Build a Fence

By Richard Cohen

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

An oxymoron is a contradiction in terms. Here are some humorous ones: military justice, airline food. Here's one that's not so funny: Israeli suicide bomber.

The absurdity of the term alerts you instantly to the nature of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. It's a clash of cultures. One side could never use suicide bombers; the other serves them up on almost a daily basis. One side has soldiers who weep over the bodies of their dead comrades; the other has fighters who transform death into a political statement so that every funeral is a rally.

Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister, is among those who recommend that a fence be erected to separate the two peoples. It is a capital idea -- not a long-term solution, not a peace plan and, of course, not a beautiful sight for the world's TV cameras. Such a fence could separate Palestinians from Jews on the West Bank and those areas of it -- the Jerusalem suburbs, for instance -- that are destined to remain part of Israel for the foreseeable future. The fence would be no uglier than the reality it seeks to control.

This fence would take its place with its historical predecessors -- the Great Wall of China or the one the Roman Emperor Hadrian had built across the north of England. It ran 73 miles and was designed to keep out the "barbarians" -- a word that nowadays you have to put in quotation marks, since it is forbidden to consider one culture inferior to another. So without getting into value judgments, let us just stipulate that Palestinian and Israeli cultures are different -- and that difference requires a fence.

The difference is encapsulated in the chirpy remark of Khalil Takafka, whose daughter, Andaleeb, had just blown up herself and six others at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market. "I am happy," he said. "All girls should do it." His daughter was 20.

I understand. I understand the political situation, the frustration, the humiliation of the Israeli occupation. I have seen it firsthand. I understand the lack of hope, how dim the future is and the hate for the Israelis, who not only have the biggest guns but a swaggering know-how. I understand.

But I do not understand the celebration over the loss of life -- the newspaper notices placed by the proud family of the martyrdom of their son or daughter. I do not understand the lack of bitter regret or grudging reluctance to accept the tactic and, instead, a joyful embrace of suicide-cum-homicide, even when the victims are children, pregnant women or the old. The best -- the only -- thing that can be said of such tactics is that they work. Indeed, they do.

So the fence. There is one between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Anyone who has been there can tell you that the West Bank is Eden by comparison. Gaza is poor. Gaza is a mess. In Gaza, 78 percent of the residents approve of suicide bombings. Yet few suicide bombers have come from Gaza. The reason? The fence.

Conventional wisdom has it that Israel is the dominant power in the region. Conventionally speaking, that's true. But in an interview with my Washington Post colleague Lee Hockstader, a senior Hamas official identified Israel's Achilles' heel. "Anyone reading an Israeli newspaper can see their suffering," said Ismail Haniya. Jews "love life" more than any other people, he said.

Well, I don't know about any other people, but I do know that Jews would never send their young out to blow themselves up and kill innocent people in the process. I do know that they are culturally incapable of such behavior -- although, for sure, here and there a crazed zealot exists.

I do know that no Palestinian military force and none in any of the Arab world would cease burying the enemy dead at the order of a supreme court. This is what just happened in Israel. An Arab brought suit, and Israel's Supreme Court ruled. It's not likely that such a thing could happen even in the United States. Imagine just coming before Antonin Scalia with a demand that he instruct the army on how to bury the enemy dead.

Occupation powers do tough, mean things, and Israel has done them. Israel ought to get out of the West Bank, get out of the settlements -- and get a prime minister who at least believes in the peace process and is not a walking, talking provocation to the Palestinians.

But as quickly as it can, it ought to build that fence, unilaterally disengaging from the Palestinians. What Robert Frost said about a New England wall applies to a Middle East fence. It would make for good neighbors.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company