2003-09-23 20:03:20 UTC
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 23, 2003; Page A15
HABLA, West Bank -- Hussein Yousef Salman, a Palestinian schoolteacher and
farmer, surveyed the massive fence that has gobbled up his land, destroyed his
greenhouses, isolated his well and surrounded his town, cutting off his family
from the schools, hospitals and markets in the nearby city of Qalqilyah.
The fence is being built by the Israeli government to separate Israel from the
West Bank and to curb attacks by Palestinians. In Habla, the fence runs one
mile into the West Bank. "It makes hatred between us and them," said Salman,
43, as he tended his remaining greenhouses on the Palestinian side of the
Five miles away in Elqana, home to 3,500 Jewish settlers, Marcel Gans welcomed
the fact that the fence extended about two miles into the West Bank to encircle
his community. Gans, the head of Elqana's governing council, said the new
barrier offers protection from Palestinians who have killed more than 850
Israelis in three years.
If the Palestinians complain that the fence is encroaching on their territory,
he said, they should remember that they brought this upon themselves. "They are
making a lot of fuss about nothing," Gans said.
Nearly sixteen months after its construction began, the fence has evolved from
a relatively modest, $120 million concept into one of the largest, most
expensive and most controversial projects in Israel's history.
If completed as planned -- at an anticipated cost of $1.3 billion -- the 60- to
100-yard-wide combination of fences, ditches, roads, 25-foot-high concrete
walls, barbed wire, watchtowers, cameras and electronic sensors would extend
about 400 miles around the heart of the West Bank, swinging miles into
Palestinian territory at some places to surround Jewish settlements and keep
them on the Israeli side.
Already, the nearly complete first phase extends 78 miles from the northern tip
of the West Bank to within 23 miles of Jerusalem; Israeli security officials
say 75 percent of the Palestinian suicide bombers who have struck inside Israel
came across that stretch of border. Two other sections of the fence, totaling
about 12 miles, have been completed north and south of Jerusalem.
In places, the fence reaches as far as three miles into the West Bank to
encircle 10 Jewish settlements with a total of 19,000 residents. In doing so,
it also carves off about 47 square miles of land from the Palestinian side of
the Green Line, the cease-fire boundary between Israeli- and Arab-held
territory established after the 1967 Middle East war. This land amounts to
about 2 percent of the West Bank and contains at least 13 Palestinian villages
and 12,000 residents, according to Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups
and the World Bank. So far, fence construction has demolished an estimated
100,000 Palestinian olive and citrus trees, 75 acres of greenhouses and 23
miles of irrigation pipes.
The project has become a contentious issue in U.S.-Israeli relations. President
Bush recently complained that the fence "meanders around the West Bank, which
makes it awfully hard to develop a contiguous state" for the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet has put off a decision on whether the
next phase of construction will be routed 13 miles into the West Bank to put
Ariel, a settlement with about 20,000 residents, on the Israeli side of the
fence. Recent plans called for the encirclement of Ariel, but the Bush
administration expressed concern about the proposal and indicated last week
that U.S. loan guarantees to Israel might be reduced over the issue. Earlier
this month, the Defense Ministry settled on a route that would hew closer to
the Green Line, though strong political pressure may still be applied on behalf
of Ariel when the cabinet holds its final debate.
Critics say the path of the fence -- away from the Green Line -- is evidence
that Sharon is using the project to unilaterally redraw the political boundary
between Israel and the West Bank, and by extension, any future Palestinian
"To annex land and destroy the Green Line -- this was the idea of the
decision-makers when they decided the route of the fence," Najib Abu Rokaya, an
analyst for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, said during a recent tour
of the fence line. "The route is just for stealing land."
But according to Netzah Mashiah, who manages the fence project for the Israeli
Defense Ministry, "We are using a law to seize land for security reasons, and
the law is very clear: When the security problem does not exist anymore, the
land is returned to the owner."
