Behind the Barrier: Israel's Fence With Egypt Nears Completion

Article Summary
The impenetrable concrete, iron and cement fence Israel is constructing on its border will soon be complete. Oded Shalom visits the site in the desert heat, where he talks to contractors and laborers who work long days to complete the barrier, IDF's biggest engineering undertaking yet, which is intended to keep immigrants and terrorists out of Israel.

It was ten in the morning and the sun beat down mercilessly. From the place we stood, not far from border stone number 45, the activities taking place on the mountain opposite us seemed like a desert mirage. You clearly view the heavy machinery working and descending on a steep slope; you look at them and wipe the sweat that has rolled into your eyes, unsure if what you see is really happening. This entire situation seems to negate the laws of gravity.

Earth-moving contractor Dudu Nahmani stands with us and observes the work. He is in charge of 2 kilometers of the fence in this section, west of the Harif Mountain on the Israeli-Egyptian border. Most of these 2 kilometers are located in mountainous regions with height differences ranging from 50 to 80 meters. "I must level it as much as possible, so that a patrol road can be paved next to the fence," Dudu explains. "That means that I need to move earth from on top and pour it down below to level the territory. The problem is that here, the topography is almost impossible to work with. What you see opposite you is a hill of 80 meters above the wadi [valley], and we are now creating a path 100 meters long leading to the wadi. Meanwhile, the wadi's height will rise because we are filling it with earth. But do you realize what kind of incline we are talking about? It is very steep, crazy. See the bulldozers: they can't work in tandem, only in a line, and very, very carefully. One wrong move — and the bulldozer overturns."

Torn clothes flutter on the barbed wire

The new border fence winds its way like a snake made out of iron and steel rods. It extends for many kilometers, and next to it runs a shiny asphalt road. On the sections still lacking the new fence are sections of the old fence — a simple cattle fence, barely a meter high. On some sections one can see pieces of torn clothing that were caught on the barbed wire, bits of clothing left by the infiltrators. These are the last spots from which African work-immigrants and refugees still sneak through. But soon, the new fence will go up here too.

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A high-placed official in the [Israeli] Southern Command describes the construction as "the Defense Ministry's most grandiose engineering project since the Bar-Lev Line [chain of fortifications] in the Suez Canal [circa 1968]." While this may sound pretentious and disproportionate, after my tour of approximately 100 kilometers of the border-fence route and my discussions with contractors, I understood that it was not an exaggeration. In order to prevent infiltrators from entering, the state embarked on a project whose complexity and scope had not been seen for the last 40 years.

The numbers tell the story: 242 kilometers long, between five and seven meters high, 35,000 tons of metal and steel construction, 10 million cubic meters of earth that was dug out and 10 million cubic meters of earth that was filled. Double-trailer 15-ton trucks exited and entered here full of dirt, 1.5 million times: if they were placed in a straight line, the line would stretch about 9,000 kilometers, more than twice the distance from Tel Aviv to London.

[And what does the new fence look like?] Steel rods 30 millimeters in diameter are welded in crisscross fashion; on these are a network of razor wires [called the ''touch and cut'' – “you can't touch it without cutting yourself…''], three rolls of barbed wire plus another obstacle: concertina wire fences built like a three-story pyramid. Project Manager Brigadier-General Eran Ofir gazes at his "baby" and states emphatically, "As soon as we finish building the fence, in the coming October or even September, the infiltration from the Israel-Egyptian border will cease almost completely."

To such an extent?

"Yes, it will be very, very hard to penetrate it [the border fence]."

This is a work-site that extends beyond the horizon. Enormous bulldozers work on the sides of the road, trucks criss-cross the desert, fuel and water tankers move back and forth. You drive and drive, but the spectacle never ends; it takes place all along the route. In the sections in which infrastructure has been completed and the fence stands, laborers work on the final welding tasks. More than 1,000 laborers are employed — from Kerem Shalom [a kibbutz near the Israeli-Egyptian border] in the west to the Eilat mountains in the southeast [on the shore of the Red Sea].

Work begins at 6:30 am, and ends after 5 pm. "There are some days when the work continues even later than that," says contractor Zion Avidan. "Until we fall off our feet. The heat throughout the day is very oppressive. No shade, the sun burns and you must cover your face and body so as not to get burned. We are also very careful about drinking fluids; you can easily dehydrate here and collapse."

