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THE WORLD

Israel Gives In to Fence

Middle East: Fear of Palestinian attacks drives leaders to begin walling off the West Bank.

June 17, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SALIT, West Bank — In the spring winds, they are tangled together: The strains of the Jewish teenagers' Pink Floyd, floating over the chlorinated waters of the swimming pool. The Palestinian call to prayer. And the gunfire that rumbles between the two.

This is where Israel meets the West Bank, one of many unlikely battle zones in a claustrophobic land that reinvents itself from one hill to the next. This peak is a cozy cluster of basketball hoops, red-tiled roofs and gaudy flower beds. On the next hill, past the barbed wire and a scrubby stretch of no man's land, a Palestinian village rises in concrete-block homes and a mosque's minaret.

"This is a dangerous, very tense area. There's shooting all the time," said Amir Aloni, the pistol-packing security chief of Salit, glowering behind his sunglasses. "We have hostile neighbors."

Pressed against--or, if you ask the Palestinians, imposed upon--the edge of the Palestinian territories, this sleepy Jewish settlement is wrapped in guard posts and floodlights. A few weeks ago, the Israeli army cut a trench in the red earth at the foot of the hill to block unwanted cars from climbing toward Salit.

Those barricades are only the beginning. This spring, Israel is doing something it has long avoided: building a wall between itself and the swath of desert, orchard and hills known as the West Bank. Barbed wire and motion detectors, concrete barricades and razor wire are sprouting steadily over the rough ribbon of land.

On Sunday, bulldozers flattened the dirt along the northern Israel frontier to make way for the snaking wall. Soon, Israeli officials have said, the whole West Bank will be walled off.

This month, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon--who scorned the notion of a fence until the recent spate of bloody Palestinian attacks on Israelis--changed his mind, and approved a plan drafted by Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.

The first posts were sunk into the fertile countryside near Megiddo, where 17 Israeli bus passengers were killed this month by a bomb set off by a young Palestinian militant. The construction represents a major shift in mainstream Israeli thought, which for decades bristled at creating anything that could resemble a border. Even as the fence begins to rise, radical Israeli coalition members are threatening to bring the government to a halt if the construction continues.

Both sides, meanwhile, are asking what Israel, in the words of the Robert Frost poem, is "walling in or walling out." Palestinians believe the fence will strip them of jobs, dignity, freedom of movement--and land, the most precious currency in this old turf war. Israel hasn't announced the path of the entire fence but has said it will wall an "adjusted" boundary rather than stick to the pre-1967 Israeli-Palestinian frontier.

Khalil Turfakji, a cartographer for the Palestinian Authority, has examined Israeli army documents indicating that the fence will chop at least 30 square miles of earth from the Palestinian territories.

"They're not going to put it on the real border; they're going to put it well into Palestinian territory," said Michael Tarazi, a Palestine Liberation Organization negotiator. "It's a formalized annexation, a de facto land grab."

Nationalist Israelis are also distressed--they don't want to cleave the land they regard as the God-given home of the Jews. But quaking under relentless assault, many Israelis have come to regard a wall to protect them from Palestinian invasion as an inevitable inconvenience. "If a fence can save lives," Aloni said, "we should have a fence."

Radical Palestinian snipers and suicide bombers continue to make their way into Israel over the desert, along old farming roads and through the back streets where urban neighborhoods press together. No matter how many roadblocks Israeli soldiers construct--and no matter how many times they storm West Bank villages to interrogate and arrest militants--the attackers keep coming.

"They're shooting all the time," Hamatul Kadman said. The 23-year-old kindergarten teacher lives down the road from Salit in Eyal, a broad, leafy kibbutz that comes under frequent fire from the Palestinian territories. "A lot of people are scared."

Just a few months ago, a young Kfar Sava girl was killed when a Palestinian sniper opened fire on a group of students. A short walk across flat fields from the West Bank, the city is an easy target.

"All of us wake up in the morning hesitating, wondering what day we're coming into," Kfar Sava Mayor Yitzhak Wald said. "The fence is a must."

It wasn't always like this. A few years ago, the Jewish mayor visited back and forth with his counterpart in the nearby Palestinian city of Kalkilya. They spoke of a shared sewage system and garbage routes, a hospital, a day care center for Palestinian mothers. In those days, Palestinian workers set out at dawn to tromp the dusty road to Israel. They hung around on the roadside, waited for foremen to swing by with offers of farm and construction jobs.

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