Fortress Israel: Can people make peace when they don’t talk?

As Israelis grow skeptical about achieving peace, they have walled themselves off from their Arab neighbors. 

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP/File
The east Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev is seen behind a section of Israel's separation barrier, Friday, Oct. 15, 2010.
Amir Cohen/Reuters
Israeli soldiers walk in front of a statue of Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, before a two-minute siren marking Holocaust Remembrance Day is sounded in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in southern Israel.

Linda Casher moved to this Israeli collective near the Gaza Strip as a young American woman in the 1970s, she would often mingle with Palestinians at outdoor markets amid the mounds of pomegranates and rows of hanging chickens. She would hitchhike alongside Palestinian workers waiting for minibuses, and she even welcomed Palestinian women from Gaza to her kibbutz, Yad Mordechai, which has a tradition of supporting initiatives that encourage coexistence. 

But no longer. The closest she has gotten to a Palestinian from Gaza lately was when Hamas gunmen emerged from the sea onto nearby Zikim beach to infiltrate southern Israel in this summer’s war. It was a long way from sharing coffee and cake at the kibbutz clubhouse.

“Zikim freaked me out,” says Ms. Casher, who asked her soldier son whether guns could still shoot after being submerged in water. “We sit on that beach all the time.” 

Two miles south of this community stands a towering cement wall at the Erez checkpoint, the only Israel-Gaza border crossing for travelers. Israelis have not been allowed to enter the Gaza Strip in years, after a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings racked Israeli society and the militant Islamist movement Hamas rose to power in 2006. The number of Palestinian workers crossing daily from Gaza into Israel has dropped from tens of thousands to zero.

“We have a great big barrier between us and the Arabs, so we don’t see them and we don’t feel them,” says Casher, who sees the separation as imperative given the security threat. 

Twenty years of fruitless negotiations, three conflicts with Gaza in the past six years, and growing fears of Islamist extremism in the Palestinian territories and around the Middle East have all contributed to a growing skepticism among many Israelis that peace is possible.

As attitudes have hardened and hopes for a resolution have retreated, Israelis have increasingly walled themselves off, physically and psychologically, from their Arab neighbors. That has put a complete stop to suicide bombings since 2009, but it has also limited meaningful engagement.

To critics, this “fortress” mentality has allowed distrust and disillusionment to fester on both sides, complicated Israel’s relations with other parts of the world, and made any solution to the decades-old conflict even more remote. But to many Israelis it is the best way to deal with an intransigent foe, protect the Jewish nation, and manage a conflict that, for now, defies resolution.

“This type of conflict ends when at least one side is tired. And I don’t think Hamas is tired; I don’t think Israelis are tired,” says Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “They still have energy to fight. Under such circumstances ... managing the conflict, trying to reduce bloodshed and the suffering of the people, is a decent strategy." 

An Israeli who used to work as a lifeguard at a beach in the Gaza Strip remembers, not long ago, when he could ride his motorcycle to and from his home in Israel through the sand dunes of this sun-splashed landscape. Now he’s sitting at a cafe at the Yad Mordechai gas station, barred from crossing into Gaza, an area he called home for more than 15 years – years, he says, that were the happiest of his life.  

He spent long nights on the sea with Palestinian fishermen, who split their profits with him. He helped them outside of work, too, sometimes resolving problems with Israeli tax authorities. 

“I can’t say they were like brothers,” he says, but notes that both he and his Palestinian colleagues shared the attitude, “If you need something, I will help you.”

The man, who did not want to be named, says things got worse in the 1990s after the Oslo Accords, when Israel built a security barrier around the Gaza Strip and handed control of civil affairs over to Palestinians. One day one of his Arab workers at the beach came to him and said he’d been detained, interrogated, and beaten by Palestinian authorities. They suspected him of feeding intelligence to his Israeli boss – wrongly presumed to be a security officer.

“They almost killed me because of you,” the worker told him. “I will never come [to work] again. I just wanted to come and tell you.”

