Why the Israeli “wall” is a flawed model for the U.S.-Mexican border

By: Lauren Mellinger

Source: Wikimedia

Since announcing his candidacy for president of the United States, Republican candidate (and occasional front-runner for the GOP nomination) businessman Donald Trump has chosen to make reforming American immigration policy a primary focus of his campaign. Central to his plan is the construction of a wall spanning the U.S.-Mexican border. During the fourth Republican primary debate held on November 10, in response to a question from the moderator about his immigration plan, Trump emphatically stated: “[t]he wall will be successful. And if you think walls don’t work all you have to do is ask Israel.”

This was not the first time that Trump cited the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank as evidence that his wall will succeed in curbing illegal immigration into the United States—at least insofar as immigration from Mexico and Central America are concerned. Indeed, the comparison between the two walls is a frequent refrain as part of Trump’s stump speech on the campaign trail. Given the centrality of Trump’s proposed Mexican border wall to his campaign, closer scrutiny is merited as to his overall understanding of the Israeli wall and his assertion that it has been a “success.”

From the outset, the comparison between the two walls is flawed. In the first place, the border wall that Trump plans to construct, if elected, and the so-called Israeli “wall” serve vastly different purposes: Trump’s wall is intended to deter illegal immigration, whereas in the Israeli case, as Trump perceives it, the purpose of the wall was to save lives by rendering it difficult, if not impossible, for terrorists to continue launching attacks against Israelis from the West Bank. It is worth noting that in the Israeli case the structure itself is technically not a wall, but a hybrid construction project consisting mainly of a chain-link fence bolstered by electronic sensors and tracking paths, interspersed with concrete barriers (comprising only about 10% of the route)[i] in strategically sensitive locations (largely heavily populated urban areas such as Jerusalem, and Qalqilya in the northern West Bank). Thus the term barrier is a more accurate description.[2]

To test the veracity of Trump’s assertion that the Israeli wall is a success and therefore worthy of modelling his proposed U.S.-Mexican border wall on, one must first evaluate the Israeli barrier in terms of its impact on Israeli security when construction began during the second intifada, followed by the long-term implications of the construction.

Has Israel’s separation barrier been a “success”?

In terms of the barrier’s success as an effective element of Israel’s counterterrorism policy, this claim has been somewhat overstated. Proponents of the barrier often defend its construction with a fairly straightforward argument—the wall was built, and soon after, acts of terrorism emanating from the West Bank against Israelis dramatically declined. There is certainly truth to this claim. For instance, according to statistics from Israel’s Foreign Ministry, by 2004—two years after construction began—there was a significant decline in the number of Israeli civilians killed in acts of terrorism.[3] The main impact of the barrier was its success in halting suicide bombings, which at the time were wreaking havoc on Israeli society. However, it was, and continues to be, less effective in preventing other forms of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians—including sniper attacks, roadside bombs and stabbings.[4] Moreover, as time went on, terrorists studied the barrier and the corresponding security arrangements and adapted their methods. This much has been confirmed by the terrorists themselves. In a 2008 interview with the Qatari publication Al-Sharq, Ramadan Abdallah Shalah, the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, admitted that the barrier did in fact hinder the PIJ and other terror organizations from carrying out attacks during the second intifada, claiming “We do not deny that it [the barrier] limits the ability of the resistance to arrive deep within [Israeli territory] to carry out suicide bombing attacks, but the resistance has not surrendered or become helpless, and is looking for other ways to cope with the requirements of every stage [of the intifada].”

While it is undeniable that the barrier was successful to a degree, in part even this success is attributed to a variety of other policies implemented by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israeli law enforcement in conjunction with the barrier, including widespread arrests and targeted killing operations.[5] In fact, according to Israel’s domestic security service, the Shin Bet, while terrorist attacks against Israelis emanating from the territories declined significantly by 2005, this result was largely due to factors other than the barrier, namely the truce in the territories, and the improved coordination between the IDF and the Shin Bet. The report noted that by 2005, the terrorists had adapted to the barrier and found ways to bypass it.

