ON THE ISRAEL-LEBANON BORDER – Other than the Korean Peninsula’s DMZ, there’s probably no border in the world as fraught with the potential for sudden violence as this one, known locally as the Blue Line.
Since President Donald Trump thinks border security is the issue of our time, it’s worth considering how Israel – with real threats and a no-nonsense attitude toward its security needs – does it.
What I saw while traveling along the Blue Line was... a fence. A fence studded with sensors, to be sure, but by no means an imposing one.
And I saw a Hezbollah observation post, masquerading as an environmental group operating under the slogan, “Green Without Borders.” (Green is the traditional color of Islam.) The Israelis maintain an equally visible, if outwardly low-key, security presence.
Does that look like Trump’s idea of a “big beautiful wall”? Not quite. Yet for the last 19 years it was all the fencing Israelis thought was necessary to secure its side of the Blue Line.
That started to change in December, after Israel announced that it was conducting an operation to destroy tunnels dug by Hezbollah under the border. As an additional precaution, Jerusalem is spending an estimated $600 million to replace about 20 kilometers of the fence with a concrete wall, mainly to provide greater peace of mind to the 162,000 Israelis who live near the Lebanese border.
Such a wall may look formidable. But it won’t stop tunnel construction or missile firing, the two principal threats Hezbollah poses to Israel. Nor has Israel felt the need to erect concrete walls along most of its border with the Gaza Strip, despite Hamas’ multiple attempts last year to use mass protests to breach the fence. Israel’s border with Egypt is marked by a tall and sturdy “smart fence” packed with electronic sensors, but not a wall. And Israel’s longest border, with Jordan, stretching about 250 miles, has fencing that for the most part is primitive and minimal.
So how does Israel maintain border security? Two ways: close cooperation with neighbors where it’s possible and the use of modern technology and effective deterrence where it’s not.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi recently attested to the depth of cooperation in an interview last week with 60 Minutes – so deep, in fact, that the Egyptian government made an attempt to stop the interview from airing. .
As for technology, I saw it at work on a tour of an Israeli military base on the Golan Heights. In a crowded, windowless room within a bunker-like structure, 20 or so women soldiers, some of them still teenagers, sat at screens patiently watching every inch of Israel’s border with Syria.
None of this is to say that physical barriers are invariably pointless or evil. The wall that divides Palestinians from Israelis in parts of the West Bank played a major role in ending the terrorism of the Second Intifada.
Yet the Israeli experience also suggests that the best way to protect a border is to rely on the tools of the 21st century, not the 12th. Walls only occasionally provide the most reliable security. And there are vastly more effective means than concrete to defend even the most dangerous borders. The good news for the U.S. is that we don’t face Hezbollah, Hamas or ISIS across our border, only people who overwhelmingly want to relieve their own plight and contribute their labor for everyone’s betterment. If we really wanted to secure the border, our first priority should be to make it easier for them to arrive through the front door rather than sneak in through the back.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.