Good fences really don't make good neighbors

March 21, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

ISRAEL and others who support building a security fence to keep out Palestinian terrorists like to quote from Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall," in which a line says "Good fences make good neighbors."

The use of one of America's greatest poets to advance a position of the Israeli government may be designed to appeal to the emotional and cultural synergy that exists between this country and the Jewish state. But there's a problem.

First of all, Frost's poem is not sympathetic to fences, or to the neighbor quoted in the poem as saying, "Good fences make good neighbors." In fact, later in the poem, Frost writes:

"Why do they make good neighbors ?. . .

"Before I built a wall, I'd ask to know

"What I was walling in or out,

"And to whom I was like to give offense."

Israel decidedly is not asking any such questions. There is nothing neighborly about the so-called security fence that Israel is building, for it is designed not just to protect Israelis from terrorists. It also is designed in a way that will pen in the whole Palestinian population and annex to Israel territory that the Palestinians believe to be theirs. The Palestinians have considerable international support for that claim.

Is Israel entitled to build a fence -- a wall is what the barrier will be in some areas -- to protect its people? Of course it is. Just as the United States would be entitled to erect a fence along its borders with Mexico and Canada and to encircle this entire country with electrified barbed wire if it wished to try that.

But the United States would not be entitled to build that security barrier inside Canadian or Mexican territory. That's one of the problems with Israel's fence.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal to build the security fence and to unilaterally separate Israel from the Palestinians is not a new idea. Previous prime ministers thought of it as far back as 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the Six-Day War. But Sharon is acting in the wake of the failure of his own promise to bring security to the people of Israel. Given the hundreds of Israelis who have been killed in suicide bombing attacks and the thousands maimed, who can blame him for wanting to wall off his country?

But Israel has never been willing to state precisely where its borders are. After its first war against the Arabs in 1948, an armistice agreement among the sides set what has been known ever since as the "Green Line" between Israel and the West Bank. The most militant elements of both sides argue that all of former Palestine is rightfully theirs -- the Land of Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River in the minds of Israeli hard-liners; exactly the same territory for Palestine in the minds of Palestinian hard-liners. The Green Line is a border acceptable to enough people on both sides to make it a reasonable line for a security fence.

But Sharon wants more. His fence will take in chunks of Palestinian territory -- or at least disputed territory -- to increase the territory of Israel and to embrace settlements Israel has built illegally on the West Bank during its 37-year occupation.

If that were all Israel intends, with the annexation of a minimal amount of now-occupied territory, it might be a point to work from. But there is more.

The most benign implication of the Israeli plan, one that follows from the notion that good fences make good neighbors, is that once separated from the Israelis, the Palestinians would go about the business of turning themselves into good neighbors; they would become such good neighbors that in time there would be no need for a fence.

In order for that to happen, a huge measure of dignity would have to be restored to the Palestinians -- more than just getting rid of their own hopeless leadership. They, too, have suffered extraordinary hardship, brutality and hopelessness. Their dead and wounded from the punishment Israel has inflicted upon them number far greater than Israel's. And the casualties are not all terrorists; they include many, many innocents.

Once Israel has built its security fence, will it then allow Palestinians free passage among their own communities? Will it allow the Palestinians to have their fair share of the precious water resources in the region? Will it allow Palestinians to travel freely across the borders between the West Bank and Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Egypt? Will the Palestinians be allowed to use Gaza as a free seaport, and the airport there to travel abroad? Will Israel allow free trade for the Palestinians and not resist attempts by the international community to help them build a viable state? Will it stop launching lethal attacks from the air and land that have destroyed so much Palestinian infrastructure?

If Israel were to do all of these things, something might come of it. But Israel will not.

I expect that neither the people who have come to see me lately in support of the fence nor those who are against it will be helped by it. They have included Lea Zur and Florence Bianu, Israeli mothers of young people killed by Palestinian suicide bombers, and Nahla Assali and Nuha Khoury, two Palestinian women. Khoury's father died of a heart attack after Israeli soldiers would not let him travel by ambulance from Bethlehem to a hospital in Jerusalem where he might have been saved.

The Israeli mothers recited the line from Frost's poem, "Good fences make good neighbors." I wish I could believe that, even if Frost did not.

Khoury also was familiar with Frost's poem. But she said, "We don't need fences. We need bridges."

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