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Some Feeling Fenced In by Israel's Planned Wall

Mideast: Voices on both sides criticize project to separate the Jewish nation from West Bank.

September 15, 2002|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAALEH SHOMRON, West Bank — Brenda Glikson, who lives in this Jewish settlement on the West Bank's western edge, is worried because her house won't be inside the perimeter. Farmer Eid Ahmad Yassin, who lives in the Palestinian village of Al Ras a few miles north, is worried because his fields will be.

Even though construction has only started, Israel's $100-million "separation wall" between the Jewish nation and the West Bank already divides people.

Critics say it is an ill-conceived boondoggle that won't provide security even as it threatens to worsen hostilities. Supporters say it's the only way to guarantee security and keep Palestinian extremists from killing Israeli civilians.

Both sides agree on one thing, however: It's going ahead, whether it will be effective or not. The pressure to do something--anything--in the face of dozens of suicide bomb attacks inside Israel is just too great.

"This is an express train leaving the station," said Danny Seidman, an attorney representing Palestinians who will be displaced by the project. "It's become an Israeli mantra."

Plans call for the completion of the first 66-mile segment of the proposed 300-mile north-south barrier by next July, with immediate priority given to a six-mile stretch near the West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus. Separately, evacuation orders have been issued to Palestinian residents along a 32-mile route on the edge of Jerusalem. It's unclear whether or how the two barriers will be joined.

Two-thirds of Israelis surveyed have embraced the wall proposal as a counterweight to their growing feelings of vulnerability and desperation.

Security experts say, however, that throwing up some concrete, barbed wire, sensors and lights is no panacea. "For one thing, most suicide bombers come through checkpoints," not lonely borders, said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank.

Others say that walls are effective only if they're backed up by shoot-on-sight policies, as seen with the Iron Curtain.

"I don't exactly think that would improve our PR image," said Israel Medad, a member of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group representing Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "And no fence can prevent incursions by a Kassam rocket."

Although the barrier won't prevent extremists from getting through, experts argue, it could institutionalize the divide between ordinary people on both sides who are arguably the best long-term hope for peace.

"The long-term signal is that there won't be economic interaction in the future between Israelis and Palestinians," said Mark Heller, an analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

It also threatens to destroy the livelihood of Palestinian farmers--some of whose land has been in their families for decades--thereby risking greater militancy among moderates.

Senior Israeli military officials estimate that 11,000 Palestinians and 20,000 Arab residents of Jerusalem will be displaced. Palestinian cartographer Khalil Tufakji charges that the wall's deviations from the so-called Green Line will absorb 30 square miles of Palestinian land. The Green Line marks the pre-1967 border that divides Israel and the West Bank territories and is seen by many as the basis for any future political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

"This project will destroy Palestinian economies and the heritage of these villages," Tufakji said.

Others, however, say the project is workable. Nothing is impenetrable, acknowledged Nezah Mashiah, the project's director in the Israeli Defense Ministry, but he pointed to the effectiveness of his other handiwork: the barrier he helped build around the Gaza Strip, home to more than 1 million Palestinians.

Mashiah conceded that most suicide bombers come through checkpoints, but he argued that new transit stations with metal detectors and airport-like security will end this. Every effort is being made to avoid upending lives, he said; houses won't be destroyed, although greenhouses and farm structures might.

Even Mashiah admits he's not a big fan of the wall because it signals a fundamental breakdown between the two sides. But he argues that his creation could be quickly torn down if there's a political breakthrough.

"For genuine peace," he said, "$100 million is nothing."

One of the project's most visible early results has been to turn thousands of Palestinians and Israelis into amateur surveyors.

The wall has been diverted to include settlements--controversial developments built in the West Bank on land the Palestinians claim as their own--that are located within a few miles of Israel.

Glikson, of the 180-family Maaleh Shomron settlement, which will fall outside the wall by a few miles, believes that the project is a slap in the face to those excluded.

"It makes us feel like we're second-class citizens," she said. "If you're going to have a fence, bring us back to Israel and rebuild our houses there. This is a de facto border."

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