Special Report

In the Zone

The numbing effect of permanent terror.

By 11.3.03

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Fence, wall, whatever you call it, the barrier Israel is building to seal off the West Bank is drawing a line through more than the desert sands.

I write from Israel, where I have been observing a conference held annually by the Bertelsmann Foundation to bring together young German and Israeli professionals to examine the Middle East conflict and Europe's role therein. Last week, the group was treated to a tour and presentation of what the Israel Defense Force calls the "Seam Zone." The program's participants' names are omitted to encourage open conversation.

At an IDF base at Zur Natan, a breakfast buffet was laid out neatly, as was the IDF's agenda: to disabuse a group of Europeans and some Israeli liberals of their misperceptions. Israel's fence/wall/seam zone has drawn fire at home and abroad because of the image it evokes and because it cuts to the east of the Green Line, Israel's border before the 1967 war and the baseline of many prospective peace deals.

A reporter for a weekly paper in Germany got the ball rolling by asking whether there was any truth to a rumor in her country that staff of the IDF had made a trip to study the Berlin Wall.

"Why would we do that?" a somewhat perplexed IDF spokesman asked. "What could we possibly learn?"

And, anyway, the IDF spokesman wanted to make clear, this isn't a wall. There are sections of the Seam Zone that consist of wall rather than fence, but they constitute only eight kilometers out of 140. These sections are along the Trans Israel Highway, a North-South toll road that is under construction. The road is also under fire from snipers in Palestinian towns along its route.

"It's the only road where you pay to die," an Israeli newspaperman said later, on a visit to a section of the wall. "We call it the death toll."

Many in the group, both Germans and Israelis, seemed surprised by how little wall was involved in the wall/fence. However, there was still the question of the fence's path. The left-leaning Israelis, in particular, were upset, and they accused the IDF spokesman of building a political fence meant to appease the settlers.

"It seems that the fence is running away from the Green Line. Why does it run away?" an Israeli television anchor asked.

The IDF spokesman said that the IDF had charted the course for the line with only security in mind. He didn't manage to convince the objectors, but the spokesman did get their attention with two videos.

"Is this the one of the Lebanese man and the donkey?" Israeli Television cracked as the IDF cued up the films.

When the grainy infrared pictures appeared on the screen, there was no donkey. But we were watching a security film from a fence at the Lebanese border. A man was trying to sneak over the fence at night, but he was visible to the cameras by his body heat. We saw him creep up to the fence, carrying a bag. He threw it over, climbed up the fence, climbed over the barbed wire, dropped to the ground, and retrieved his bag.

It turned out he was only running hashish, the IDF spokesman told us. But he just as easily could have been transporting a bomb.

In the second video, two men are seen making their way toward a security fence, again at the Lebanese border. One stops, and the other walks up farther. The one farther advanced mounts a rocket launcher on his shoulder, steadies, aims, and fires in a burst of white light. He then dashes back to where his friend is hiding, as his friend gives him cover with machine-gun fire.

The two were Hezbollah fighters firing at an Israeli town, the IDF spokesman explained. There were actually four of them carrying out that mission, he said. "Two are not with us anymore."

Later in the day, at a checkpoint, we saw four Palestinian Arab men handcuffed and blindfolded and left baking in the sun. Many of the Germans snapped pictures wildly, looking horrified. The Israelis seemed unaffected, and they theorized about why the men were being detained.

The brutality of this permanent war, thrust upon the Israelis by the terrorists, has been a shock for some of the Europeans here to absorb. But it has been equally shocking for them to see how years of unrelenting terror have numbed this country's people.

With fences so easy to climb -- and to fire rockets over -- it can be hoped that the Germans saw that Israel is within its rights to draw the line wherever it sees fit.

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About the Author

Ryan H. Sager is editorial features editor of the New York Sun, where his column appears Mondays. Email: rhsager@nysun.com