Yet even here are employed some Sudanese and Eritrean workers who only recently infiltrated Israel by way of the old fence — now they work on the new fence to prevent others from entering Israel. In our first tour we saw a number of these workers along the border line. Brigadier-General Ofir says that only 5% of the workers on the project are infiltrators, and they are employed by the civilian contractors.

On July 31, when we returned for our second visit of the work sites, the African workers were nowhere to be seen. Natan Gilinsky, project manager in the Yehuda Fences Company that had employed some of them, said that they had finished their work and left.

What kind of work did they do?

"Simple things, like tying the concertina wires."

Wasn't it strange for them to work on constructing a fence on a border that they crossed themselves only a short time earlier?

"I don't think so. To the contrary, they were satisfied. They are unfortunate people who want to support themselves, to eat, sleep like human beings. We gave them a fair salary and food, and made arrangements for them to sleep in one of the nearby yishuvim [small communities] close to the border. I didn't see any evidence of guilt on their part."

Twenty-two laborers in a private house

The planning of the project began in August 2010 and three months later, work began. In the Southern Command they say that they began to consider the idea of a fence four years ago, though the government made the decision only two years ago. In the first stage they only thought about halting the flow of infiltrators from Africa, but after the murderous terrorist attack on Road 12 last August, another goal was added to the list: preventing the incursion of terrorist cells from Sinai to Israel. [On August 18, 2011, terrorists infiltrated Israel through the Sinai desert and fired on a bus full of passengers, on Road 12, near the border. Later that day they launched a missile on another bus on the same road, and also fired at a car. Eight Israelis and six Egyptians were killed.]

The sum of 1.35 billion shekel [$337 million] was budgeted for the construction. The duration of the work was estimated at four years, and its implementation was imposed on the Defense Ministry's border zone security fence  Administration, responsible for construction and maintenance of all of Israel's border fences. The name was then changed to ''Border-fence administration''  and the project's code name was the Hour-Glass Project.

A short time before the bulldozers appeared on the ground, Brigadier-General Ofir, Logistics Officer by training and Head of the border fence administration, was summoned to GOC Southern Command Tal Russo. "Four years is too much time," Russo told him. Ofir answered, "If the project will go like clock-work, it will take much less time."

One year and nine months after that meeting and the border fence already stands along 203 kilometers of the border. Ofir is the one who orchestrates the speedy work pace, and under him are contractors working in the unbearable heat. We sit and talk in a container in the middle of the desert, under the Harif Mountain. The air conditioner rattles, producing more noise than cold air. Contractor Avidan bends over the plans in his improvised office. Outside, several scores of meters from here, he has dozens of engineering machinery that are battling nature in order to blaze the trail for the border fence.

Avidan, resident of Beit Shean [in the north of the Jordan River valley], rented a multi-story house in Eilat for himself, his son Nimrod who works with him, and the laborers, 22 men. "But sometimes the numbers change according to the type of work being done in the territory; there were times when I had 60 laborers working on the fence." At 3:45 AM Avidan gets up and wakes up the fellows, drinks a quick cup of coffee with them before they all head out, convoy-style, for the border. The trip takes one hour and forty minutes. "At 6:30 am the concert begins: all the machinery begins to work."

The contractor from the north won the tender for three work-sections on the border, a total of 50 kilometers. "We began to work at the end of November 2010 based on only partial plans. We entered the territory with surveyors and raced forward. We blew up mountains and advanced, blew up more mountains and progressed some more. We brought in Bagger bulldozers, enormous D-10 bulldozers, we used all our machinery. My work should have taken three years easy, but Eran [Commander Ofir] pressured us all the time, "Hurry, hurry, hurry."

At the height of the work, says Avidan, 500 giant machines operated on the border. An incredible number. The Caterpillar company even set up a permanent service garage with mechanics and technicians. "I have never seen a mechanical project like this before. There were days that I alone used over 30,000 liters of diesel oil. Fuel tankers drive around here endlessly on the border, because there are dozens of other contractors like me. Trucks loaded with explosives also run around here. Hundreds of tons of dynamite were exploded. We had to blow up parts of mountains in order to blaze trails. And you have to understand that every movement, every transfer from place to place here, takes hours because this is the middle of nowhere. Even the water tankers coming from the Sayarim army base travel two hours in each direction." [IDF Sayarim army base in the Eilat mountains, not far from the border with Egypt].

