Flying over the entire length of the barrier, or fence, from Tel Aviv east to Jerusalem then north again up to the Jordan Valley just south of the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinneret, as this reporter did last week, gives a clear overview of the fence. Most of the Israeli security barrier surrounding Gaza is also a fence rather than wall. There are indeed areas where concrete walls have been erected, but for very specific and clear reasons -- to prevent Palestinian snipers from shooting at and killing Israeli civilians in Israel proper.
As is usually the case in wars, opposing sides seek to impose their own terminology on aspects of the conflict to win propaganda battles, influence neutrals and potential allies, and win the moral high ground. It is therefore understandable that Israelis should seek to refer to the barrier as a fence, and that Palestinians should seek to resent it as a wall. But the fact that it is overwhelmingly a fence teaches a great deal about passive frontier defenses and the industrial requirements that different kinds of them require.
The most obvious difference between a fence and a wall along a border is that a wall is far uglier. From a strategic point of view, this appears irrelevant. As the late Chinese Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping famously said about his economic policies, who cares what kind of cat you have as long as it catches mice? In guerrilla war and border defense, results are ultimately the only important thing.
Nevertheless, aesthetics affect widespread perceptions: Walls are ugly and signs of defeat, or apparently so. Gen. George S. Patton, greatest of all Western Allied armored commanders during World War II, famously said that passive defenses were a testament to the unerring stupidity of the human mind. There is a lot of truth to that, but it is not the whole truth.
Passive defenses cannot win wars, and when relied upon too much, or inadequately developed or manned, they can lose them. But the right kind of defenses can preserve nations for generations, and in wars they can win time to turn the tide, as the British Gen. Arthur Wellesley showed in his defense of the Torres Vedras lines from 1809 to 1811 in the Peninsular War in Portugal and Spain against Napoleonic France.
Many armchair strategists are fond of pointing out the times the Great Wall of China was overrun by barbarian invaders -- most notably during the Mongol conquest that cost an estimated 50 million Chinese lives. But they neglect to mention the many centuries amounting to millennia both before and after that catastrophe during which the wall served its purpose, and served it well.
But walls, as well as being ugly, are seen as admissions of defeat or the loss of a crucial vitality by a society. The Berlin Wall preserved the East German state for 28 years from 1961 to 1989, without which that state, the communist German Democratic Republic, would certainly have collapsed. Yet that wall was also globally seen as an admission of defeat by communism that it had failed to win the loyalty and even the tolerance of the portion of the German people it ruled.
By contrast, the Israeli security barrier is meant to keep people out, not in. It is not, therefore, an attempt to enslave, or jail a people, as the Berlin Wall was, but an attempt by a free people to protect themselves. The security barrier is also, indeed, a tacit but very real repudiation by Israel of the philosophy followed by Israeli Likud-led governments from 1977 to the start of the second Palestinian intifada that Israel could remain economically integrated with the Palestinian territories, whether it ruled over all of them directly -- as it did until the early stages of the 1993 Oslo Peace Process -- or even after it had handed over authority over most of the Palestinian populated areas to a Palestinian Authority government.
This defensive and anti-terrorist nature of the fence has a great deal to do with why it is a fence, and not a wall. And those reasons have been studied and copied by a remarkable number of governments around the world facing similar problems or potential future ones.
(Next: Where a fence is better than a wall)