In a 2008 article questioning the utility of the separation barrier, former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens wrote, “[t]error is coming over and under the fence.” Indeed, Israel’s borders are largely surrounded by some form of physically constructed border—be it a wall or a fence, particularly along the Israeli-Gaza and Israeli-Lebanon borders. Yet, in both cases, despite the existence of a physical barrier and routine surveillance, Israel has endured ongoing terrorist attacks—including aerial assaults in the form of rockets, mortars, Katyushas and other missiles that over time have increased in range and sophistication. In recent years, Israel has also had to confront a new challenge at its borders—the subterranean threat, whereby terrorists including Hamas and Hizballah, two of Israel’s most formidable enemies, have opted to construct elaborate tunnels under the barriers into Israel. Tunnels underneath the Gaza border have already played a significant role in several IDF operations in Gaza—including 2006’s Operation Summer Rains, in response to Hamas’s use of these offensive tunnels to abduct an IDF soldier, and Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014—while the extent of the tunnel threat from Lebanon remains unclear (at least in terms of open-source information), albeit ominous. Thus, purely from the perspective of counterterrorism, the effectiveness of the separation barrier has proven somewhat limited.

Israel’s separation barrier: the less-desirable option

Assessing the long-term effectiveness of the barrier is more complicated, and at first glance one would not suggest the barrier has been a rousing success for Israel. Indeed, while credit can be given to the barrier’s success in assisting the IDF and Israeli law enforcement with thwarting terrorist attacks, the barrier has caused a host of problems for Israel on a diplomatic level, and has contributed to delaying the prospect of a final-status accord.

In his latest book Crippled America Trump writes that: “The Israelis spent $2 million per kilometre to build a wall—which has been hugely successful in stopping terrorists from getting into the country . . . While obviously we don’t face the same level of terrorist threat as our closest Middle East ally, there is no question as to the value of a wall in the fight against terrorism.” This suggests that despite everything we now know about the consequences of Israel’s separation barrier, Trump believes that it should be held up as a model for the effectiveness of a border wall in protecting national security.[6] While Trump is correct in noting that the wall played a role in curbing terrorism aimed at Israel during the second intifada, his understanding of Israel’s security barrier is woefully misguided. Though construction was approved in 2001, the barrier itself was not simply a response to the violence.[7] Rather, the decision to construct the barrier is rooted in a concept that emerged among Israeli policymakers decades ago, that in order to preserve Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state, so long as the prospect of reaching a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians remains unlikely, Israel may need to take unilateral steps to “separate” from the Palestinians.[8] Hence to a certain degree, the existence of the barrier itself is an “admission of failure.”[9] That “separation” or unilateral steps are suboptimal choices compared with actual resolution of the conflict was even recently noted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In remarks during his recent visit to the U.S., Netanyahu stated that “unilateralism works less well than a negotiated solution.” In the case of Israel’s security barrier, the ramifications of implementing this “suboptimal” step were evident from the start.

Almost as soon as construction began, so too did the public relations campaign against Israel. The barrier provided a new means for galvanizing critics of Israel in their campaign to delegitimize the state. For years the Israeli government has been confronted with accusations, including claims that Israel was in fact constructing an “apartheid wall” and worse, that Israel was “ghettoizing” the Palestinians (as understandably, invoking the Holocaust is always a particularly sensitive allegation against Israel). Critics also asserted that the real purpose of the barrier was not security-related as members of the government claimed, but rather to serve as a “land grab”—a claim bolstered by the fact that the barrier’s route has deviated from the Green Line.[10]

Construction of the barrier also added a new dimension to the ongoing territorial dispute with the Palestinians—the creation of a “seam zone”—a reference to areas trapped between the Green Line and sections where the barrier was built east of the Line. This has further complicated the efforts of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and serves as another element that has kept Israel mired in litigation over the past decade—both in Israeli courts and abroad. Moreover, international condemnation of the Israeli separation barrier is not limited to left-wing groups—both the International Court of Justice and the UN General Assembly strongly criticized the barrier on the grounds that Israel could not invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter to justify the construction, and in particular, for the human costs associated with its route.[11]

In addition to the terrible impact the the separation barrier has had on the daily lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank, perhaps the most harmful consequence of the barrier is that it has in fact succeeded in separating Israelis and Palestinians from one another. The ramifications of this are indeed dire, leading to an environment that over time has fostered a lack of empathy with the concerns and struggles of each side, and which arguably has reduced the sense of urgency, particularly among Israelis, to pressure the government to work towards a final-status agreement with their Palestinian interlocutors.