Some Israelis say the fence project is too immense and expensive to be
temporary. Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Sharon, recently wrote, "The
separation fence could evolve over time into a permanent political border if
the Palestinians fail to seriously enter into a negotiating process with
Retired Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, the former chairman of Israel's National Security
Council who now heads Security Fence for Israel, an umbrella organization of
groups advocating rapid completion of the fence, noted that the Gaza Strip has
been surrounded by a 36-mile fence since the mid-1990s, and that not a single
Palestinian suicide bomber has made it from Gaza into Israel in the past three
years. "Gaza is an overwhelming example of how effective a fence can be," he
When members of the then-governing Labor Party suggested building a barrier to
restrict access from the West Bank into Israel in October 2000, the idea was
widely criticized. Some attacked it as an infringement on Palestinian rights;
others denounced it for potentially providing the boundary of a future
Palestinian state that would force Israel to relinquish what some Jews see as
their biblical claim to all of the West Bank. Among the critics were Sharon and
his Likud Party, who argued that building such a fence would have the effect of
rewarding Palestinian terrorism with a state.
After Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001, Palestinian suicide
bombers continued to strike, killing hundreds of Israelis. Public support for a
fence skyrocketed. Sharon's political allies said he had no choice but to
support the fence, and his cabinet approved the project in April 2002.
Construction began two months later.
Labor Party leaders had wanted to keep the fence fairly close to the Green
Line, former defense minister and party chairman Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said in
an interview. But Sharon, considered the architect of Israel's settlement
expansion, chose to route parts of the fence inside the West Bank, encompassing
some Jewish settlements and avoiding negotiations with the Palestinians.
As the fence began reaching into the West Bank, settlers and religious groups
sought to have the route drawn so that as many settlements as possible would be
on the Israeli side, said Adiel Mintz, head of the Yesha Council, Israel's
leading settlement organization.
A report released last month by Pengon, an umbrella organization of Palestinian
environmental groups, shows that by coming as close as possible to many
Palestinian communities, the fence puts rich farmland and water wells on the
Israeli side. Of the 51 Palestinian towns and villages along the fence's route,
according to the report, 21 are separated from more than half of their land by
the fence. Twenty-seven communities either lost or were separated from more
than 500 acres.
"We're people in a prison," said Abed Hafiz Odeh, 58, a farmer who lives in
Al-Daba, a Palestinian village of about 200 residents south of Qalqilyah that
has been caught in a no man's land. Al-Daba is close to the Jewish settlement
of Alfe Menashe, and when the settlement was fenced off from the rest of the
West Bank, so was Al-Daba. Already prohibited from crossing into Israel, Odeh
and the other residents of Al-Daba now cannot enter the West Bank, either.
Fifty yards of barbed wire, ditches, roads and fences separate Odeh and his
brother from their 45 acres of olive trees and wells in the West Bank. Their
children can no longer attend school in the Palestinian town of Ras Atiya
because it, too, is on the other side of the fence. And so far, human rights
activists say, there is no provision for allowing the Palestinian Authority to
cross the fence to deliver basic services.
Israeli officials said 41 agricultural gates have been installed in the 90
miles of completed fencing to allow Palestinian farmers access to their lands
if they have the necessary permits to cross. The fence will also have 10
passages exclusively for auto and foot traffic and five for goods, Israeli
But Palestinians say that as long as Israel controls the gates, the fence will
not work. In Jayyus -- a town of 2,800 that was cut off from 2,150 acres, or
two-thirds of its land -- Israeli soldiers recently refused to open a gate for
10 straight days, according to Abdullatif Khaled, a regional coordinator for
Pengon's Apartheid Wall Campaign.
"There's a gate, and the key to the gate is in Israel's pocket," said Maarouf
Zahran, the mayor of Qalqilyah.
A major Palestinian city with 42,000 people, Qalqilyah is the hub for 32 nearby
villages with 90,000 people who rely on the city for health and education
services. But it has been completely surrounded by 8.7 miles of fences and high
walls with guard towers, with one main entrance for people and goods and two
agricultural gates. Only 13 permits have been issued for farmers to visit the
938 acres of land and 19 wells situated outside the fence, according to Zahran.
Israeli officials said Qalqilyah was a special case because it is so close to
Israel -- the city's boundary lies on the Green Line. Six Palestinian suicide
bombers responsible for attacks that killed 30 people came from Qalqilyah,
according to Israel's Government Press Office.
"If you want to talk about a wall between us and them -- okay, we agree. Build
it on the Green Line and we have no problem with that," Zahran said. "But to
put the fence inside our towns and villages, to make our city a ghetto,
paralyze our economy, cut off access to our land and wells -- a wall like this
will make people more ready to act against Israel."
Staff researchers Samuel Sockol and Hillary Claussen in Jerusalem and Robert E.
Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.