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Middle East: Security Barrier In West Bank Quickly Becoming A Key Issue

For about a year, Israel has been building what it calls a "security barrier" in the West Bank. Advocates of the Palestinian cause say they have no quarrel with Israel seeking tighter security but not at the expense of Palestinian rights. Even U.S. President George W. Bush has expressed concern about the wall. RFE/RL examines the issue.

Washington, 30 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The security barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank is rapidly becoming a focus of the Middle East peace process.

Israel began building the barrier in the West Bank a year ago in response to what at that time were increasing attacks on its people by Palestinian suicide bombers. The barrier -- still a work in progress -- would be about 350 kilometers in length, if Israel completes it. The barrier is built of concrete in some places, wire in others, and also contains razor coil and trenches.

Those who support the decision to build the wall say Israel has a right to secure its borders. Opponents do not challenge Israel's right to build a security barrier, but they do object to Israel putting it within the West Bank, and the sinuous way it is laid out, which they say isolates Palestinians in a way that violates their human rights.

Yesterday, the barrier was discussed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington. Sharon told reporters the barrier will continue to be built, but with efforts to minimize any inconvenience to Palestinians. Bush acknowledged the barrier is a "sensitive issue."

Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington. In an interview with RFE/RL, Brown said much of the dispute over the wall involves the route it takes through the West Bank.

"The problem with the route [of the wall] is twofold," Bworn said. "One is that it imposes -- the current route imposes real hardships on Palestinians, and it's designed not to facilitate [Palestinians'] travel within the West Bank, but to keep Israeli settlements on the 'right' [Israeli] side of the wall. And the second is that it's presumed as sort of a unilateral move to impose a border, rather than through negotiations."

Brown acknowledged the wall's path is circuitous -- he jokes that it makes the serpentine Great Wall of China look straight -- but he said Israelis look at the wall as an important method of protection.

According to Brown, those who speak on behalf of the human rights of Palestinians also must understand that the Israeli government is committed to protecting its people from suicide attacks -- and that such protection is a human right, too. "There are a lot of human rights being violated in that part of the world. And what the Israelis would say is they've got a basic human right to live and to live securely, and this wall is a way of supporting that right. So for the Israelis, in a sense, it's a human rights issue," he said.

Khalid Turaani is the executive director of American Muslims for Jerusalem, a Washington-based advocacy group promoting awareness of the Jerusalem issue among Muslims in the United States.

Turaani told RFE/RL that because of either the necessities of topography, but more often due to the policies of the Sharon government, the barrier sometimes encapsulates villages, making travel by Palestinians difficult or even impossible. In some cases, Turaani said, Palestinians must travel up to 80 kilometers to commute between villages that -- before the wall -- were only 10 kilometers apart.

Turaani said the wall is best exemplified by the Palestinian village of Jayyus in the West Bank. He described the situation in Jayyus this way: "You have the houses clustered on one end of the village, and across the street you have the fields and you have the farms and the olive groves and so on, and you have the water wells also. So the wall comes, and it just basically cuts through the village, keeping the houses on one side and the fields and the water wells on the other side of the fence."

Turaani said the example of Jayyus includes an additional factor -- an adjacent Israeli settlement in Palestinian territory. He said the wall accommodates not only the settlement but also land that Israeli settlers plan to use under an expansion plan for the settlement. "That wall takes into consideration the settlement and the expansion plan for the settlement, and still dissects the village into two halves. If that wall stays, that village is dead and that village is empty," he said.

Turaani said he does not object to Israel's building of a security barrier, but he does object to its presence within Palestinian territory. He said Israel is establishing a de facto border between itself and an eventual Palestinian state and, in doing so, is claiming about 35 percent of the West Bank.

Even if Israel eventually cedes some or even all of that territory, Turaani said, it can argue that it was making concessions, not merely returning land that rightfully belonged to Palestinians to begin with. "If they wanted to do the wall, let them erect the wall on their side of the border. But what the Israelis have done is they've predetermined the borders before negotiations," Turaani said.

Brown counters that from the Israeli point of view, the decision to build the fence, and deciding to build it in the West Bank, helps to ensure the Israelis themselves can count on winning concessions in negotiations with the Palestinians.

To build such a wall at the border, or on the Israeli side, Brown said, would be tantamount to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank without getting anything in return during negotiations. And, he said, it would leave authorized Israeli West Bank settlements unprotected on the Palestinian side of the border.

Miranda Sissons, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL that regardless of how the Israelis may view the barrier, there is no ignoring the fact that the human rights of Palestinians are being violated.

In fact, Sissons said, Israel is in violation of at least one international law -- the Law of Belligerent Occupation, which forbids an occupying power from making permanent changes, or changes that do not benefit the native population.

Sissons echoes Turaani's complaints that the barrier does more than inconvenience Palestinians. "Our concern is [that] people have access to educational services, medical services, their loss of income, their loss of livelihood, and the sundering of family links. The separation barrier is going to have severe consequences," Sissons said.

Sissons also said Israel is violating several human rights conventions that it has signed, including the UN International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, which guarantees a people's right to such services as medical care and education.

"It's also signed a covenant called the [UN] Convention on the Rights of the Child, which also talks about the rights of education for children -- not just their right, but the duty of the state to ensure that children are educated," Sissons said.

U.S. President George W. Bush has expressed his concern over the barrier, calling it "a problem." Bush may be influential with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but Turaani holds out little hope that the American leader can persuade Israel to abandon the wall.

Already, Turaani said, groups that he describes as "extremist pro-Israeli groups" are mounting an advertising campaign in the United States in an effort to sabotage any effort Bush may make to persuade Sharon to tear down the wall.