- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

ARIEL, West Bank — Residents of this thriving Israeli settlement say the fate of their community will be on the line when an Israeli delegation meets Bush administration officials in Washington today to discuss the route of a new security fence.

With a population of 18,000, a hotel and its own undergraduate college, Ariel fancies itself the “capital” of Samaria, the biblical name for the northern portion of the West Bank.

But if the town finds itself on the wrong side of a 20-foot-high security barrier being built to keep Palestinian terrorists out of Israeli cities, residents fear their thriving community could wither and die.

The suggested route for the barrier cuts more than 10 miles into the West Bank in places to include Ariel and other satellite settlements. Palestinians see that as an Israeli land grab and complain that many of their communities will be cut off and isolated.

The Bush administration, worried that the fence could create a de facto border and prejudice peace talks, has threatened to reduce U.S. loan guarantees to Israel by an amount equal to what is spent in building disputed parts of the fence.

Seeking to ease American concerns, an Israeli delegation led by Dov Weisglass, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, will meet today with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other officials.

A decision on the barrier’s route is to be made after the delegation returns to Israel on Wednesday, but Dore Gold, an adviser to Mr. Sharon, says there is “a strong view that Ariel should be included.”

“I hope they won’t forget us,” said Ariel settler Zvika Chen, whose family was one of the first to move to this middle class town of manicured lawns and red-roofed row housing developments.

If Ariel is left outside the wall, he said, “the economy will drop by half and the self-confidence will disappear.”

Other community leaders say they would consider a decision to leave them outside the fence as an act of betrayal by a government that has long encouraged relocation to the settlement with generous subsidies.

Like other Israeli residents in the West Bank, Ariel leaders fear that Palestinian militants caught behind the completed fence will turn their gunsights toward the only available targets — the settlements outside the wall.

“It’s like stabbing us in the back. That’s how we will feel,” said Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman, who wants a nearby bloc of smaller settlements with another 27,000 residents protected by the fence. “Even at Camp David, Ariel was part of Israel. I don’t expect the Likud to be more left than the leftists.”

Palestinians say any wall that protects the Ariel settlement bloc would drive a wedge between the northern and central regions of the West Bank.

“It’s in the heart of the West Bank, like a corridor. If I need to reach a place that normally takes five minutes, it will take five hours,” said Khaled Abdullatif, a Palestinian water and economic expert who is part of a campaign to stop the barrier from running through the West Bank. “It means social and economic disconnection.”

Israel’s government and defense ministry have argued that the fence is purely a security border that can be rerouted when Israelis and Palestinians reach a final peace settlement.

But experts see the fence as the most concrete manifestation of popular sentiment within Israel that longs for unilateral separation from the Palestinians.

“The fence that’s going up is an indication that Israeli society wants to be behind it,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli commentator. “Both in terms of security and in terms of political borders, I think that most Israelis want Ariel on our side of the fence.”

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