The construction of a fortified boundary between countries is certainly not a new concept: a recent study noted that since 1945, 51 such boundaries have been built, most with the intention of curbing immigration and the activities of clandestine criminal networks. [12]  Construction on one such barrier along a 700-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexican border was authorized by President George W. Bush in 2006.  Yet this border wall has failed to adequately deter the cartels from utilizing tunnels and other means to traffic both illegal narcotics and humans across the border. Certainly in the case of immigration, as examples from Ceuta and Melilla, and the U.S.-Mexican border suggest, the availability of options to circumvent a border wall suggests that its usefulness in stemming the flow of illegal immigration may be limited, particularly when such immigration is often a result of dire economic need. In the case of Trump’s proposed immigration reform plan, many of the challenges that Israel and the Palestinians have grappled with since the construction of the separation barrier, in particular the significant humanitarian cost of the barrier to the Palestinians living in the West Bank, do not apply to the U.S.-Mexican border, where there is already a clearly delineated, internationally recognized border—all the more reason why his comparison of the two walls is deeply flawed. And, much like the Israeli case, the construction of a physical border on its own will not adequately address the problem of illegal immigration in the U.S., nor should it be the central element of immigration reform. In terms of ultimately resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in dealing with the long-standing challenge of immigration reform in the U.S., what is necessary in both cases is a holistic approach that addresses the root causes of the conflicts paired with effective leadership to bring about the desired results. In the meantime, perhaps Trump’s immigration reform plan would be best served if he were to find a more suitable case upon which to base his proposed model for a U.S.-Mexican border wall.


Lauren Mellinger is a doctoral candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and a senior editor of Strife’s blog and journal. Her research specializes in Israeli counterterrorism and foreign policy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can follow her on Twitter @Lauren_M04



[1] Joshua L. Gleis and Benedetta Berti, Hezbollah and Hamas: A Comparative Study (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), p. 179.

[2] Israel’s Security Fence, “Operational Concept,” Israel Ministry of Defense, http://www.securityfence.mod.gov.il/Pages/ENG/operational.htm; Jerry Markon, “Trump says building a U.S.-Mexico wall is ‘easy.’ But is it really?” The Washington Post, July 17, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-on-the-us-mexico-border-building-a-wall-is-easy/2015/07/16/9a619668-2b0c-11e5-bd33-395c05608059_story.html.

[3] See for example Nadav Morag, “Measuring Success in Coping with Terrorism: the Israeli Case,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 28, no. 4 (2005), p. 307-320.

[4] Daniel Byman, A High Price: The Triumphs & Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 329.

[5] Ibid, p. 333; Ami Pedahzur, The Israeli Secret Services & the Struggle Against Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 122-124.

[6] Donald J. Trump, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (New York: Threshold Editions, 2015).

[7] Hillel Frisch, (The) Fence of Offense? Testing the Effectiveness of “The Fence” in Judea and Samaria, Mideast Security and Policy Studies, No. 75 (The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies), October 2007, p. 11-16.

[8] See for example Dan Schueftan, Korah Ha’hafrada: Yisrael Ve Harashut Ha’Falestinit [Disengagement: Israel and the Palestinian Entity], (Israel: Zmora-Bitan and Haifa University Press, 1999); David Makovsky, A Defensible Fence: Fighting Terror and Enabling a Two-State Solution (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004), p. 3-10.

[9] David Makovsky, “How to Build a Fence,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 83, no.2, pp. 50-64 (2004), p. 50.

[10] Shlomo Brom, “The Security Fence: Solution or Stumbling Block?” Strategic Assessment, Vol. 6, Issue 4 (2004), p. 7-10.

[11] See for example “Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: Advisory Opinion”. International Court of Justice. July 9, 2004.

[12] Ron E. Hassner and Jason Wittenberg, “Barriers to Entry: Who Builds Fortified Boundaries and Why?” International Security, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Summer 2015), pp. 157-190.

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