Al-Ahram Weekly – 20 June 2002
Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer briefly strode through scrubland close to Salem military checkpoint on Sunday backed by a heavy security contingent to oversee the official launch of work on a 360-kilometre electrified fence to separate Israel from the West Bank.
There was no ribbon-cutting. Three bulldozers carefully piled up mounds of earth next to a few scattered olive trees on the hillside overlooking the Israeli Arab village of Salem for the benefit of reporters. Once they had left, the diggers uprooted the trees too.
With Israeli flags at his back, Ben-Eliezer addressed the journalists: “The terrorist attacks that have been haunting Israel have obliged us to build a continuous obstacle to stop the infiltration of terrorists into Israel.”
The choice of location for the start of this huge venture could not have been more symbolic: Salem is close to the Palestinian town of Jenin (see accompanying map) on a route known to have served as the entry point into Israel for several suicide bombers. One attack this month, using a car packed with explosives that was driven into a bus killing 17 Israelis, occurred at Megiddo Junction, little more than two kilometres from Salem.
Support among the Israeli public for some sort of physical barrier from the Palestinians in the West Bank has been growing in recent months as the wave of bombings continued in the face of Israel’s harsh military reprisals. Polls consistently show more than 60 per cent of Israelis favour separation between the two peoples.
All of the 70 or so suicide missions of the past 20 months have originated in the West Bank, mostly planned by groups in the northern Palestinian cities of Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqilya and Nablus.
Although militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad are stronger in the Gaza Strip, raids from there have been prevented by an electrified fence that seals off the strip.
The West Bank fence, which includes sensors alerting soldiers to attempts to cut or climb it, is being built in stages and will approximately follow the course of the “Green Line”, the pre-1967 border that existed between Israel and the then Jordanian-controlled West Bank.
Major-General Yitzhak Eitan, who is overseeing the work, said it would cost up to $1 million per kilometre to build. Patrolling both sides of the fence and increasing security for illegal settlements cut off by the fence is likely to add even higher costs to the project.
The first 115 kilometre stretch, from Salem to Kfar Kasem in central Israel, will be completed in six months. A fence will be constructed in the south too, around the Hebron hills.
The biggest headache will be choosing a route for the fence around the eastern side of Jerusalem, where Arabs and Jews live cheek by jowl. Israel has long maintained that separating the 250,000 Palestinians living in the city’s eastern side from neighbouring Palestinian areas will not satisfy security concerns. It will also mean some of the large Jewish settlement blocks built around Jerusalem will have difficulty entering Israel.
The decision to begin work on the fence is exposing deep divisions in the unity government. A cabinet meeting in the wake of Ben-Eliezer’s trip to Salem rapidly deteriorated into angry exchanges.
Although the official government line is that the fence is part of a security “obstacle course” to dissuade Palestinians from trying to attack the Israeli settler movement, which is now well represented in the cabinet, the settlers fear it demarcates the border Israel will eventually concede to a Palestinian state.
National Religious Party leader Efi Eitam angrily declared at the meeting: “The meaning of the fence is a return to the 1967 borders, and the establishment of a national boundary.”
Ben-Eliezer, who urged the rest of the cabinet, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to launch the construction of the fence has been keen to reassure ministers that the decision sets no political precedents.
“This is not a border between political entities or sovereign territories,” he insisted. “It is a fence to defend the lives of Israeli citizens. The fence is only a security measure — it has no other meaning.”
But after the stormy meeting, Sharon announced another cabinet meeting on the fence issue that was due to take place yesterday. Sharon has been a long-standing and vehement opponent of a fence, worried that it will inevitably establish the parameters of a future Palestinian state.
Sharon is also known to be suspicious of Ben-Eliezer’s motives. The defence minister, who is also the leader of the Labour Party, has failed to carve out for himself a political vision separate from Sharon’s or to stamp his authority on his own party.
The fence offers Ben-Eliezer two advantages: it suggests to Israelis that he is more attuned to their thinking than Sharon, and it outflanks his main rival for the Labour leadership, Haim Ramon, who was the original proponent of separation, though his scheme entailed the evacuation of most of the 200,000 West Bank settlers.
The building of the fence has provoked an improbable alliance of interests between Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and the settlers, all of whom oppose the fence.
The settlers are worried that the fence represents the first stage in isolating them from Israel and will increase the political pressure to evacuate them. The Yesha council of settlements has already begun lobbying the government for the fence to follow the lines of the fully Palestinian-controlled Area A and not the Green Line (see accompanying map). Chairman Benzi Lieberman has promised “a bitter struggle” should the government persist with its plans.
On the Palestinian side, Saeb Erekat accused Israel of erecting the fence to divide Palestinian territories into small Bantustans and “start a new apartheid system even worse than that which existed in South Africa”.
Last month Israel set up eight cantons based around the main West Bank cities. Curfews and the need for special permits restrict travel between them. Trade inside the West Bank and with Israel has been made significantly harder, adding to economic problems.
Despite a closure policy, thousands of Palestinians still try to make their way into Israel each day in search of work. The closure of the Green Line was bound to make them even more desperate and angry, predicted several Israeli commentators.
Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are also protesting against the confiscation of land to build the fence. Although the 1967 lines are followed in outline, significant detours into Palestinian areas are to be made to protect settlers on the wrong side of the Green Line.
On the Israeli side, much of the land being confiscated is in the “triangle area”, where there is a high concentration of Arabs who still have small private land reserves.
Kadura Musa, Fatah’s secretary-general in Jenin, said the first phase of the fence, which will be up to 100 metres wide in some places, would require the confiscation of 7,500 acres of Palestinian land. He said the land theft would only offer Palestinians more incentive to find ways around the fence.
According to the Palestinian Authority’s chief cartographer, Khalil Tufakji, the fence will also place at least 11 Palestinian villages on the Israeli side of the fence. It was unclear what status their citizens would have.