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Middle East: Israel's Barrier Continues To Spark Widespread Debate

  • Sergei Danilochkin

Israeli authorities are debating a controversial security system being built between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Some refer to it as a barrier, others as a fence. Defenders of the system say it will help keep suicide bombers out of Israel. But critics say the system is also an attempt to annex territories by running the route of the barrier into Palestinian-controlled land.

Prague, 8 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A reported two-thirds of Israelis support the idea of constructing a security barrier to protect them from terrorists trying to enter the country from the Palestinian territories.

But the Israeli government's specific plans for the barrier, which is slated to cut into Palestinian territory, have spurred controversy among Israelis, and drawn regional and international criticism.

Centrist politicians in Israel have expressed concern that the move could ultimately lead to international isolation and even sanctions similar to those imposed on apartheid-era South Africa. They suggest the barrier should follow the so-called Green Line delineating Israel's borders before the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel gained control of the West Bank, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, and Sinai Peninsula.

The debate has grown even more heated ahead of hearings, slated to begin in February at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, to rule on the legality of the barrier. Some officials in Jerusalem are concerned that if the court rules against Israel, the United Nations Security Council may impose a sanction regime.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a staunch defender of the current barrier plans, attempted to defend his position earlier this week (5 January) at a meeting of his Likud Party's Central Committee.

"We will separate ourselves from [the Palestinians], politically and physically, until they change their ways," he said. "We will draw a security line that will prevent any movement into Israel."

Catherine Cook is an analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Research and Information Project. She explains why the security barrier project -- which originally enjoyed strong support among Israelis -- is now causing such controversy: "It was an idea that was put forth [unofficially] by the Labor government originally [under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak]. And it did have a wide level of support amongst the Israeli public. But what's happened is, in the process of building the barrier -- rather than having it built on the Green Line, which is Israel's internationally recognized border with the West Bank -- the Sharon government has built it inside the West Bank. The extent to which the Israeli public knows of the impact of this wall on the Palestinian population is quite limited."

The barrier, which is slated to stretch over several hundred kilometers, will consist of some concrete barriers, but mainly fences, trenches, razor wire, and surveillance equipment. The cost of its construction is estimated at over $1 billion. The website of the Israeli newspaper "Ha'aretz" quotes a security official as saying that, upon its scheduled completion in 2005, the barrier will detach 6 percent of the West Bank.

Israel says the barrier will protect some 200,000 Jewish settlers. But it will also trap some 70,000 Palestinians currently living in the area. Israel says those Palestinians will be allowed to cross the barrier at special checkpoints, but critics of the plan say border procedures are far too complex.

Mark Lance is a professor at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., who visited the West Bank this past summer. He says the path of the barrier creates a lot of serious problems for local Palestinians and also puts in doubt the shape of any future plan for Palestinian statehood.

"The important thing to say about the wall is that it is, in many places, moving substantially into Palestinian territory," he said. "And it also moves in a number of places to incorporate Israeli settlements in the West Bank into the territory of Israel. Most of the aquifers in the western portion of the West Bank are on the Israeli side of the wall. And equally important is that in a number of cities the wall actually divides cities and villages from the farmland that the people in those villages need for daily survival."

Criticism of the barrier has led to mounting international pressure on Israel to scale back its plans.

U.S. President George W. Bush says the barrier undermines confidence in the Mideast peace process as outlined in the internationally supported "road map."

Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said on 4 January that Arab countries have collectively dismissed the security barrier, calling it "the most dangerous hurdle facing the peace process, which envisages a Palestinian state by 2005."

The cold reception abroad has had reverberations in Israel, where peace activists and left-leaning groups have launched protests against the wall that occasionally lead to violence.

In spite of all this, however, public opinion polls still show Israelis solidly supporting the barrier. Israeli political analyst Viktoria Moonblit explains, "It is interesting that the Palestinians, through the actions of the extremists, seem to promote the reasons for building a security fence. Each new terrorist attack shakes off all the doubt [about the wall] that might be growing in Israel and the U.S. At times of relative peace, questions come up like: Is this fence really that necessary? Is it erected in the place it should be? Is it necessary to spend so much money on it? But the moment a terrorist attack takes place, these questions disappear, and a sort of public consensus appears on the necessity of the barrier."

Catherine Cook says that those in Israel who oppose the security fence are not upset by the idea itself but rather by the barrier's path and the possible consequences for the peace process: "There is a very small minority of people who are opposed to the concept of building any kind of barrier among the Israeli public," she says. "But the majority of the Israeli public that opposes the barrier, opposes it by nature of the fact of what kind of path it is taking -- that it's not going along the Green Line, that it's further annexing more Palestinian territory."

Gennadi Riger, a former member of the Israeli parliament, now heads the political research organization PolitTech. He says the wall project is a first attempt to build a physical barrier between the Israeli and Palestinian lands, and that it has already seen results. He says he supports the official view that the wall will become unnecessary once the Palestinians succeed in battling terrorism. But until that happens, he says, security measures must be taken.

"Today the fence is an essential part of the security system of the country and the Israelis. Its route is determined by security specialists who decide what placement will be optimal for protecting Israel from terrorists. There are no doubt problems with the fence route and how it affects the interests of both sides," Riger says. "But a final settlement cannot be reached unless the Palestinians act strongly against terror."
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