- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2003

TEL AVIV — Israel’s Cabinet yesterday approved an extension of its security barrier that includes sections deep in the West Bank to protect Jewish settlers but leaves large gaps in order to pacify U.S. concerns that the fence will scuttle peace efforts.

The decision reflected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s desire to balance settler demands that the fence be diverted dozens of miles through the West Bank to seal them off from Palestinian neighbors and U.S. pressure that the barrier cling to the Green Line, the West Bank’s 54-year-old border.

The upshot of the compromise in the region of Ariel — the second-largest West Bank settlement — is for a barrier to surround the town of 18,000 like a horseshoe from the east without a link westward to the main section of the fence closer to the Green Line. The decision, passed by a 18-4 vote with one abstention, said the government might decide in a few months to close the gaps.

“It’s a temporary arrangement that will be revisited,” said Dore Gold, a foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Sharon. “Israel is trying to reach an optimal solution, which shows that it respects the concerns of the Bush administration, but at the same time must give priority to its own security.”

The price tag of the section approved yesterday is estimated at $1 billion.

Israel says that the barrier — a network of trenches, razor-wire fences, patrol roads, watchtowers and walls — is a security measure necessary to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks launched from the West Bank during the three-year Palestinian uprising.

But the routing of the barrier through the West Bank has upset Palestinians, who argue that it amounts to a unilateral land grab that further limits the movements of some 2.2 million Arab residents.

“This is very dangerous for peace,” said Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib, invoking the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. “It is like challenging not only the Palestinians, but the international community and the road map.”

The first fourth of the fence was completed in August, stretching 95 miles and slicing off portions of the West Bank. The barrier has closed Palestinians into enclaves and separated farmers from their lands.

The Bush administration has concurred with the Palestinian view, arguing that the fence will become a de facto political border and that straying from the Green Line will prejudice future peace negotiations.

Last month, U.S. officials suggested penalizing Israel for running the fence in the West Bank by withholding part of the $9 billion in loan guarantees promised earlier this year.

The pressure has prompted Mr. Sharon to delay a decision on the route of the fence for months despite biting public criticism awakened by monthly bombing attacks. An overwhelming majority of Israeli opinion favors the fence.

“Sharon is caught between the hammer of the Israeli public and the anvil of the [U.S.] administration, but in this case the hammer is much stronger,” said Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “It was a very political decision trying to satisfy everyone involved. They tried to square a circle, which is why you have a fence that isn’t very straight.”

Yesterday’s decision extends the barrier south and then east to the outskirts of Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Along the way, an area of the West Bank seven miles east of Ben Gurion Airport will be surrounded by a double fence to ensure Palestinian militants can’t threaten takeoffs and landings with shoulder-launched missiles. The arrangement will leave thousands of Palestinian villagers encircled by the fence.

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