Even Michael Barashi, a veteran infrastructure contractor from Jerusalem, blows up lots of dynamite. "Our company has existed for 60 years and we are used to complex projects, but even I had never seen this kind of work before. We blow up between six and 10 tons of explosives a week. That is an insane quantity. We had done a million tons of quarry work in a section of 4 kilometers, and that is an incomprehensible quantity. And quarrying is only part of the work: we have to take apart the soil with the D-10, load up the trucks and transport it away. And all of that on a very steep route. It has happened that trucks simply fell into wadis [valleys] because of the sharp gradients and turned over on their sides."

"In order to extricate a truck," someone comments, "The bulldozer had to come with a loader and a mechanical arm and lift them up."

And the drivers?

Barashi: "Luckily they jumped out of their cabin in time."

Avidan: "You have a 30-meter hill and you have to flatten it. We have wadis of 30-40 meters wide, 150 meters deep and you have to fill them with earth. Each wadi like this would take 4-5 months in regular work, but here you work simultaneously on several wadis and have to finish within a month and a half."

How is the work progressing as far as the timetables are concerned?

Avidan: "One-two-three I'll be finishing my sections."

Barashi: "We'll also finish in time."

What is your deadline?

Barashi: "August."

How many kilometers do you have left?

Barashi: "It doesn't matter how many — we have to finish them. We have dozens of heavy machinery here and we've brought down another 10. The fellows work from 6:30 am until the evening."

The tremendous  scope of the work seems like it would produce a financial windfall. I can't help but compare the current border-fence project with the construction of the Bar-Lev line regarding the financial remunerative aspect. The contractors who worked in the Suez Canal at the time, at the beginning of the 1970s, returned from the Sinai financially well-off. Now it would seem that the current project also involves lots and lots of money. Stories circulate here about contractors who at first drove around in dented pickup trucks, and now circulate like kings in upscale, brand-new fancy jeeps. Avidan smiles bitterly. "We will not get rich from this work," he says, "The Defense Ministry lowered our rates to rock-bottom."

Even Barashi becomes gloomy when we start to talk about money. "We are definitely not making a profit here, now I'm praying that we don't lose." Both agree on one thing, "At least we'll have something to show our grandchildren, to be proud that we built the border-fence with Egypt. Maybe there's no money in this, but it's a patriotic enterprise."

Half an hour later, west of that spot, contractor Nahmani reassures us, "Thank God, I'm earning a nice living here."

Brigadier-General Ofir has the final word on this subject and states that no contractor will get rich from this project. "We saved a lot of money by making the Fence-Border administration the coordinating contractor. For each type of work, we issued a separate tender: a tender for earth-moving work, for the fence itself, for the concertina, the concrete, the observation towers. We are the ones to coordinate between the contractors — who begins work, when and where. As soon as we dismantled the project into discrete jobs, we succeeded in making it as inexpensive as possible. We saved a fortune. We managed to erect a fence at the cost of 5.8 million shekel a kilometer [$1.45 million for each kilometer of fence], when the real price was supposed to be double that."

How did [you get] the contractors to agree on such rock-bottom prices?

"We organized a tour for earth-moving contractors in the border area, out of 50 contractors 49 showed up. We created competition among them, we encouraged them by saying that maybe there wasn't big money in this project but it is a national mission, real Zionism to do this. In projects such as these it is accepted to add on a distance transport compensation supplement of 15-20%. There are plenty of transport expenses here: water, fuel, materials, heavy machinery. So not only did we not pay a distance supplement but we received low bids, about 30-35% below market prices."

Does this say anything about the situation of the [construction] branch in the economy?

"Not at all, it shows us that they mobilized themselves for this project out of a [patriotic] sense of mission."

But Nahmani is insistent. "At the end of the day, maybe we're not getting regular prices, but thank God we're not complaining. We can make a living here."

Smuggling became violent

About a month ago [June 18 2012], [36-year-old Haifa resident] Said Fashapshe was murdered on the border fence. Terrorists who infiltrated from Sinai activated a road-side bomb and opened fire on his vehicle that was traveling on the route attached to the old border fence. The victim was an expert in assembling and installing barbed wire fences. His cousin Amar, who worked with him, says that they were not afraid. "We were relaxed, because the army guarded us. Now they guard us with even more units."

