Waste not, wall not

05/06/2008

Source : Ha’aretz

By Shuki Sadeh

On September 4, 2007, the Supreme Court’s justices delivered a verdict that would impact life in the tiny West Bank village of Bil’in - a place which, more than any other, has come to symbolize the struggle against the separation fence. To the surprise of those in the courtroom, the judges ruled that the original route of the barrier as drawn up by defense officials was determined in order to accommodate the expansion of the nearby Jewish settlement of Modi’in Illit. The court therefore ordered the state to dismantle a 1.7-kilometer stretch of the fence, and noted that its route also put Israel Defense Forces soldiers in a vulnerable position.

While the verdict was being read, IDF Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli was meeting with senior Defense Ministry officials. For Arieli, who in recent years has devoted most of his time to the issue of the fence, this was yet another in a series of meetings whose aim was to change the route. "When I heard of the court’s decision, I told [the people I met with]: You see, NIS 20 million that was spent on the barrier in Bil’in, you certainly don’t have now for Sderot," he says.

The part of the fence in Bil’in is one example, albeit a relatively small one, of the incredible wastefulness that has characterized one of the most grandiose projects in the history of the state. The manner in which more than NIS 7.5 billion went down the drain is described in detail in the book "Homa v’mehdal," ("The Wall of Folly") that Arieli co-authored with attorney Michael Sfard. The book details how the state built kilometers of fences and concrete walls only to destroy them years later.

"We’re not talking about hindsight being 20/20," Arieli says. "We gave warnings beforehand, we sat down, we presented figures, we demanded, we pressured. We met with ministers, members of Knesset, defense officials, and close aides to [then prime minister] Ariel Sharon. Everyone had the same response: You’re right, we know about all the tricks and wheeling-dealing. But nobody was ready to do anything about it."

Arieli, who was discharged from the IDF in 2001, headed the interim agreement administration during Yitzhak Rabin’s term as prime minister. Arieli also served as the head of the body that administered final-status negotiations in Ehud Barak’s government. Together with his colleagues at the Council for Peace and Security (an organization that counts among its members senior officials from the security establishment, who identify themselves with the moderate left), he has been at the forefront in recent years of the struggle against politicization of the security fence, which he says damages the efficiency of the defense establishment and harms both Israel as well as the Palestinians living in the West Bank.

"Everyone remembers the separation fence being built in 2002 within the context of the suicide bombings, but people need to remember that period as one where Israel was in the throes of economic recession, the GDP and the standard of living were falling, and important businessmen like [Teva pharmaceutical’s chair] Eli Hurvitz and [textiles magnate] Dov Lautman warned prime minister Sharon that without a separation fence, the Israeli economy would be in really bad shape," Arieli explains.

"Today, six years later, we can clearly see that because of economic needs and urgent security requirements, the fence route was drawn based on motives other than those related to security, and was intended, for political purposes, to establish Israel’s final borders by annexation of as much territory lying east of the Green Line as possible," he adds.

Arieli, who has toured the fence route dozens of times with various groups, talks about an army colleague, Colonel (res.) Danny Terza, who up until two years ago was the top Defense Ministry official supervising the project. Terza, who worked closely with Sharon, decided which form the physical barrier between the State of Israel and the West Bank would take. Sharon and Terza went together to check out the situation on the ground, and the prime minister would often direct Terza how to sketch the route. Fast forward six years, and it appears that these tours gave birth to one of the most wasteful infrastructure projects the state has ever known.

Last year, the Defense Ministry commissioned a detailed report describing, among other things, all the superfluous expenses related to the separation fence. The report was brought to the attention of the ministry’s director general at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi, but its contents were censored in the media.

"Even in the Defense Ministry, there are key players who’ve been kept in the dark," Arieli says. Thus all he has to work with are findings based on his own intimate knowledge of the subject.

The findings suggest that the expenditures incurred by the barrier - that is, by the expansion of its route, which was not motivated by security purposes - will most likely cost taxpayers between NIS 7.5-10 billion. And NIS 10 billion is 20 percent of the 2008 defense budget of NIS 51 billion.

"Two weeks ago, I took a tour of the fence along the section that was built near Qalqilyah with professors from Tel Aviv University," recounts Ariel. "They knew exactly the right calculations. They pointed out one part of the fence that was totally unnecessary, whose construction costs three times the amount of the [state-subsidized] health basket; another part of the structure would make the difference between classrooms holding 40 students rather than 30. If the expenditure was essential for security purposes, so be it, but I know for a fact that the reality on the ground is completely different."