When the second intifada broke out in 2000, militants destroyed most of the barrier around the Gaza Strip. It took the Israeli army six months to rebuild it. Five years later, Israel unilaterally withdrew its soldiers and 8,000 citizens from Gaza in a controversial move that it promised would bring quiet. Instead, Hamas filled the vacuum and began launching rockets into Israel.

Leftists opposed the government’s choice of making a unilateral withdrawal, instead of coordinating it with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and giving him proof that negotiations could yield tangible results for Palestinian statehood. The criticism was not unfounded: Dov Weissglass, chief of staff to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, referred to the move as “formaldehyde” that would keep the peace process in a dead state.

Those on the right, meanwhile, felt betrayed by Mr. Sharon, who for decades had championed the settlement of Palestinian areas as essential to Israeli security. They opposed ceding territory to the enemy, seeing it as a recipe for heightened aggression rather than peace.

Rocket fire from Gaza decreased immediately after the withdrawal, but then became worse: More than 15,000 rockets have been fired on Israel since then, according to Israeli statistics.

Many Israelis remain concerned that withdrawing from the West Bank could lead to a similar uptick in attacks, but from a territory that is nearly 15 times bigger than Gaza and sits far closer to Israel’s heartland. The West Bank hills afford a commanding position over Israel’s main international airport, Ben Gurion, just six miles away, as well as greater Tel Aviv – Israel’s Silicon Valley. 

So far Israel’s containment strategy has worked fairly well in the West Bank, where it erected a serpentine barrier to keep out suicide bombers and heightened security coordination with the Palestinian Authority. Though 30 percent of the barrier remains to be constructed, a Palestinian suicide bombing hasn’t happened in the area since 2009. Some say that stems more from the role of PA security forces and a realization that violence doesn’t pay. But in the Israeli mind, the barrier stands as a firm defense against terror.

In fact, barriers – reminiscent of the ancient Judean fortresses of Israelis’ ancestors – are now widely embraced as an effective way to fortify modern Israel despite the international opprobrium barriers bring. In 2013, Israel completed a 145-mile fence along the Egyptian border. Built at a reported cost of 1.6 billion shekels ($430 million), it was intended to stop militants, drug traffickers, and illegal migrants.

The same year, Israel refurbished its outdated fence along the Golan Heights border with Syria with concertina wire, electronic sensors, and infrared cameras. With a long barrier already in place along the Lebanese border, that leaves only one section of Israel’s land boundaries unfenced – a section along the peaceful Jordanian border – and plans are under way to erect a barrier there as well.

“Just like the Chinese protected themselves and defended themselves with the Great Wall, so we will continue to defend ourselves on the southern border, the Golan Heights, and on all fronts,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a visit to China last year.

The former lifeguard’s 14-year-old son has just finished the school day at Yad Mordechai, and jumps into the conversation with his father. The 1.8 million Palestinians living on the other side of the cement barrier just down the road are a distant memory for him. He was 5 when his family was evacuated. Like many young Israelis, he can’t remember ever talking with a Palestinian face to face. He excelled in Arabic from seventh to ninth grade, but his school stopped offering it, and he lost interest.

“I don’t hate Arabs. I hate Hamas,” says the son, whose views are strongly influenced by militant videos he’s watched on YouTube. One popular video, produced in Hebrew with a zippy soundtrack and fast-paced montages of Palestinian fighters attacking Israel, calls for the murder of all Zionists.

“They say, ‘Clear out the beehive,’ like we are small bugs and they should exterminate us,” he says.

He has an animal-kingdom retort of his own, however.

“They are like a spiders nest.... If we don’t clear the nest, they will keep spawning,” says the son, who wants to go into the Israeli air force. “For me, every day Hamas exists, it’s a day that’s not safe for the people of Israel.”

His views have only been reinforced by the recent fighting in Gaza. One of the largest cross-border attack tunnels discovered by the Israeli military during the conflict ended in a leafy gully not far from the family’s house in Netiv HaAsara, located right on the Gaza border, just south of Yad Mordechai. The family hurriedly moved about a week later to the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, into an unfinished home, where they slept on mattresses on the floor.