Avidan remembers that there were days when the laborers wore bullet-proof vests while working on the fence. "Think about it, it's 38 degrees and you're in a vest that closes you from all sides. It is a nightmare, but when there's no choice, you do what you have to do." Amar tells us that every time there were alerts, they were told to stop work. "We install concertina wire fences, we are experts in this field. You have to know how to open, how to stretch, how to tie. It can become entangled in a second. You can't do work like this in a ceramic vest."

This is a family-based company. The Said brothers worked in it, also the cousins and nephews. "After the catastrophe [Said Fashapshe's murder] during the mourning period, we didn't know what to do. We were afraid to return to the border. Work is work, but life is more important." After the terrorist attack, Ofir visited the grieving family in the Carmel [Mountains, in the North of Israel]. "It was clear that they had undergone a traumatic event. I told them that I would respect any decision they would make and would not hold anything against them [if they would quit the project]. But from my point of view, I preferred that they would return to work after the mourning period."

Amar reveals that their return to work on the border fence actually helped him to get over the calamity. "It took us out of the mourning, out of the fear. [Here] the sun is strong, there are endless flies [that plague us], dust — but work gives strength to the human being to overcome life's difficulties. The head is busy with work."

Thus the border fence is progressing with blood and sweat. Gilinsky from Yehuda Fences who won a tender for erecting 70 kilometers of the fence tells me that the contractors have used such tremendous quantities of steel and iron that it caused a shortage in the private [construction] market. "From the beginning of the year, the quantity we have used constitutes about 20% of the annual consumption of the entire country. Contractors beg us to leave something for them."

The more that the work progresses, the fewer the infiltrators who manage to get through. Last May, 2,081 people infiltrated from the border; five months earlier, the monthly average was about 2,800 people. In June the numbers plummeted: only 928 entered Israel. In July, the number went down to 268.

Meanwhile, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] attempts to cope with those who still attempt to cross the border. For a certain period the "Hot Return" or "Immediate coordinated return" procedure was implemented, in official military language. The procedure authorized army forces and [border guards] Maga”v on the border to coordinate immediately with Egyptian forces to return groups of infiltrators caught on the Israeli side of the border, to Egyptian territory. But after a petition was submitted [by the Hotline for Workers Aid Organization together with Refugees Rights Clinic at the Tel Aviv University] to the High Court of Justice, the Court instructed the army to cease this practice.

Thus IDF soldiers are forced to cross their fingers to keep out large numbers of infiltrators, until completion of the border fence. This is not a metaphor, but a literal practice. After the "Hot Return" procedure was disallowed, IDF forces adopted the "holding hands" procedure: when the observation-tower soldiers spot groups of infiltrators close to the border, a unit of soldiers are dispatched to the area. They then stand in line, holding hands and preventing the entrance of the infiltrators with their bodies.

The IDF has increased the number of combat soldiers in the area, added observation posts and war rooms. Sayeret Rimon [an elite reconnaissance company attached to the Southern command. Operative between 1970 and 2005, it has been put back to work in 2010.] was re-established and one if its goals is establishing a presence in the zone. "Our deployment along the border is in much better shape this year than we were last year," says a high-placed source in the Command. "The patrols along the fence are carried out in bullet-proof vehicles, and we travel in 'block' convoys. As a result of these reinforcements, smuggling operations have become violent — not infiltrators [African immigrants trying to get into Israel] but criminal smuggling and terror acts. They put out lookouts and armed cover up, in order to secure the smuggling operation.

When there is an organized operation which includes armed back-up, lookouts and fire, we strike anyone trying to infiltrate according to standard arrest procedures.

The Bedouins in the Negev also received clear messages. The Liaison Officer of the Bedouin Dispersion in the Negev (who is a member of the Southern Command), emphasized the new policy to the heads of the Bedouin tribes. "The criminal smuggling is carried out by networks that operate on both sides of the border, "says a high-placed source from the Command. "We have made it clear to all the [Bedouin] notables and key players that anyone who sends his children to the border from now on, puts their lives in danger. We talked to them one tribe at a time, and warned them all. They are hysterical, because they understand that their livelihood is going up in smoke, but we don't care. As soon as the fence is completed we will announce that the territory adjacent to the border is a special security zone. Anyone approaching the zone will have to take into account the [serious] implications of that. We have decided that this border will be closed, and it will be closed."

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