Israel's vision: an unbreachable wall against terror

Zvi Weiss was returning from one last night of prayer at the Western Wall before his trip home to Brooklyn.

He remembers seeing three tired children sitting beside him, their mother squeezing her way to the back of the bus, then the light-obliterating roar.

The young American rode Jerusalem's Bus No. 2 the night a Palestinian, disguised as a fellow worshiper, detonated 11 pounds of explosives packed with bolts and ball bearings. Mr. Weiss survived, but 21 men, women, and children riding the bus home did not.

The Aug. 19 attack was profoundly troubling - and persuasive. Along with two other bombings the week before, it cemented public support for the security barrier Israel is building to separate itself from the Palestinians. Builders completed the first 87-mile section in July, but Palestinian and other analysts say the barrier could stretch as far as 400 miles in its final form, divvying up the West Bank and any future Palestinian state.

Through time, ramparts and fortifications have captured the imagination as symbols of might, accomplishment, repression, and division. For Jews, walls echo with the memory of European ghettos. Palestinians see Israel's "fence" as an attempt to steal their land and curtail their national hopes. Yet for the vast majority of Israelis today, the barrier rising around the West Bank evokes only one overriding preoccupation: security.

"The only thing people want is to keep them out and keep us safe," says Judith Baumel, a professor of modern Jewish history at Haifa University. "Even on the [political] left, most people say give the Palestinians some territories, but we want a cordon sanitaire, a wall a mile high, a moat with sharks in it, just keep them and us separate."

A daily threat

The violence that followed the 2000 failure of the Oslo peace process, killing more than 860 Israelis and 2,400 Palestinians, has reinforced a feeling many Israelis have of everpresent threat. More than 80 percent of them now say one answer lies in the razor wire, concrete dividers, and electrified fences that make up the barrier.

"Such a fence has a political impact on the reality," says Uzi Dayan, former national security adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and chairman of Security Fence for Israel, an umbrella organization for Israeli groups in favor of the barrier. "But what is more important than everything and what should be the dominant issue is that we need to provide security to our people."

There is widespread recognition, though, that the barrier is not a real remedy for the underlying conflict between the two peoples or for short-term Israeli security.

"Even over the Berlin Wall, people jumped," says Vladimir Syrnev, a Russian émigré living in the settlement of Ariel. "The fence won't help very organized and carefully planned attacks, but if it will save lives then it's worth it."

An electrical engineer, Mr. Syrnev came to Israel in 1990 and found work as a security guard. He's a large, imposing man with thick, freckled forearms, ginger hair, and a neat beard. Seated in an armchair, he conveys a sense of immense physical strength that vanishes as soon as he stands up and reaches shakily for his crutches.

In September 2001, Syrnev was on guard duty in the settlement of Oranit when a mine planted by Palestinians exploded under his pickup truck. Crime- scene photos of the truck show a gaping hole where the gearshift had been. The floor is buckled like a frozen wave, the roof is riddled with puncture holes, the seats in the blackened interior are in shreds.

If Syrnev had followed instructions and worn his bulletproof vest, he probably wouldn't have survived. Instead, he slipped it under his seat, where it impeded the blast from below. Two years later, his days are structured around his medication schedule, four times a day, up to six different drugs at a time. "It's not OK, but it's reality," he says.

His views may be colored by pain and a dash of Russian fatalism, but on the barrier and the conflict with the Palestinians, Syrnev reflects widespread Israeli opinion.

"Palestinians won't stop attacking us until we're swimming in the sea," he says. "On CNN, you see seven-year-old Palestin-ians marching with Kalashnikov rifles. In 20 years, they'll be 27."

Indeed, there is a profound sense of the Palestinians as part of a threatening Islamic "other" driven by a foreign value system.

"As long as you have an Israeli mother losing sons in the army and as long as you have a Palestinian mother who says my first son was a martyr [who died killing Israelis] and in sha 'llah the other nine will be too, then Israelis will feel deep anxiety," says Professor Baumel of Haifa University.

Mention of Israel's overwhelmingly superior military strength does little to ease this discomfort. "This has nothing to do with quality of our munitions," Baumel counters. "We're never going to win against people who believe in raising their sons to die. This also has to do with what's behind these few million Palestinians, these Islamic nations who will eventually have the [nuclear] bomb."

