Israeli Advice on Wall-Building

I guess this time it’s really going to happen, says an Israeli expert. “It,” meaning the separation fence between the U.S. and Mexico. He has been following the debate surrounding this fence with curiosity, and some amusement. So, he asks, “what should we call it? A fence or a wall?”

The Washington Post had a long story last weekend about American and Mexican communities along the Texas border. These communities will be influenced by the new fence – if it is built – and by any force trying to interrupt the daily flow of people and goods from one side of the border to the other. It’s a story reminiscent of the one of Palestinian workers and commuters and farmers finding it difficult to adjust to the reality of an actual, not imaginary, border.

Two weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion during which a New York Times editor explained why the paper chose “barrier” as the word to best describe the Israeli fence and wall along the West Bank. The word’s not perfect, but it’s somewhat more neutral. The anonymous Israeli expert is eagerly waiting to see what kind of barrier the Americans will be building. And he is more than ready to offer some advice (free of charge, but also of commitment). And he is not the first or only one to do so. American officials, and even more so, politicians, sought some advice from Israel on this matter in the past ? and according to some knowledgeable people, are expected to do so even more in the near future. Former California Governor Pete Wilson cited the Israeli fence as a model for the U.S. in an article he wrote for the Investor’s Business Daily. So here is some of what our Israeli expert has to say about it:

Money: It will probably cost more than you think. Why? Because that’s always the way it is with such projects. Americans, the Israeli says, tend to be very structured in their work, in a way that has many benefits but also some limitations. It means that they waste a lot of money on “process” and “management” and “studies” before they really act. They make no short-cuts, thus save no money. In the last issue of The National Journal, the Israeli fence is mentioned as the example to use when calculating the cost of such a fence (2000 mile fence = $6.4 billion dollars). The Israeli expert thinks the Americans will end up paying more.

Efficiency: It can work, the expert says ? and other Israeli know-hows agree. Don’t buy the argument of liberal opponents who say “no fence can stop people from coming.” If done in a proper way, the fence can work. It can achieve whatever goal the U.S. wants it to, “100 percent, 90 percent, 80 percent prevention. Just make the right commitment and you?ll get results.”

Tactics: Don’t just rely on sophisticated machinery and equipment. You need people on the ground using the equipment to pursue the invaders. They need to react fast, they need intelligence, and they need to be tireless. It will only take a couple of months before the flow of immigrants will become much weaker.

Intelligence: Recruit people on the Mexican side to be your eyes and ears and to tell you what the smugglers are up to. Make sure you can communicate fast, and react even faster. Good intelligence can be the key factor for success.

Routine: The smugglers will be inventive and will look for ways around you. If you stick to some regulated routine, you’ll end up wasting your time and your money. Surprise them where they don’t expect you, make them understand that no place is safe, no route out of reach. “Don’t police them, fight them.”

Ruthlessness: Is it really important for the Americans? If it is, they should be prepared to show it. “Make the other side understand that this is no game – that life can be in danger,” says the expert. “I know this is the toughest advice of all, but short of doing it the Americans will end up pretending to stop illegal immigrants rather than really doing it. At the end of the day, it is very simple: America is more powerful than the smugglers – meaning, it can deter them from doing what they do.” But there’s one condition necessary to keep this preponderance of power working: “It should be as important for America to stop the illegal new comers as it is for them to come.”

Danger: You mean they have to shoot the smugglers? “No, they have to stop them. But if they run away they have to chase them, and if they resist they need to use force. Eventually, they’ll end up doing things you don’t want people to watch on television. I’m not sure if they have the resolve and the stomach to do it. Maybe it’s not as important for them as they claim it is.”

Conduct: Corruption can be a serious problem on the sealed border. As it gets tougher to enter the U.S, people will be ready to pay a high price for it, and the temptation to help those people in something one shouldn’t underestimate. Take it into account while devising the system.

SHMUEL ROSNER writes for Ha’aretz.