“There are some Arab people and Israeli people who want peace. But it won’t happen, because of the terrorists,” says the son. “I think the only solution is [for them] to simply not do terror.”

The war marked the first time that Hamas’s rockets hit hard in Tel Aviv. Rocket sirens were an almost daily occurrence in the cosmopolitan city, whose beach and cappuccino culture had flourished largely undisturbed by the conflict for years. 

With the two populations so cut off from each other, Israelis – particularly the younger generation – often don’t have a personal frame of reference against which to compare the rhetoric that arises during such crises.

“You don’t see Palestinians, so you can envision them however you want,” says Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, a veteran political psychologist. The government also played a role, as it often does in times of conflict, in stirring up fears – especially about Hamas’s use of tunnels. “I thought it was a fantastic idea, as a psychologist. Can you imagine zombies coming out of tunnels?... What people are afraid of the most is the unknown. It was really hitting exactly on this point.”

The Israeli government declared that eradicating Hamas’s cross-border tunnels was a chief goal of this summer’s Operation Protective Edge, launching a ground invasion that dramatically increased the number of casualties on both sides. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, including almost 500 children, according to the United Nations. Israel lost 67 soldiers – almost seven times as many as were lost in the last Gaza ground operation – as well as six civilians.

While many Israelis were eager for the fighting to stop, some worried that the government didn’t go far enough, leaving the country vulnerable to a repeat conflict within a few years. The Aug. 26 cease-fire agreement essentially reconfirmed the principles agreed to after the November 2012 conflict, which were not strong enough to prevent an outbreak of hostilities less than two years later.

“They should have come to a more substantial agreement,” says Dalia Ben Haim, a Yad Mordechai resident who abandoned the leftist ideals of her youth after a Palestinian teenager killed her husband in 1992 while he was working in a Gaza greenhouse. “The worst is to know that our soldiers are going to die – and it just increases our hatred toward Hamas.” 

It was vintage Mr. Netanyahu: Speaking before the UN General Assembly recently in New York, he compared Hamas to the extremist Islamic State (IS) group. His presentation came complete with a photo allegedly showing a Hamas fighter beheading a man in orange garb.

Critics have scoffed at Israel’s attempt to portray Hamas as seeking a global caliphate with equally brutal means as IS, arguing that its primary goals are nationalistic and focused on liberating historical Palestine from Israeli control. Yet many Israelis see the movement, whose charter calls for the “diffusion of Islamic consciousness among the masses, both on the regional, Arab, and Islamic levels,” as part of a regional upsurge in Islamist extremism, not just an isolated Palestinian group. It is another reason for the growing fortress mentality in Israel. 

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, of which Hamas is an offshoot, frightened many here, who were happy to see the military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi oust the Brotherhood last year and ban it as a terrorist group. The ascension of militant Islamist groups in Syria, from IS to the Nusra Front, has added to Israeli jitters – particularly in the Golan Heights, where rebels recently took over the main Syrian city on the border. 

Along the northern border, Hezbollah is widely believed to have stockpiled as many as 100,000 rockets in preparation for its next conflict with Israel. With fears that Hezbollah’s patron Iran could acquire nuclear-weapons capability, and use Hezbollah as a proxy against the Jewish state, Israelis see themselves on the front line of a potentially existential threat.

Political scientist Abraham Diskin says that the regional atmosphere helps explain why Israelis are so pessimistic about the feasibility of a peace agreement now. At the height of the Gaza conflict this summer, the percentage of citizens who saw Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as a viable solution to the conflict hit a two-decade low, according to the Peace Index by The Israel Democracy Institute. The index, which measures both support for negotiations as well as expectations that they will succeed, dropped to 34.5 out of 100. That is roughly 20 points lower than at the height of the second intifada, during which Palestinians killed more than 1,000 Israelis, many in suicide bombings of cafes and buses.

As more Israelis have become convinced that the Palestinians are not serious about ending the conflict, they have gravitated toward right-wing parties. The Jewish Home party, led by Naftali Bennett – a former settler leader who openly opposes Palestinian statehood – was recently ranked second in polls behind Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party. “The atmosphere is more nationalistic,” says Camil Fuchs, pollster for the liberal Haaretz newspaper. “Up until elections eight years ago, we could see that in every election there is a chance of a change in government” from right to center-left, or vice versa. “Now it looks like the probability of government which leans toward center-left is ... close to zero.”