Three types of waste

The project’s wastefulness can be seen in terms of three categories: the planning of the route; the dismantling and rebuilding of parts of the fence; and infrastructure expenses for residents of the territories, which indirectly stem from the construction. This does not include, for example, the thousands of man-hours invested by lawyers from the State Prosecutor’s Office and by senior officers in the defense establishment, who sought to explain the reasoning behind the fence route in court. One must keep in mind that the length of the Green Line is 313 kilometers, while the planned route covers 790 kilometers - 2.5 times the distance. As of now, just 460 kilometers of the fence has been built.

Arieli’s "Wall of Folly" includes maps that clearly indicate the long, circuitous sections that encroach on the West Bank, particularly in the central region. Given that the cost of building one kilometer of the fence is NIS 12 million, adding another 477 kilometers along the meandering route would necessitate a further expenditure of NIS 5.7 billion. This figure does not take into account the cost of securing the fence, which is likely to run some NIS 1 billion. Calculating the figure of the total cost of construction along the proposed route, as opposed to the Green Line, is the worst-case scenario in terms of the state’s wasteful spending.

The Council for Peace and Security proposed an alternative fence route of 500 kilometers, which also stretches in some points into the West Bank, particularly in areas where that the council felt that security needs clearly supersede the concern over harming the local Palestinian population. The route also covers other areas - like Ariel, for instance - in which council members felt it was imperative to build a separate fence, at least until the final status of these areas can be determined in negotiations with the Palestinians. The difference in the length of the route the council proposed - 290 kilometers - would have saved taxpayers NIS 3.5 billion, while a fence built along the Green Line would have saved NIS 5.7 billion.

The state’s wastefulness is evident to anyone who witnesses the fence surrounding the settlement of Beit Horon, near Highway 443.

Ariel: "In order to get Beit Horon [on the western side of the fence], the state added another 30 kilometers to the route, which meant a further expenditure of NIS 500 million - despite the fact that it is clear that the chances of Beit Horon remaining under Israeli sovereignty after a final-status agreement is extremely low."

The state has had to spend even more money in instances where the barrier’s route dug deep into Palestinian territory, provoking numerous petitions to the High Court of Justice, which then ordered the state to dismantle parts of the fence and rebuild elsewhere. The best-known case involves the town of Bil’in, but also in many other places the fence has cut off villagers from their agricultural lands, making mundane activities like walking to school virtually impossible.

In other instances, Israel realized either on its own or due to international pressure that a certain route would not work, and thus removed parts of the fence on its own initiative. At other times, such as the High Court-Beit Surik ruling of June 2004 - when the judges ordered the state to cancel the route between Maccabim and Givat Ze’ev - construction was prevented even before the state broke ground, forcing it to go back to the drawing board.

NIS 1 billion in corrections

According to Shaul Arieli’s calculations, the various High Court rulings and the defense establishment’s own "corrections" have cost close to NIS 1 billion. An additional billion is likely to be needed for High Court appeals currently under deliberation. This sum also includes alterations made during the planning stages; some parts of the route had to be redesigned three or four times.

Another factor contributing to the waste of taxpayers’ money is the state’s refusal to allocate resources to building checkpoints along the fence, despite having already spent billions on its construction. Arieli says that the traffic of settlers who cross the Green Line is heavy in certain areas, and that they refuse to undergo security checks. Today, vehicles carrying a yellow Israeli license plate can enter Israel proper through the fence - as did the truck with a bomb that reached Tel Aviv from Qalqilyah a year ago, but did not explode.

The defense establishment’s solution to these problems is to bar Palestinian traffic on roadways leading to the fence’s crossing points. Instead, new roadways designated for use by residents of the territories were paved. Not long ago, construction of the road near the village of Bidu, north of Jerusalem, was completed - and cost NIS 40 million. The project includes a 1,400-meter underground passageway beneath the fence. In addition, a short tunnel of dozens of meters was built to connect Qalqilyah with the village of Habla. The cost: NIS 9 million.

According to Arieli, the cost of paving these roads, together with additional expenses aimed at easing the daily lives of the Palestinians - such as building openings in the fence, enabling farmers to reach their land - comes with a price tag approaching NIS 2 billion.

Arieli: "Because they haven’t finished building the transit points, the fence has simply turned into a white elephant. Even brigade commanders and the head of the Shin Bet [security forces] say so. After the suicide bombings of the mid-1990s, there was talk of establishing a ‘seam zone’ of checkpoints on highways linking the West Bank and Israel. The idea was nixed because the defense establishment understood that this would be like installing a door in the middle of the desert. You don’t put up checkpoints in a place where everything is wide open. Today, the situation is such that they’ve put up walls, but the doors haven’t been installed."

