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On the Fence He’s Not the Messiah, Just the Man Behind the West Bank Security Fence

February 19, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Every week, Nezah Mashiah drives to the West Bank and surveys the largest building project in Israel’s history.

The project — a high tech network of sensors, barbed wire and cement walls — is Israel’s new security barrier, the thing that Israeli citizens and politicians hope will save the country from the ravages of terrorism.

Mashiah — whose name translates roughly as “eternal messiah” — is the man in charge of its construction.

International condemnation of Israel’s decision to build a security fence inside the West Bank has been in the headlines for months. Scrutiny is sure to intensify ahead of a Feb. 23 hearing on the fence’s legality at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

But the fence’s actual construction quietly has drawn the interest of a few foreign governments — for reasons having nothing to do with politics.

According to Mashiah, a number of countries — he would not identify them — have consulted Israel on the fence’s technology and construction with an eye to similar projects at home.

Since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet decided to embark on the project in July 2001, some 124 miles have been built to separate Israel from the West Bank.

At first, the barrier was to be 50 miles long. Then, citing the intensification of Palestinian terrorist attacks, the government said it would build a longer barrier to run from Beit Shean in the north to Arad in the Negev Desert.

Now the government is calling for a total of some 500 miles of fencing by the end of 2005, at an estimated cost of $4.15 million a mile.

Mashiah distances himself from the politics of the fence and the controversial decisions behind its route — it bows into the West Bank in places to incorporate major Israeli cities and towns in the West Bank.

For now, Mashiah says, there is no choice but to build the fence.

“I believe in peace,” he says, “but without the option for it, we need to defend our land.”

Israel says it had no other choice to protect its citizens from the suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks that have marked the Palestinian intifada, which is well into its fourth year. Nearly 1,000 Israelis have been killed in the intifada, the overwhelming majority of them civilians.

Built as a “multilayered fence system” in Defense Ministry parlance, the barrier is designed effectively to separate Israel from the Palestinian population of the West Bank.

The structure — which has an average width of about 164 feet — is made up of several components. Among them is a stack of six coils of barbed wire, a ditch six to eight feet deep aimed at blocking vehicles from crossing and roads on either side of the fence so army patrols can pursue infiltrators.

At the center of the system is what officials call “a metal intrusion detection fence,” featuring sensors to warn against incursions. If someone tries to cross, a warning is sounded.

The fence is not electrically charged, and the Defense Ministry maintains that no one can be harmed by touching it.

Strips of sand nearly 10 feet wide have been placed alongside the fence to detect intruders’ footprints. Finally, there are watchtowers, cameras, heat sensors and touch detectors. The cameras are rigged for long-distance viewing and can detect whether or not suspected infiltrators are armed.

In a few places — where the army says there is a risk of sniper fire on Israeli roads — concrete walls as high as 28 feet have been built. Concrete walls also are being used to separate some Palestinian villages that abut Jerusalem, such as Abu Dis, from the city proper.

Mashiah said there were no existing buildings or property destroyed along the fence’s route, except for one building where the Palestinian owner had requested compensation, but that in the future there will be a “buffer zone” of 100 yards around the fence within which no buildings can be built taller than two stories.

About 20 percent of the workers building the fence are Palestinian, their jobs putting them at odds with many of their own people and their own political consciousness.

The fence is proving a humanitarian and practical hardship for Palestinians, separating some from farmland and jobs and others from relatives, schools and local hospitals.

Palestinian leaders denounce the fence as an Israeli land grab that is swallowing up land Palestinians want for a future state.

Some 10,000 Palestinians living in the so-called “seam zone,” the area between the fence and the pre-1967 boundary known as the Green Line, will have to apply for permits to live in their homes. Visitors also need special permits.

In the West Bank Palestinian village of Masha, where a fence separates the village from neighboring Jewish settlements, two Palestinian workers are putting up an Arabic-language danger sign warning residents not to approach the fence for risk of being shot.

One worker who identified himself only as Faras says he has spent the last year and a half building the fence. He motions toward his home village, a collection of houses on an adjacent hillside.

“I don’t have any opinions,” he says. “I’m just doing this for the money. For me it’s a good job.”

Faras earns about $815 per month after taxes for the work — more than double the average salary of West Bank Palestinians. He agrees with friends and relatives who say the fence is not good for the Palestinian people, but says he has no alternative to working on the construction crew.

“I say, if you give me money I will stop working here. That is the truth,” he says. But “if there is no money, there is no life.”

In an eastern Jerusalem neighborhood that will be on the Palestinian side of the fence, another Palestinian construction worker offers a different view.

Mahmoud rumbles by in an orange earth mover, shuts off the roaring engine and tells a reporter he is in favor of the fence.

“I’m building the borders of the Palestinian state,” he said. “How many U.N. resolutions have dealt with the issue? How many millions of Arabs have not improved the lives of the Palestinians?”

After a long period of unemployment, Mahmoud recently joined a fence construction crew made up entirely of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. He is happy with his monthly salary.

Mashiah, a civil engineer by training, spent 23 years in the army working in construction. He returned to the military fold from his job as general manger of road construction at Solel Boneh, one of Israel’s largest construction companies, to take on what he calls the “ultimate mega-project.”

Sitting in his office at the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv, facing a large map of Israel and the West Bank, Mashiah describes the organization behind the massive undertaking.

The management team’s first task was to put notices in newspapers advertising contract bids.

Mashiah then hired 25 contractors, who in turn hired crews for the project.

While hiring proceeded, light aircraft were sent out to survey the area. Using computer and mathematical modeling, topographical maps were made that became the basis for planning the fence, based on a route decided by Israeli government officials.

Notices were posted on trees and electricity polls in areas where the fence would be built, alerting landowners. The landowners were given a week to file appeals in court if they opposed the project.

If they opposed the planned building, landowners were given seven working days to file an appeal to the Defense Ministry. If they were not satisfied by the ministry’s answer, they had another seven days to file an appeal to the Supreme Court.

As long as a case is in legal dispute, the army does not build on that section of land. Hundreds of appeals currently are pending at the Defense Ministry, and several dozen have been filed at the Supreme Court.

The pace intentionally was fast.

“That was the logic,” Mashiah says, to give notice and begin construction “in parallel, and do it quickly.”

He said Israeli authorities were trying their best to make life better for Palestinians affected by the fence. Meanwhile, he said, the fence holds the fate of both peoples.

“It’s a good fence,” Mashiah says, his eyes falling upon the map on the wall. But whether “it will bring good neighbors, we will see in the future.”

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