On Israel-Egypt Border, Best Defense Is a Good Fence

Massive construction is being rushed along Israel's border with Egypt, where a monster of a fence is being built. No less than the West Bank separation fence, this project is reshaping Israel's political and security situation.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A gray metallic strip, 70-kilometers long, winds across the desert in the southern part of the border between Israel and Egypt. Far from the public eye, yet visible from afar, a vast project to put a high-tech fence between Egypt and Israel is being carried out with surprising speed.

The fence being built in the south is five meters high - twice the height of the separation fence in the territories and of the fences on Israel's other borders - and is changing the reality along the border. This year it consumed some 15 percent of the country's annual steel consumption.

The built portion of the fence earlier this month. Sixty-five kilometers of the 240-kilometer-long fence have been completed. The fence is almost immune to attack.Credit: Alon Ron

By the end of next January, the first 100 kilometers of the fence will be in place. Barring unexpected delays, the whole project (apart from a 13-kilometer enclave near Eilat ) will be completed by the end of next year.

The southern fence doesn't have the feel of a rushed project quickly built under duress, like the West Bank separation fence, which was built in the wake of a number of devastating attacks by Palestinians during the second intifada. But it, too, is being pushed along with surprising speed by political winds and security needs.

The declarations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009, about the need to build a fence that would prevent the entry of infiltrators from Sinai, took on heightened urgency with the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt early this year.

The infiltration of a terrorist squad from Sinai on August 18, which resulted in eight Israeli deaths along Highway 12, which runs along the border, was the final act that propelled the words into deeds. Dozens of bulldozers are now at work at some 50 sites along the border.

The fence will stretch along 240 kilometers, from the Kerem Shalom passage in the north to Eilat in the south.

The fence was originally planned for socioeconomic purposes: to block the infiltration of refugees and asylum seekers from Africa, who, it was claimed, were also a security risk. Last year, about 13,500 people entered Israel across the border with Egypt, and a similar number is expected to enter this year.

But the priorities change. As the terrorist attack in August made clear, the breaches also serve terrorists. If they are not sealed, Eilat will face a serious wave of attacks and the entire Negev will be exploited for arms smuggling and for the infiltration of militants - whose destination will be the center of Israel and the West Bank - from Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

Brig. Gen. Eran Ophir, 54, a logistics officer by training, spent his entire army career in the technological and logistics directorate. He is known as a top-notch go-getter, and the Israel Defense Forces recruited him on several occasions for major projects, such as the disengagement from Gaza.

He started to handle fence projects after the chief of staff at the time, Dan Halutz, introduced structural changes that led to the abolition of the logistics unit he headed. (The unit was restored after the Second Lebanon War.)

Ophir was appointed to head "Derech Acheret" (Another Way ), a joint IDF-Defense Ministry directorate which is building the separation fence between Israel and the West Bank. But the dwindling financial investment in that project, compounded by legal problems, led to its slowdown and near cessation. Ophir was thereupon appointed to manage other infrastructure projects as well. On the southern border, Ophir is free to work at his own pace - without the High Court of Justice and without B'Tselem.

The fence is being built meticulously on the borderline, in some cases even east of it, in Israeli territory. It will not annex private land, because there are no private landholdings near the border.

The project is being coordinated in part with environmental organizations, despite the large-scale damage to the desert terrain. Unlike the separation fence, the fence in the south is not attracting the attention of the international court in The Hague or the rage of left-wing activists like those who demonstrate every week at Bil'in in the West Bank.

Seen up close, the barrier looks almost impassable, at least to a casual visitor. Its metal is almost immune to attack. It is hard to climb it and it looks as though it will be difficult to tunnel under it. The diagonal rods in the top part of the fence pose serious deterrents to the possibility of climbing over it.

"It is indeed a monster," says the deputy director general of the Defense Ministry, Brig. Gen. (res. ) Bezalel Treiber. "Seen from the Egyptian side, the fence overall is quite frightening."

Still, he adds, there is no such thing as an impassable obstacle. "I imagine that if Sayeret Matkal were given enough time to prepare, it would find a way to get across," he says, referring to the elite Israeli commando unit. "It always depends on the effort that is put in. But this fence is a lot harder than in other places in Israel and also tougher than the fence on the United States-Mexico border. It should be enough against infiltrators and terrorists, even if over time they will look for weak points that might be passable. We will have to install more detection methods at those points."

Treiber spent much of his army service in Sinai. "Even so, it took time for me to internalize the fact that this is something else. It was only after I drove twice along the entire route that I grasped the scale of the thing," he says.

Far from people, but far from troops

The heart of the problem with defending the Israeli Egyptian border is the vast areas, which cannot be covered by a dense deployment of forces. "It is impossible to count on the company commander reaching an infiltration point within minutes of getting the alarm, as can be done in the Lebanon sector. It could take him as much as a quarter of an hour," says Treiber.