Two weeks ago, Arieli organized a tour of the separation fence near the settlement of Tzofim, not far from Qalqilyah. In the coming months, the state is slated to dismantle six kilometers of fence in this vicinity, which translates into another NIS 102 million from public coffers. In May 2006, the High Court ordered the state to build three kilometers of fence in an alternate location.

Residents of the villages of Azun and Nabi Elias petitioned the court in 2002, claiming that the proposed fence route would deny them access to 1,100 dunams (275 acres) of farm land. The petition, filed during the height of the suicide bombings of the second intifada, was rejected relatively quickly after the IDF successfully convinced the court of the urgent security needs that the fence would fulfill. The Defense Ministry told the High Court it would allow Palestinians to earn a living by building special gates in the fence, allowing them access to their crops. In addition, the ministry vowed it would help the Palestinians solve concrete problems in their day-to-day lives.

Two years later, it was evident the promises were not kept. The livelihoods of 1,300 people have been adversely affected, as seen in the drastic reduction in olive-oil production. A human rights group, the Center for the Defense of the Individual, requested that attorney Michael Sfard look into this matter. He discovered something odd: The fence separating the settlement of Tzofim and Qalqilyah from the south, but instead of circling it from the north, continues eastward further into the West Bank, thus creating a giant envelope around the settlement.

Sfard decided investigate further and went to see the site with Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, an architect and member of Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights. The two arrived at Tzofim, saying they were interested in buying an apartment. They were met by a salesman from a real-estate firm, who showed his guests the future development plans for the area. With additional assistance from the northern West Bank settlement regional council, Sfard and Cohen-Lifshitz discovered that olive groves were cut off by the barrier to make way for the settlement’s industrial zone.

The Palestinians were unaware of these plans when they filed their petition to the court, as was the Supreme Court. Danny Terza, the Defense Ministry’s top civilian in charge of the fence project, concealed information about this plan in a 2002 court affidavit.

"This is an instance that mustn’t be taken lightly," wrote then Supreme Court president Aharon Barak in his ruling, forcing the state to dismantle the section of the fence.

The High Court is currently deliberating a petition against the separation fence north of Tzofim. In this case, the Palestinian residents knew that the land north of the fence was slated to be the site of a new residential neighborhood for the settlement, boasting 2,100 housing units. During the hearings, the state already agreed to take down six kilometers of the barrier, at a cost of NIS 102 million. Shaul Arieli says the proceedings show that the High Court is likely to instruct the state to remove wider sections of the fence, perhaps as much as twice the first length, which ostensibly translates into twice the cost.

No dismantlement

After Bil’in (September 2007) and Tzofim (May 2006), the High Court-Alfei Menashe case is the third instance in which the court explicitly ordered the state to dismantle a portion of the fence. In September 2005, the justices ruled the state was obligated to dismantle five kilometers of it, and instead to build 3.2 kilometers along a different route. Despite the three rulings, the IDF has yet to dismantle any of the sections.

"This is one of the most outrageous aspects of this story," says Ariel. "The way in which the State of Israel treats rulings issued by the High Court of Justice."

In response, the Defense Ministry says budgetary problems were preventing the state from implementing the court rulings. At least that is what the ministry told Haaretz reporter Akiva Eldar, who asked why the section of the fence near Bil’in has yet to be dismantled.

Palestinians can only hope that once the sections of the fence are taken down, their lands will be returned to them in a workable state. "According to the land seizure order, the IDF is required to return the land to its owners exactly in the condition it was beforehand," notes Arieli. "That means that all the big mounds of dirt have to be removed, the ditches and trenches, and all the dried concrete that’s been poured onto agricultural soil."

Removal of the mounds of dirt costs some NIS 5 million. But experience shows that the Palestinians should not get their hopes up of receiving their land in its previous condition.

The only time the state has taken down part of the fence, not as a result of a court order, but due to fears of international pressure, was when the 8-kilometer part was removed near Baka al-Sharkiyeh. Yet to this day the dirt and remnants of concrete remain.

In the areas of Khirbat Jabra near the village of Taibeh, and also north of Jerusalem, not far from the Mahane Ofer army camp, the state decided to dismantle three kilometers of the barrier. In practice, the only physical structure that was destroyed by court order was a security barrier - which the authorities called a ma’akeh, or "railing" - that was made of cement, in the southern Hebron hills.

