Touring Israel's Barrier With Its Main Designer
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
KFAR ADUMIM, West Bank -- From his stone balcony, Dan Tirza looks out over a rippling expanse of Judean desert, the biblical landscape of the Jewish people. A student of that history, the retired army colonel is a leading actor in Israel's modern story of statehood, conquest and the volatile task of erecting a boundary that divides Arab from Jew.
Soon Israel's $2.5 billion separation barrier will rise around Tirza's settlement, where 350 Jewish families live among palms, playgrounds and a synagogue 10 miles inside the West Bank.
The Israeli government says it is building the 456-mile barrier to protect its citizens from Palestinian attacks and not to establish a border. But the route does not follow the boundary defined when Israel emerged as a modern state in the late 1940s, drawing complaints from Palestinians that the barrier's path is designed to seize land and dictate the terms of a future peace deal.
Tirza's settlement is among dozens of hilltop redoubts that Israel has built over the past generation, creating a mosaic of Jewish communities in the Palestinian territories. When the barrier is complete here, it will place on Israel's side nearly 25 square miles of the West Bank, the proposed heartland of a future Palestinian state.
Tirza supports the route in no small part because he, more than anyone else, drew it.
"The main thing the government told me in giving me the job was to include as many Israelis inside the fence and leave as many Palestinians outside," Tirza said in an interview. "The idea was to do it with balance."
Tirza, a Jewish settler who believes Israel has a historic right to the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, drew the barrier along a route that effectively annexes 10 percent of the West Bank. In the absence of a peace agreement, the course cements the territorial claims of tens of thousands of Jewish settlers, including Tirza's.
Recently retired after three decades in Israel's army, Tirza has had to defend his design in court, been accused by dovish Israelis of having a conflict of interest because he lives in a West Bank settlement, and antagonized neighbors who oppose the project because it divides what they see as Jewish territory.
His design highlights Israel's twin and often conflicting goals: ensuring the security of its citizens while solidifying its hold on land the Palestinians envision as part of their future state.
"He's a bit of a enigma, but I've always had the impression he was more motivated by ideology than by power or money," said Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer who has challenged the barrier's route and confronted Tirza in court several times. "That might sound like a compliment. But in the job he was supposed to do, he tried to mask his ideology and present it as a concern for security."
Tirza is 48, an older-than-usual doctoral candidate who favors jeans, Teva sandals and wraparound sunglasses to go with the knit skullcap favored by religious settlers. His short, black hair is receding.
The son of secular parents, Tirza joined the army in 1977. As a young lieutenant in the early 1980s, Tirza served in the Nahal, a select unit the Israeli Defense Ministry used to establish what would become civilian settlements in the territories Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East war. The defense minister at the time was Ariel Sharon, with whom Tirza would work closely on the barrier two decades later.