Fencing Off Terrorists

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A wall in the Israeli town of Bat Hefer separating Israel and the West Bank

The crane operator lifts a 30-ft. concrete partition and slots it into a long row of identical slabs. Like the other Israelis laboring along this two-mile strip of wall, he wears not only a hard hat but a bulletproof vest as well. Fewer than 100 yds. away are the outskirts of Qalqilya, a Palestinian town. For the militants among Qalqilya's 25,000 people, the workers must seem an attractive target for sniping. So too will the thousands of Israelis who will pass by on this stretch of the Trans-Israel Highway, which, when it opens at the end of the month, will skirt the Green Line that separates Israel from the West Bank. This is precisely why the wall is going up: to block lines of fire onto the highway from the villas at the edge of Qalqilya.

To Israelis, this unsightly wall is born of ugly necessity. It's one link in a broad plan that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved last week to try to fence out terrorism. The government plans to build a fence along that part of the Green Line where most of the deadly suicide bombers have crossed into Israel during the 20-month-long Palestinian uprising. It's an expensive measure — costing $1.6 million for each of 75 miles of fencing — and it's politically charged, as it requires demarcating a line between the Israelis and the Palestinians that no Israeli government has yet been prepared to draw. But Sharon, who long opposed a fence, was forced to accede to calls that the government do something dramatic to protect civilians from terrorists.

Those calls reached a climax last week when a car bomber killed 17 Israelis by detonating 220 lbs. of explosives alongside a bus in northern Israel. "We just need to stop the murder of Israelis," says a Defense Ministry official, explaining the simple logic of the fence. "That's all we care about."

Though the fence isn't meant to delineate the border of a future Palestinian state, many Israelis are concerned that it might become just that. Particularly sensitive are Israeli settlers in the West Bank who will find themselves living on the wrong side of the barrier. There is also to be a fence through Jerusalem, one that some Israelis fear could set the stage for the city's partition in an eventual peace settlement. Palestinian officials don't like the wall either, because it raises the possibility that Israel could one day shut the gates and forgo peace negotiations, leaving the Palestinian people isolated behind the barbed wire. If the fence makes today's periodic closings of the Green Line permanent, the Palestinian economy will suffer heavily in lost trade and work opportunities within Israel.

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Israeli security officials seem confident, however, that the curtain will serve their purposes. "With this fence, we'll be able to stop 100% of terrorist infiltrations," asserts Brigadier General Israel Yitzchak, who heads the Border Police unit responsible for patrolling the seam line between Israel and the West Bank. A fence constructed around the entire Gaza Strip in 1994 has proved valuable. According to Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic-security agency, not one suicide bomber has entered Israel from the Gaza Strip since the current uprising began. The new barrier, at least initially, won't completely fence off the West Bank. But it will make it much harder for Palestinians to cross between the militant hotbeds in the north of the West Bank and the populous coastal region of Israel. Terrorists can't easily go around the barrier, because travel within the West Bank is monitored by Israeli soldiers manning checkpoints. Phase I of the fence is to be completed in eight months to a year. By then, Defense Ministry officials say, the government will have approved funds for fencing the rest (89 miles) of the Green Line.

Aides to Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer say he would prefer to build the fence right along the Green Line. But practical problems have pushed Israeli planners to set the obstacle inside the West Bank at several points. The entire barrier network — which includes a ditch, several roadways, concertina wire and surveillance cameras, as well as a 10-ft.-tall electric fence — will be 130 ft. wide. That means there wouldn't be enough room to lay the network along the Green Line where it divides three Arab towns. As a result, the people of Barta'a, Baka is-Sharqiyeh and Nazlat Issa, who are Palestinian, will find themselves on the Israeli side of the fence. While most Israeli settlements in the West Bank will wind up within the barrier network, Israeli officials say they expect to accommodate some of the settlements very close to the Green Line, like Salit, by snaking the fence around them.

Most of the fence will be built with wire. But in a couple of locations there will be a wall, like the one on the highway at Qalqilya. Israeli planners calculate that the effective range of the Kalashnikov rifles that many Palestinian gunmen carry is 500 yds. Where there are Israeli homes that are close to Palestinian houses or farmland, concrete walls will block lines of fire, or else the fences will be constructed deeper inside the West Bank. One such spot is in Kokhav Yair, an Israeli town just next to the Green Line. Only yards from the seam line is the leafy home of Israel's army chief of staff, Lieut. General Shaul Mofaz. Instead of putting the fence right outside Mofaz's home, planners shifted the line 500 yds. That will force Palestinians from neighboring Falamah to cross through a checkpoint in the fence to reach their fields across the street from Mofaz's house.

Demarcating a line in Jerusalem is even more complicated. The very idea is loaded, given successive governments' commitment to an undivided Jerusalem as the "eternal capital of Israel." There are practical problems too. For one thing, the common notion of East Jerusalem as being all Arab isn't correct. About 35% of the land in East Jerusalem has been turned into Israeli neighborhoods since Israel conquered the area in the 1967 war. It's not possible to draw a line through the city without leaving lots of people on the wrong side. For that reason, Israeli authorities have not yet determined where they might construct the Jerusalem wall, though work is scheduled to begin on it next month. The wall is likely to be built through the eastern outskirts of the city and probably won't pass near the heavily disputed Old City, with its Jewish and Muslim holy sites.

Palestinians and some Israelis argue that cordoning off East Jerusalem would only radicalize its residents, who so far have not participated much in the violence of the uprising. Today Palestinian Jerusalemites can come and go as they like in Jerusalem, taking advantage of educational, medical, recreational and work opportunities in the city. But if they are closed off in the less developed eastern part of town, some Palestinians say, they might start to behave like their West Bank cousins, importing the violence to the city.

As for Yasser Arafat, his Palestinian Authority opposes the Israeli plan, which it sees as a negation of the spirit of the Oslo peace accords, which the Palestinians hoped would allow for free passage of goods and people. Instead of looking for a peace agreement, Palestinian officials say, Israel is trying to block the Palestinians off on the other side of a fence. A senior activist in the fundamentalist Hamas movement, meanwhile, views the fence as a victory for the group's bombers, who have crossed the Green Line to kill Israelis. "Who is talking about coexistence anymore?" the Hamas activist says. "Nobody. The Israelis are running away behind their fence." Hamas contends that the fence won't be much of a barrier to its bombers, only to the building of goodwill between Palestinians and Israelis.