- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appeared to reach an understanding yesterday about Israel’s decision to build a security fence in parts of the West Bank in order to prevent terrorist attacks. Following White House talks with Mr. Sharon, the president emphasized his hope that, in the long term, the fence — which he noted is a “sensitive” issue — would become “irrelevant” as Israel and the Palestinians move toward peace. Mr. Sharon, noting that Israel decided to build the fence to protect its people against continued terrorist attacks, said he would look for ways to do it with minimal disruption to the lives of Palestinians.

While they emphasize different points, both men have things essentially right. The Israeli government reluctantly decided to start work on the fence in response to public demands for better protection against terrorist attacks. Israel’s porous border with the West Bank, which stretches for hundreds of miles, is crossed by numerous dirt roads that are virtually impossible to patrol. Since September 2000, terrorists operating from the West Bank have carried out scores of suicide attacks, in which more than 450 Israelis have died. By contrast, no terrorists have successfully been able to infiltrate Israel from Gaza (which already has a similar fence) during this period.

The fence (actually, in most places, a barrier consisting of electronic sensors, ditches and barbed wire), is slated to run in two sections. One is slated to go more than 90 miles, from the northern tip of the West Bank to an area located east of Tel Aviv. That section is nearly complete. The second section, which will be completed by the end of the year, runs 60 miles along the northernmost border of the West Bank near Jenin — the city that has been the starting point for many of the suicide bombers. Several sections will have walls erected nearby, because Palestinian snipers have used nearby buildings to shoot at passing Israeli motorists.

Within Israel, the idea has strong, bipartisan support. Both the Labor and Likud Parties favor the fence, which originally was proposed by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and recent polls suggest that close to 70 percent of the Israeli public supports building it. Within Israel, the most adamant opposition comes from hawkish settlers, who claim it would create a de facto border between Israel and a Palestinian state which would leave many outlying Jewish settlements outside Israel after a final peace agreement is signed. The fence is strongly opposed by the Palestinians, in particular, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who complain that Israel wants to use the fence to dictate final-status borders. Mr. Sharon emphasizes that the fence is not the final settlement boundary between the two sides.

Israel can — and has offered to — do more to ease conditions for Palestinians living near the fence. It is creating agricultural passageways to allow farmers to reach their crops, and has replanted olive trees to ensure that the fence’s construction does not cause ecological damage. These efforts should be maximized and implemented rapidly. But, if Mr. Abbas really wants to see the barrier removed, he needs to do something he is either unwilling or unable to do thus far: crack down on Palestinian terrorist groups.

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