Fences, Patrols, and Terrorism

ON Tuesday, Israel and India each separately embraced new steps in trying to block militants from entering their territories and killing civilians.

Israel decided to build a long fence along a portion of its West Bank border, while India proposed joint patrols with Pakistan along their mountainous divide in Kashmir.

Both countries, hit by a recent wave of attacks, understandably need such defensive measures, but only after failing to achieve a political solution to the long-standing demand of Palestinians and Kashmiris for self-determination in their land.

Israel's fence as hopelessness

Israel's decision to build a security fence came just a day before another suicide bomber killed 16 Israelis, the largest single toll since Israel's violent incursion in the West Bank this spring. That tactic of raiding Palestinian camps has largely failed, so Israeli politicians are under pressure from the public to do something else.

A security fence may have some effect in blocking Palestinian infiltration. A similar fence built along the Gaza Strip eight years ago did reduce or perhaps even end attacks from that enclave. But a fence won't stop rockets, and it stands as a visual statement of fear, or at least hopelessness, that Israel can ever live peaceably next to a Palestinian state.

It's also a political statement that the West Bank is not really Israel's, and suggests that some 200,000 Israelis living in dozens of settlements on the other side of the fence must eventually be removed and Israel's realm of control shrunk to its pre-1967 borders.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a difficult decision to protect citizens in Israel proper with a fence, while further isolating the settlements. But such limited actions are stopgaps, and won't hasten the lasting solution of a negotiated peace.

India can test Pakistan

India's suggestion of joint border patrols with Pakistan, however, is a hopeful sign. It indicates that India seeks a peaceful solution to the territorial dispute rather than risk a nuclear confrontation by threatening a military offensive on terrorist camps inside Pakistani areas.

Joint patrols would be a way to test the sincerity and effectiveness of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's commitment to end terrorist attacks across the border. While Pakistan has so far rejected the idea, at least India appears ready to negotiate.

One lesson for the US in its war on terrorism is that only so much can be done to close a border to attackers. Terrorists can be better stopped by dealing with the root discontent of populations that support them. The US must keep a balance between defensive security steps and diplomatic offensives that curb resentment.

The best fortress is one built on respect and mutual agreement.

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