A Wall, a Fence, and Border Security

Israel’s border security is the inspiration for the US’s southern border security solutions. Our security doesn’t involve surrounding the whole country with 35-foot-tall concrete slabs. We built smart fences with layered security. Only 5% of the security barrier in the West Bank built to stop terrorism consists of very tall concrete slabs.

Here I’ll focus on the border fence built between Egypt and Israel to stop the flow of unauthorized migration from Africa.

The February 2017 US Senate report (you can read it here) compares the efficiency and efficacy of Israel’s border security to that of the already existing southern US border solutions. Israel’s fence is better by far.

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  • 150 miles of fence cost US$415 million
  • Yearly maintenance cost is US$58 thousand per mile
  • It was built in 2 years and the physical structure is made of rebar, barbed wire, and concrete buried underground
  • It’s about 15 feet tall
  • There was a 10-mile section that was easier to breach so they raised that section to 25 feet

Does Israel’s fence “work”? Yes. From tens of thousands of migrants coming through the border, last year fewer than 20 came through.

But here’s what the security fence didn’t do:

  • Write a formal immigration policy for Israel (it never occurred to anyone that non-Jewish people would want to live in a Jewish state, so there are guidelines but no formal policy for people who fall outside the definition provided by the Law of Return)
  • Deal with the tens of thousands of migrants already in Israel
  • Deal with security or trafficking at airports, maritime ports, or any other points of entry not covered by the fence

If the US followed Israel’s plan, here’s what should happen:

  • The US southern border needs about 13 of Israel’s fences (all things being equal), so it should cost US$5.4 billion. This doesn’t take into account terrain differences, proper oversight, consistency, eminent domain issues, etc. Even if you round up for other factors, let’s say US$10 billion
  • It should cost $112 million dollars per year for maintenance

The US already has 650 miles of fence.

  • The lower estimate given by the Senate report says it cost $2.3 billion (though another report says over the years it has been $7 billion). At US prices, Israel’s 150-mile fence would have cost US$530 million (or up to $1.6 billion)
  • Maintenance today on the US fence is US$77,000 annually per mile (or almost US$20,000 more per mile than Israel’s)

In short, the existing US fence was more expensive to build and is more expensive to maintain. But somehow it’s not effective. If the US builds a new fence using a plan based on anything other than Israel’s fence, it will be a case of throwing good money after bad.

Israel’s fence deals with a specific issue: unauthorized African migration, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan.

The US southern border fence claims it will deal with two specific issues: immigration and crime. So I checked a few statistics.

So if the border security “works,” it will stop approximately 400,000 people from entering the US via the southern border. It will do nothing about visa overstayers, nothing about “unauthorized” immigrants already residing in the US, nothing about immigration policy, nothing against any kind of trafficking (most likely), nothing for any other border sector, airport, or maritime port, and nothing about immigration from any other region than Mexico and Central America. It will also probably be over budget and improperly and expensively maintained. In addition, those who might have come via the southern border will likely find alternate routes.

Trump’s US border wall is a Golden Calf. Some will bow down and genuflect to its glittery greatness, and it might even make some people feel better. But like a statue, no matter how much you pray to it, it won’t actually do much.

The Space Between

We have national elections coming up in Israel on April 9.

**To my American readers: Try to wrap your mind around an election campaign that is only three months long!

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My mom asked me why I don’t seem to be so interested in the Israeli political scene, especially since I seem to have a lot of opinions on the US political scene. (To be fair, I think everyone in the world is interested in the US political scene. Every day there is some new shocking thing.)

The thing is that Israeli politics are very different from US politics.

In the US, you have two parties, three branches of government, and each state follows a similar pattern.

In Israel, for the upcoming election there are at least 11 parties. You might think that it would be easier to find a party to support, but I find it harder. The principles of each party tend to be so specific that I find myself agreeing with several principles from several parties. But in Israel, you vote for the party, not for people or on specific issues. The percentage of votes the party gets is reflected in the number of seats each party gets in the Knesset. Because one party is not usually strong enough to get a simple majority (61 seats), Israel is ruled by coalition governments. If the coalition is weak, you have elections sooner; if the coalition is strong, you have a full term of government (4 years).

You don’t vote for the Prime Minister either. The leader of Israel is the head of the party that got the most votes – again, it’s the party that matters not the person or the issue.

Israel is the size of New Jersey, but the country has snow-covered mountains in the north and desert in the south, hi-tech in the city, and agriculture in the country. But rather than have regional representation, you can only choose the party and hope that the party represents you.

Right now, people are breaking away from parties, creating new parties, getting fired from parties, getting nominated to parties (not to mention the corruption scandals and possible indictments). Only in February will we have an idea of who is on each party list.

And that’s another thing: some parties have elections within their parties to determine who is on their list; other parties just present their list. That means that if you are a member of a party, you can vote in the primary. The list is numbered by how many votes each person got (sometimes they add special interest places on the list that are likely to get a seat in the Knesset). Then, the number of seats the party gets in the Knesset (based on the percentage of total votes in the election) determines who goes to the Knesset. In parties that don’t have primaries, the leadership determines the list. If you are not a member of any party, you can still vote for any one of the parties in the main election with the knowledge that the list was determined by other people and may or may not represent you, your region, or your interests.

Israel is a little country in a hostile neighborhood, so it’s also really hard to understand how a political swing here or there will affect the country in the short, medium, and long term. As a voter, you have to trust that the coalition that the head of the leading party came up with will protect the citizens, will strengthen the economy, and will do what is right for Israel.

So, it’s not that I’m not interested in the political scene; it’s more that I can’t find myself in the political scene. I do my civic duty by voting (it’s hard not to, it’s a day off!) in the hope that the party I choose will do the best it can for Israel. I don’t feel that any party represents me personally, so from the space in between the parties, I allow myself to be an observer of the process.