Netiv HaAsara, the community where the former lifeguard and his son used to live, feels almost deserted on a September afternoon. On the outskirts of the settlement, just 400 yards from Gaza, a truck full of Asian migrant workers crawls up a hill overlooking the charred remains of Palestinian apartment blocks. Tread marks in the dunes bear testament to the ongoing patrols of Israeli military vehicles.

About 70 percent of the residents in these Israeli border communities evacuated during the war to escape the Gaza mortar fire and pounding of Israeli artillery, as well as the threat of tunnel infiltrations. Hamas attacked at least half a dozen border communities during the 51-day war, and more tunnels were found before attacks occurred, such as the one here in Netiv HaAsara.

Some residents have decided to move for good. At the local post office, the bulletin board is crowded with “for rent” ads. One of the few visitors is local store owner Sharly Shabbat, who vows to stay in the area. He says he hasn’t become more politically conservative, like many Israelis, but he is fatalistic about the possibility of peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians.

“I’ve become more leftist ... not because I think there’s a chance [of peace] but because I don’t think you can solve it with fighting,” he says. “I’m willing to do anything, but it doesn’t seem like they [Palestinians] are willing to accept anything.... They want us dead.”

Dan Meridor, former deputy prime minister under Netanyahu, says after Israeli leaders took significant political risks to present major peace proposals to the Palestinians in 2000 and 2008, and were rejected both times, it’s understandable that there is considerable skepticism in Israel today.

Still, some critics see racism rather than pragmatism driving a siege mentality. A forthcoming book, “Scenes from School Life,” depicts Israeli students who stand up for Arab rights as facing tremendous peer pressure, according to Haaretz.

“I’m ready to kill someone with my hands, and it’s an Arab,” said one student, adding her contempt for a girl who criticized those who want revenge against Arabs. “As soon as I heard about the quarrel with that leftist girl, I was ready to throw a brick at her head and kill her. In my opinion, all the leftists are Israel-haters. I personally find it very painful. Those people have no place in our country – both the Arabs and the leftists.”

Whatever the precise motives behind it, the hardening mind-set in Israel, as well as the increasing isolation of Israelis from their Arab neighbors, will make peacemaking more difficult, analysts say.

It is also having an effect on business. As much as 40 percent of the Palestinian labor force once worked in the Israeli economy. Israelis took their cars to Palestinian mechanics, shopped for cheap goods in their souks, and flocked to Gaza’s beaches.

But now Israelis are banned from entering not only Gaza but Palestinian cities in the West Bank, which are under the control of the PA. Within Israel, some 24 percent of Israeli Jews now say they are boycotting Arab businesses amid heightened tensions following this summer’s war, according to a recent Geocartagraphia poll.

More broadly, some worry that Israel’s toughening stance in relation to its neighbors may be costing it abroad. While Israel has a fairly steady friend in the United States, some polls suggest worsening public opinion in Europe, a key hub for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement protesting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. A 2014 Globescan survey showed some improvement in global views since 2013, but roughly two-thirds of Europeans polled still said Israel had a mainly negative influence in the world, with Britain coming in at 72 percent – and that was before the latest Gaza conflict. 

None of this is to suggest, however, that many Israelis don’t want a better relationship with their Arab neighbors. A recent survey by Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies found that Israelis thought peace with the Palestinians should be one of the country’s top three foreign-policy priorities in the next six months: 62 percent said that better progress was needed on that front to improve Israel’s standing globally.

And even if a peace deal isn’t feasible right now, says Mr. Meridor, Israel can still take proactive steps that would “give credibility to our position and our wish to have a Palestinian state.” Those could include limiting settlement building to the major West Bank blocs and creating a de facto border beyond which Palestinians would be given greater authority.

“It may not be all in our hands to end the conflict,” Meridor says, “but if you can’t end it in one step, try to move it in that direction.”

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