Why Statistics from Israel Won’t Justify Trump’s Wall

By Jennifer Atkinson

“Take a look at Israel. They’re building another wall. Their wall is 99.9 percent effective,” President Trump said on Friday as he declared a national emergency over his Mexico wall which he believes will cure the United States’ border security and immigration woes. It’s not the first time that he has cited this statistic. Israel’s many steel fences and concrete barriers offer everything Mr. Trump needs to rally support from his base for his own structure: seemingly sound advice from a trusted ally, dramatic statistics, and a fear of terrorism. It’s the idea that Israel and the United States are brothers-in-arms, united by similar security threats and equal aspirations to keep the bad guys out. Aspirations, however, are rarely representative of what’s actually needed on the ground.

I was sixteen when Apartheid officially fell in South Africa. I had spent the majority of my childhood witnessing firsthand institutionalized racism and segregation. Exactly 10 years after the first free and fair elections in my home country, I found myself living and working in Jerusalem, reporting from across Israel and the Palestinian Territories. My last assignment there was in 2008, covering the Gaza War. Again, exactly 10 years later, I found myself in Tijuana, Mexico. This time I wasn’t reporting, but rather I was part of a team of human rights advocates and doctors assessing the situation of migrants at the border. While I’ve covered a lot of ground since I celebrated Nelson Mandela’s victory in 1994, one thing is clear: The Apartheid theme seems to be following me.

I landed in Tijuana just four days after U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents fired tear gas on a group of migrants at the San Ysidro crossing. Social media was on fire. People hastily Tweeted collages with photos from the Tijuana scene alongside images of Palestinian rock-throwers clashing with Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza. During my time in the Middle East I grew accustomed to the daily tension which simmered across the Israeli-Palestinian divide — often erupting into physical clashes. While many chose to use the term Apartheid to describe the situation in the Middle East, having experienced both myself I knew that they were vastly different. Israelis and Palestinians were, and still are, battling with something unique — unique to the geographical, religious, and cultural makeup which underpins this centuries-old conflict. But by giving it a name, a name that was coined somewhere else, far away: the name of Apartheid, it had the power to shift the focus away from the here-and-now and make it seem like a solution was somehow within reach. It was a quick and easy deflection. It put a period at the end of the sentence before any more questions could be asked. And it’s a tactic that is used very effectively today by Mr. Trump.

When I crossed from San Diego into Tijuana on foot at around 6 a.m. on November 29th I pledged to see the situation from both sides. I promised myself I’d look at everything fresh-eyed just as I had when I first arrived in Jerusalem all those years earlier. My first meal in the holy city introduced me to the possibility of a suicide bomber entering the restaurant, and the fear that went along with it. I recall we chose a table away from the door and windows and I found myself checking over my shoulder every few minutes. Similarly, my heart beat a little faster and my palms became sweaty each time I crossed the Erez Tunnel into Gaza or the Qalandia Crossing into Ramallah. Perhaps that was why I felt a knot in my stomach that morning when I presented my passport to the CBP agent at the San Ysidro crossing into Mexico. It took less than five minutes to walk through and my bag glided on a conveyer belt past an x-ray machine that no one was checking. I spent the next two days in downtown Tijuana, talking to locals as well as Central American migrants and visiting shelters. I witnessed queues of asylum seekers at El Chaparral, where a zigzagging ramp snakes its way toward the U.S. side of the border. I also travelled 30 minutes south towards the more dangerous area of Mariano Matamoros where some 5,000 migrants were being bused to a concert venue-turned shelter. Nowhere did I encounter any angry mobs planning to invade the United States. Nowhere did I see the signs of violence and terror that Mr. Trump touts in his statistics. Don’t get me wrong – Mexico can be a dangerous place, but the asylum seekers I encountered were victims, not criminals. “The numbers that I have from Homeland Security are a disaster," Mr. Trump said again on Friday, without offering up any elaboration or evidence.

Statistics are valuable and offer evidence. But they must be used in context and not repurposed to push a political agenda. It is true that data overwhelmingly supports the idea that Israel’s barrier with its southern neighbor Egypt has drastically curbed illegal immigration. The 152-mile-long steel-and-barbed-wire structure is hailed as the reason for a decrease from more than 16,000 illegal crossers in 2011 to less than 20 in 2016. These are the numbers Mr. Trump is referring to when he speaks about 99.9 percent efficacy. It’s a border security victory that serves well to bolster his Mexico wall argument. The fact that it’s on the other side of the world and that it was born form a completely different set of circumstances doesn’t matter to Mr. Trump nor to his base. The numbers are convenient. And once you throw in Israel’s other, more famous, wall: the separation barrier which snakes along the outside of the West Bank and encircles settlements, and closes off Gaza, there’s added arsenal for his fear-mongering rhetoric. It elicits an image of panic over what the wall is keeping out. In Israel’s case, that’s Hamas, suicide bombs, and terror in general. Whether one agrees morally or ideologically, it’s difficult to argue against it when we study the numbers. In 2002, the year before Israel started building its West Bank and Gaza walls, 452 Israelis were killed compared to 15 in 2009. But Mr. Trump simply can’t put numbers where his mouth is.

He says the U.S.-Mexico wall will keep out “an invasion” of dangerous criminals, murderers, rapists, human traffickers, and drug cartels from across Central America, with an unknown number of Middle Easterners peppered in amongst them. The wall is essentially depicted as a defensive operation to combat migrants who are seeking to overrun the border. U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said while on a visit to Israel in June 2018: “Border security is national security. Our Israeli partners know that better than anyone, and I was fortunate today to see the incredible work they’re doing to keep their territory and citizens safe.” It’s this exact notion of Americans not being safe that’s become the driving force behind the Trump administration’s case for a wall. It seems any security measure can be justified through this fear-mongering – even separating hundreds of migrant children from their parents at the border — two of whom died over Christmas. As he ignores or manipulates data of human rights violations perpetrated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials against asylum seekers, he uses Angel Moms, parading them in the Rose Garden, in a bid to show his compassionate side. While his arguments are big on spectacle, they’re small on evidence. The facts simply don’t add up. Data from CBP proves that despite Trump’s national emergency declaration, no border crisis exists. Border patrol apprehensions have been steadily decreasing since 2008 and in 2017 were at their lowest since 1971. And government data from 2016 shows that the overall number of undocumented immigrants in the United States fell to its lowest in more than a decade.

While most lawmakers and ordinary Americans across both sides of the political aisle agree that much needs to be done on border security, there is little consensus over the existence of a national emergency. And while Mr. Trump and his administration look to Israel for an answer, and leverage unrelated statistics to justify his border wall, we have to remember this: Israel’s wall is to the United States what Apartheid is to the Middle East conflict: a way to shift the focus and to transfer responsibility for poor and often dangerous decision-making.

Jennifer Atkinson was born and raised in South Africa and spent 14 years as an international journalist for Reuters, based in London, Jerusalem, Singapore and New York. From 2004, she spent two years covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reporting from Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. In 2006 she covered the Israel-Lebanon war from both sides of the border. She returned in 2009 to cover Israel’s military offensive into Gaza. She is currently based in New York.


Jennifer Atkinson