Even Israelis who oppose their country's policy against the Palestinians identify with this fear. "For me, the state of Israel is the only representative of the Jewish people. I know less than half of the Jewish people live here, but we have sovereignty and some power," says Tel Aviv gallery curator Ory Dessau.

"But on the other hand, when you see the map of Israel and see how small the country is compared to Jordan, Syria, Iraq ... all the repressed fears of the Jewish consciousness start coming out."

Splitting land to stop bombs

Growing anti-Semitism also taps into deep reserves of anxiety. Over the three years of this latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, violent and hostile acts against Jews and their places of worship have risen around the world.

And there is a sense that this hostility is directed as much against Jews as it is against Israel.

"The barriers between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have been lifted and the two merged," write the authors of "Antisemitism Worldwide," a new publication put out by Tel Aviv University.

Coupled with the volatility in Iraq, events today leave many Israelis with a profound anxiety about their larger security.

"You just have to see how many synagogues in the world are being defaced today," says Baumel. "If something happens to Israel, I wouldn't put a dime on the life of a Jew anywhere else."

Against all this anxiety, the barrier represents a bulwark, no matter how temporary, porous, or damaging to Palestinians it may be. The first phase of the barrier divides Palestinian communities and families, impedes their ability to get to schools, medical care, and jobs, and effectively annexes some 2 percent of the West Bank to Israel.

Suicide bombers and suffering

Most Israelis simply don't care. "The claim they're losing land because of the barrier, but they also say that all of Israel is being taken from them," says Judith Shahor, head of staff for the group Victims of Arab Terror.

Others say Palestinians have brought this on themselves. "Ask those who send hundreds of suicide bombers to our cities why Palestinians are suffering," says Yuval Steinetz, chairman of Israel's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

As Israelis increasingly see the barrier as a panacea for their many woes, there is growing irritation with the US for voicing displeasure about it. The US has voiced its concern about the barrier's incursions into Palestinian land leading Israel temporarily to delay some construction.

Questions about long-term effects

But there are Israelis who would have the barrier stopped or slowed or at least pegged to the Green Line, the invisible border between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

They warn that the barrier's harm to Palestinians will undermine, not strengthen, Israel's security. "The danger involved in building the fence, the difficulties in crossing it, the expropriations, the loss of contact between families - all of these will serve merely to increase [Palestinian] enmity and nurture the urge for revenge," Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, wrote in the Ha'aretz newspaper of Aug. 28.

But even as Mr. Benvenisti was writing, Israel's Ministry of Defense was continuing barrier construction around Jerusalem, which it accelerated in response to the Aug. 19 bombing that Zvi Weiss survived.

When that bomb ripped Bus No. 2 apart, Weiss says he found himself leaping out a window, action preceding thought. "I couldn't see anything, it was all black and smelling very ugly and everyone was crying," he recalls in the hours after the bombing. "I jumped, I ran and then I thought, 'I'm alive.' "

Weiss is lying on an emergency room bed in central Jerusalem's Bikur Holim Hospital about two hours after the bombing. His white shirt stained with oil and blood, his pants and shoes dirty and scuffed. He has light brown hair, the fuzzy beginnings of a beard and a teenager's impatience with stupid questions.

Once out of the bus, he used a cellphone to call his brother, who stands protectively at the end of the bed while reporters cluster around, craning to hear Weiss. He speaks in a monotone that barely rises above a whisper. The sound of the blast has affected his hearing.

Thanks for a life spared

A doctor approaches and the reporters scatter, heading for other beds and other blast victims. The doctor bends over Weiss, asks a few questions and discovers a wound in the American's upper arm. He pokes, Weiss grimaces. One of the ball bearings, it seems.

One remaining reporter asks Weiss if he will be saying the hagomel - a prayer of thanks religious Jews say in a synagogue after surviving serious danger - or whether he will offer a less formal, more immediate prayer of gratitude.

Weiss looks around. The ward is full of light, of doctors and counselors caring for the wounded, of parents tending to their children.

Weiss shakes his head; no prayer of thanks just yet. He is surrounded by safety, yet the fear still clings. "Something could happen now, still," he whispers. "It's not over. I'll wait until I get to the synagogue. Then maybe I'll feel safe."

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