- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

BAKA A-SHARKIYA, West Bank — The flattened route of chalky white earth rips a path through olive trees that cover rolling hills of the northern West Bank.

The path circling the eastern outskirts of the Palestinian village of Baka a-Sharkiya is wide enough to accommodate four lanes of traffic, but this won’t be a highway.

Instead, the route is Israel’s new security barrier, holding a barbed wire fence, a 10-foot-deep trench, a patrol road, a second fence and then a second patrol road.

“We’re missing a gate here,” said Ramzi, an Israeli-Arab construction engineer. He was watching a Palestinian wedding caravan zip into the village on a road that was soon to be under the tight control of Israeli soldiers.

“In a week it will be done.”

By the end of the month, Israel will have finished the northern section of a security fence considered the ultimate answer to keep Palestinian militants from entering Israel to carry out bombings and shootings.

After spending $300 million so far on the project, construction of the remaining sections is far from certain.

Jewish settlers afraid of being isolated from the rest of the country are pressing the government to steer the path of the barrier several miles east of the Green Line — the official border — to include settler communities deep in the West Bank.

At the same time, Palestinians complain that the fence is being built through their towns and fields, amounting to an Israeli land grab.

Last week, the United States cautioned Israel that completing the fence could block the path of the “road map” to a Middle East peace.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Cabinet has yet to approve a funding plan or even a path for the barrier, which would close 95 miles of open border in the central and southern portions of the West Bank as well as around Jerusalem.

The absence of government authorization for the final stages of the fence is no coincidence, say advocates of the security barrier. They believe an unlikely combination of critics has forced Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet into a stalemate.

The largest stretch of the fence runs from Salem, a northern Israeli village near the West Bank city of Jenin, to the settlement of Elkana, 10 minutes east of Petach Tikvah.

The fence — which will include a 25-foot-high concrete wall in some places, electronic detection equipment and watchtowers — will force militants to find alternate routes to the central Israeli cities of Netanya, Kfar Saba and Hadera, common targets because of their close proximity to the West Bank.

The barrier doesn’t calm Shachar Ben Ami, head of the Shoham Municipal Council.

Sandwiched between Ben Gurion Airport and the Green Line, the upper-middle-class town of 17,000 lies well south of Elkana.

Mr. Ben Ami says Palestinian militants simply will shift their activities southward, placing suburbs like Shoham and Modi’in on the front line.

“There’s a huge hole in the fence and everyone will come through,” said Mr. Ben Ami, who helped found Security Fence for Israel, a group lobbying the government to complete the barrier. “The writing is on the wall. A disaster is going to happen.”

Leaders of Security Fence for Israel haven’t missed an opportunity to lash out at Mr. Sharon for prolonging the project.

The group believes that the prime minister’s reluctance stems from concern that the path of the fence doesn’t line up with his vision for the final border between Israel and a future Palestinian state.

Ra’anan Gissin, Mr. Sharon’s spokesman, denied this, saying that financial considerations were the only factor holding up approval of the next portion of the fence.

However, an aide to Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said all of the necessary funding is available. Israeli fence advocates say the expected reduction in terrorist attacks will make it easier for Israeli and Palestinian politicians to return to peace talks.

For the time being, the fence should be considered a security barrier rather than a political border, they say.

In its first attempt to define a border with the West Bank, Israel can’t ignore the political ramifications.

The path of the northern section of the fence snakes eastward to protect established settlements like Alfei Menasheh, in Palestinian territory just over the Green Line, and surrounds the Palestinian city of Qalqilya and several villages.

“The distinction between the political and security is very artificial. You can’t really have one without the other,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.

“But the political nature of the boundary isn’t fixed in concrete. It can evolve as relations evolve.”

Yisrael Medad, a resident of Shiloh, knows that settlement’s location in the heart of West Bank makes it unlikely he will be protected by the fence. Israeli residents of the West Bank oppose the fence because they are afraid they will become the primary targets of Palestinian militants.

The fence will serve only to distance West Bank settlers from the rest of the country, he said.

“We’re going to be the sacrificial lamb,” he said. It’s the final attempt to put us in the guilty box and say, ‘If you want to stay on the other side it’s your problem, but we’re going to get out of this mess.’”

For Palestinians, the fallout from the fence goes beyond the political.

More than 20,000 acres of farmland has been confiscated to build the barrier, said Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat. Other Palestinians will be separated from their crops by the fence.

“Imposed fences don’t make good neighbors,” said Mr. Erekat. “This is undermining the road map and the hope in the minds of people that this is doable.”

Some 7,700 village residents of Baka a-Sharkiya and Nazlet Isseh eventually will find themselves surrounded by the barrier, cutting off the border towns from Israel and the rest of the West Bank.

Defense Ministry officials said a fence running both west and east of the towns is a mistake. The eastern barrier was started last year when officials despaired of finding a route west of Nazlet because the towns’ buildings are almost precisely on the Green Line. Now that a path has been found, a second fence is planned to run smack in the middle of Nazlet’s outdoor market.

“Our fight with Israel is about land, but if they keep taking our land, how can there be peace?” said Zaher Hussein, an unemployed painter from Baka A-Sharkiya. The fence “will bring security but not like they think. You can’t stop someone who wants to die.”

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