today only on a technicality."

Another big winner is Israel Aerospace Industries' ELTA Group, whose radar system is slated to be used along the border. Radar systems from competitor Magna will also be used. Since there is no communications infrastructure in the area, optical fibers will be laid along the entire 240-kilometer fence, to enable transmission of the information from the cameras and the radar systems. Laying the optical fibers is expected to cost millions of shekels, and the tender for the bulk of that work is expected to be issued soon.

However, a small segment is already being carried out without a tender by Bezeq, which has major contracts with the security establishment. This has raised complaints by competitors, who suspect Bezeq will have an advantage when the larger tender is issued.

"Somehow, and especially on these large projects, it's always Bezeq. And this is outrageous," says an executive at a competitor.

Humanitarian disaster

The fights between defense establishment contractors are certainly the last thing that interests the African migrants. Some in Israel call them infiltrators or foreign workers, while others, mainly human rights organizations, consider them asylum-seekers and refugees from persecution at home.

Many of them go through a tortuous journey that starts in Sudan or Eritrea and continues through Egypt. A group of Bedouin living in northern Sinai detains them and tortures them. In some cases, women are raped and arrive in Israel pregnant. The human rights organizations hope the fence will at least stop these crimes.

"Smuggling has become a humanitarian disaster," says a source close to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Bedouin in Sinai detain a considerable portion of the border crossers, torture them and force them to call relatives in Eritrea or Israel to pay for their release, sometimes as much as $10,000. These Bedouin have turned this into a multi-million-dollar business. If it becomes more difficult to cross the border, then hopefully this whole industry, which starts back in Cairo, will be damaged."

Most of the migrants are Eritreans, who are flee religious persecution or military service back home. There are an estimated 25,000 of them in Israel. UN data indicates that 88 percent of Eritrean migrants have received official refugee status in other Western countries.

In Israel, however, they are neither granted refugee status nor deported, with the exception of 700 deportees. After several months in a detention camp, they are released by authorities, who are forbidden by international law from deporting them, and generally reach Israeli cities and look for work. In recent months they have begun appearing at construction sites, and there are even some who are working for the contractors building the fence.

Israel's policy regarding migrant workers is to declare that it needs to reduce their numbers, yet it is not sealing the door hermetically. This raises questions as to whether the fence will actually keep them out. What would happen if a group of refugees were to congregate on the other side of the fence or climb it slowly and carefully? The Africans' aim is merely to get caught, so that after a few months in detention they can start working here.

"I don't believe the fence will be effective," says the UNHCR source. "As long as they're earning $20 to $30 a month in Cairo versus $1,000 in Israel, they'll continue trying to cross, even if it becomes more difficult. The tunnel industry on the Gaza-Egypt border is a good example of this. I am not sure the Bedouin making their living from this won't try to find a similar solution."

Dichter also questions whether the fence will solve the problem. "If the only measure is putting up a fence, it isn't going to solve the problem, just like the West Bank fence alone did not solve the terror problem," he says. "Ways will be found to cross the barrier, because the smuggling money is so good. Therefore, even after the state's massive investment, we will still have to deal with the problem."