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ISRAEL: The Good Fence Policy

4 minute read

Since the civil war began in Lebanon 15 months ago, Israel’s northern border has been quiet—and Jerusalem intends to keep it that way. The Palestinian guerrillas who once launched sporadic terrorist attacks on Israel border settlements have left “Fatahland” to fight against Christians and Syrians in the north. In effect, the southern half of Lebanon has been left without any government, and its 360,000 Moslem, Christian and Druze inhabitants—mostly poor and scrambling farmers—have been abandoned to fend for themselves. Israel is moving determinedly into the vacuum. TIME Jerusalem Bureau Chief Donald Neff last week toured the mountainous 80-mile Israeli-Lebanese border and sent this report:

By word and deed, Israel is doing all it can—short of full-scale invasion—to neutralize its Lebanese border. To that end, it has established links with rebel Lebanese army units, the only quasi-government force left in the region, and is seeking the good will, if not the hearts and minds, of border villagers. Israel’s policy is paying off—so far. The area is peaceful.

Three meetings have taken place between Israeli officers and representatives of Ahmed Khatib, leader of breakaway Moslem units of the Lebanese army that are generally friendly to the Palestine Liberation Organization. The meetings—the most recent was two weeks ago—are low key and mainly concerned with such mundane problems as what to do about stray flocks of sheep. But Israel’s underlying message is clear. As long as Khatib’s men do not help P.L.O. terrorists return to the border, the Lebanese troops will be safe from Israeli attack. With Khatib’s tacit permission, Israeli combat teams now patrol as deeply as three miles inside Lebanon, searching both for Syrian units and terrorists. They are also there to prevent fedayeen retaliation against border villagers, who in recent months have turned more and more to Israel for assistance.

Access to Israel. Scores of villagers show up daily at the electronically wired fence that was originally constructed along the border by Israel to keep out guerrillas. Every few miles along the fence there are gates, originally built to allow access for Israeli soldiers raiding P.L.O. bases in Fatahland. Now the gates are open to Lebanese seeking food, work and medical care in Israel. Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres calls it the “good fence policy.”

At Dovev, midway along the border, men and women, children and old people, sick and hale, last week trooped to the Israeli gate across a tobacco field green with flowering plants. A clinic had been set up; those seeking medical care were given numbers by armed Israeli soldiers and shown a place to wait. An outhouse and a pipe for drinking water had also been put up near by. “In sha ‘allah, let it be like this for the rest of our lives,” said a young Maronite farmer at the fence last week.

One villager drove his car along a dirt track to the fence. There his Lebanese license plates were temporarily replaced with Israeli tags; he was then allowed to drive away on a shopping trip and visit relatives hospitalized in Israel. Some villagers meanwhile sought work, which the Israelis have promised to Lebanese who cross the border. At Dovev last week, 15 men and women were finally selected for jobs in a tobacco processing shop at Safad a few miles away.

Two young men were rejected, however, after an Israeli officer spotted their names on a list of “undesirables.” Near the gate, farmers stacked bales of tobacco. An Israeli buyer went through the bales, grading them under the watchful eyes of their Arab growers. This year Israel expects to purchase $ 1.2 million worth of Lebanese tobacco for resale to Greece.

Jerusalem has announced that it will not tolerate a return to the grim old days of border terrorism. If the good fence policy does not keep terrorists from the area, Israel may well launch heavy retaliatory raids of its own across the border. It seems clear that the Israelis are determined to hang on to their one tangible gain so far from the Lebanese civil war—a peaceful northern border.

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