The solution is not a fence which just alerts the sector when it is touched, but a fence that is harder to cross, which is backed up by radar and observation means which are supposed to cover the strip west of the border.

Its relative advantage over the fence in the north or the Green Line fence lies in its distance from population centers. The force deployment along the northern fence was worked out on the basis of the assumption (which gloomy experience proved correct ) that a terrorist who crosses it will be able to get to the homes in the communities of Avivim or Zarit, along the Lebanon border, within minutes.

Ahead of the disengagement from Gaza, the Sharon government allotted the Defense Authorities millions of NIS for intelligence deployment aimed at preventing infiltrations from Gaza to Sinai and from there to the Negev. The investment generated significant operational benefits, but they proved insufficient following the collapse of Egyptian control in Sinai.

A senior General Staff officer told Haaretz, "The intelligence cover is a point of weakness which is always a subject for constant improvement in the area. In the absence of sufficient intelligence for the time being, the operative logic does not rely only on intelligence. The conception is, among other things, that radar alerts us to movement and the observation means are directed there and locate it."

The intelligence gap is due to the character of the organizations that are now active in Sinai. They are not more Palestinian squads but Bedouin groups, some of which get funding and training from organizations in the Gaza Strip, while others have ties to global Jihad organizations, which take their inspiration from ideas propounded by Osama bin Laden.

The high-level planning and operational skills displayed by the assailants in the August attack took the IDF by surprise.

The attack was planned carefully, using an effective division into secondary squads which were assigned specific tasks. The attack resembled a pitched battle, far larger and more sophisticated than anything attempted by the Palestinians in the eleven years that have passed since the eruption of the second intifada.

There is no comparison between the prior effort this kind of attack requires and the dispatch of another brainwashed suicide bomber from a Nablus mosque to blow up a bus in Tel Aviv. Only the abduction of the reserve soldiers by Hezbollah, an event which triggered the Lebanon war of 2006, is comparable to the scale of the August assault.

The attack obliged not only a speedup in the building of the fence, but also a significant reinforcement of the forces along this poorly-guarded border. The number of forces was almost doubled, and a regular brigade was headquartered in the southern sector; it is currently being manned by the Nahal paramilitary brigade.

The work being done by Treiber and Ophir is being overseen by the deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, who conducts a weekly meeting to monitor the project's progress, and by the GOC Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Tal Russo, who is setting the order of priorities for sealing the various sectors.

"After the August incident," the senior General Staff source says, "we realized that we could not take another similar attack. Eilat would not be able to cope. The effort is now focused on stabilizing the sector, until the fence is complete."

In a tour of the fence last Tuesday, we saw two large Intelligence Corps observation balloons hovering over the southern part of the border. There were very few civilian vehicles on Highway 12, which abuts the border, where the attack occurred. Travel on the road is restricted, and in part is conditional on a close army escort.

The new fence is already in place at the point where the terrorists crossed the border, but not far from there, the old fence, an outdated barbed-wire fixture, is still in place.

"A child can cross it in half a minute," Treiber says.

Ophir travels the route between the work crews. "Look what's been done here in less than a year," he says proudly. "When there is no interference, I can fly."

Seal everything, or nothing at all

As of our tour, work on 65 kilometers of the 240 had been completed. The fence is going up at a rate of 800 meters a day.

The initial government decision authorized the building of a fence along 83 kilometers, but afterward, Treiber notes, "It turned out that without sealing the whole sector you seal nothing."

The work, for which NIS 1.35 billion has been budgeted (half from the defense budget and half made available by the Finance Ministry ), is expected to be concluded by the end of next year. This does not include the closure of 13 kilometers in the Eilat enclave, which is tough, steep terrain and will require an additional NIS 200 million at least to build a fence there.

Treiber promises "zero deviations from the timetable and the budget."

The majority of the work on the project was commissioned via public tenders. However, in the case of the radar, the Defense Ministry decided to choose an off-the-shelf product, on the grounds that embarking on operational experiments would delay the completion of the project by two years. Even so, some security firms have voiced complaints about the project's management.

No less than the West Bank separation fence, the Egyptian border fence is reshaping Israel's political and security situation. The project, which was engendered by an urgent problem, will have far-reaching implications, ranging from the personal security of Eilat's residents and of the many tourists who visit the resort town, to Israel's future relations with Egypt.

The effects of investment in fencing can be seen best along the border with Syria in the Golan Heights. After Palestinian and Syrian demonstrators managed to infiltrate the border during Nakba Day rioting, Ophir's directorate was called in to repair the fence on the Golan Heights and the surrounding infrastructure, at a cost of some NIS 50 million.

Since then, Treiber says, "demonstrators have come from Syria, seen that the fence is impassable, and gone back."

Before the events of May and June, the Golan Heights occupied a very low slot in the order of infrastructure priorities. Prior investment in defending the border might have allowed Israel to escape the damage caused by that imbroglio.