The building and razing of that cement divider is perhaps one of the most infuriating examples of the waste of public money in connection with the fence. The original route which was approved in October 2002 encompassed territory north of Highway 317, an artery which connects the settlements of the southern Hebron hills with Kiryat Arba. Following the High Court-Beit Surik case, which ordered a change in the route between Maccabim and Givat Ze’ev, the Sharon government was forced to redraw the plans for the fence so it would move closer to the Green Line. Sharon, for his part, decided he would outfox the court, ordering the building of a cement wall that would be 82 centimeters high, alongside the fence route that was originally planned. The barrier, built at a cost of tens of thousands of shekels, is 41 kilometers long and runs next to the highway.

Paradoxically, rather than providing security, the cement structure served the opposite purpose, as gunmen looking to target cars on the highway now had a fortified point from which to shoot behind. Additionally, the barrier restricted the movement of Palestinian pedestrians, including the sick, women and children, and shepherds with their flocks.

The big winners

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a petition with the High Court against the cement barrier, but the state was unable to provide any rationalization for it on security grounds. IDF Colonel (res.) Yehuda Golan, a former Golani brigade commander and head of the Central Command headquarters, testified in court that the structure served no useful security purpose. During the hearings, Arieli took up the matter with then defense minister Amir Peretz.

"I tried explaining to him that this was a waste of money," Arieli recalled. "I told him that this was a shady political deal to satisfy the settlers, that Sharon did this, but that he (Peretz) could stop it. Peretz preferred not to do anything."

In December 2006, the High Court ruled that the cement structure was to come down, due to the disproportionate infringement on Palestinian rights. The court gave the defense establishment six months to carry out the order. During that time, nothing was done, and a court hearing was set for July 2007. One week before the six-month period was to have expired, the state tried to pull off a last-minute ruse that would have cost the taxpayers an additional tens of millions of shekels: The IDF offered to open passages 200 meters apart from one another, inside the barrier for use by Palestinians.

At this point, the High Court lost its patience, and Justice Dorit Beinisch ordered the cement divider taken down immediately. Unusually, the court fined the state NIS 30,000 for expenses, while leveling harsh criticism for not acting on the original verdict. The IDF dismantled the structure within a week.

Six years after the separation-fence project broke ground, after dozens of High Court petitions, alterations and redrawing of routes, just 460 out of 790 planned kilometers have been erected. Despite all the resources allotted, despite all the money poured in, the fence is still full of gaps. Today, there are breaches in the barrier near Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim and the southern Hebron hills (in the same area where the cement barrier was built). A wide hole in the fence between the hills and the Dead Sea remains. Smaller ones have yet to be filled in the central region.

"Why don’t they seal them up? They claim there’s no money, but this is nonsense. The gaps in the Beit Aryeh region and Elkana are not sealed because they want to annex those areas to Ariel in the future. The same thing is happening in East Jerusalem, where there’s a breach because they want to keep open the possibility of linking the city with Ma’aleh Adumim," Arieli says. "I’m in favor of completing the fence, but along a security route rather than a political route. At the end of the day, we need to remind ourselves of the logic by which the fence came about. It contributed a lot of security as well as a lot to the economy. So we have to complete it."

All that’s left to ponder is who is responsible for this whole debacle. For Arieli, who was devoted so many days and nights to the issue, there is no doubt: "First of all, Ariel Sharon. Then Shaul Mofaz, who was defense minister, and then the IDF, that hasn’t fought against the politicization of the route. Today, the failure weighs on the shoulders of Olmert and Barak, and before them Amir Peretz, who in recent years have done nothing to correct the errors of their predecessors, choosing instead to avoid responsibility."

When somebody loses, there’s always someone else who invariably wins. In the case of the separation fence, those who have profited most are hundreds of private companies. Indeed, the Defense Ministry is employing 700 various suppliers: 60 planning offices, 53 contractors, five fence builders, 11 security firms, and 34 surveillance equipment manufacturers and inspection firms.

The really big winners, like those who became wealthy building the Bar-Lev line in the Sinai peninsula in the 1970s, are the construction contractors, given that 85 percent of expenses per each kilometer of fence is devoted to infrastructure work. The most companies that have offered their good services to the Defense Ministry include Barad, the Bardrian Brothers, the Mei Arad real-estate firm, Mordechai Binyamin, etc. The concrete were supplied by Eckerstein. Security manufacturers Elbit and Magal provided the ministry with electronic surveillance equipment, which constitutes 15 percent of the cost per kilometer of fence.