After 21 months of intifada, a wall is born
Israeli fortifications along the West Bank recall other historic barriers.
SALIT, WEST BANK
It may be the most definitive "fact on the ground" in the 35-year history of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories miles and miles of wire fences and concrete walls dividing Israel from the West Bank.Skip to next paragraph
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Most of the structure has yet to be built, but some Israelis are already imagining its destruction.
"I hope the day will come when they tear up the wall," says Miriam Gepner, sitting in her comfortable home on top of a hill in the West Bank. "But," she adds, "maybe it will reduce terrorism."
Ms. Gepner's ambivalence sums up Israel's as a whole. Although many Israelis don't like the fence, most see no alternative.
The Palestinian position is more unified. Because the fence is not the product of negotiations and because it will encroach into the West Bank, Palestinians see it as a unilateral imposition. "It's a method to take our land," says Ghassan Kabha, whose West Bank village will be fenced into Israel.
In light of 21 months of open conflict, the fence constitutes another symbol of the inability to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian dispute.
Just outside the Palestinian city of Kalkiliya, project manager Erez Rubenstein is supervising the construction of a 1.2-mile wall intended to prevent Palestinians from shooting at cars on a soon-to-be-opened Israeli highway that skirts the city.
It seems a structure of staggering permanence 25-foot-high concrete slabs rising into the sky. Mr. Rubenstein says Palestinian farmers have complained to him that they will no longer be able to see the sunset.
But the idea of walling off the West Bank, says Rubenstein, "is not long-term thinking. It's short-term thinking."
Even so, what worries people on both sides of the conflict is that short-term measures have a way of becoming long-term realities. For many Israelis and Palestinians, at times for very different reasons, the most troubling aspect of the fence is that they see a border in the making.
Israeli leaders have been discussing the idea since at least the mid-1990s, but it has taken the violence of the past 21 months to make it happen. In mid-June, Israel's government officially began construction of an initial, 66-mile section of the fence that will divide the northern West Bank from Israel. Set to take a year and cost nearly $1.7 million per mile, the initial phase will cover about a third of what Israelis call the "seam line" along the West Bank. Israel has already fenced off the Gaza Strip.
For the most part, the fence will be less of a barrier and more of a means for detecting any person or vehicle that crosses it through the use of radar and other electronic sensors. Conceived in conjunction with the new highway, construction of the wall around Kalkiliya began earlier, but it will be linked up with the fence.
The building of the barrier is based on the notion that Israelis and Palestinians, at least for now, must be separated. On a more practical level, most Israelis insist that a fence constitutes the best available means of keeping out Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers.
Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who initially opposed the idea and then embraced it, insists it is a "security fence" not a political or diplomatic one.
But at either end of the Israeli political spectrum, there is opposition. Right-wing Israelis object because they believe that they have a biblical and strategic mandate to retain control of at least parts of the West Bank. Building the fence, they argue, will cut off tens of thousands of Israelis who inhabit Jewish settlements and create a distinction between "true" Israelis who live inside the fence and those who don't.
From a security standpoint, critics argue that the fence won't keep out determined attackers or stop missiles or mortars.