JERUSALEM — As a 13-year-old in 1930s Palestine, Arik Scheinerman sat
through inky black nights armed with his own engraved Circassian dagger, helping to guard his village fields from Arab attack. "When you work for something," his father told him, "it's your duty to protect it."
As an Israeli army commander after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Arik expanded on his father's advice, establishing a Jewish presence throughout the West Bank. "Survival ... depended on 'facts,' actually building on the land and actually defending it," he later wrote. Arik Scheinerman's name has changed - he's known today as Ariel Sharon - but Israel's prime minister still seems faithful to the lessons of his youth.
In Mr. Sharon's eyes, security means holding the land. He is making Israel's contentious barrier project part of that goal. Originally conceived to protect Israelis from Palestinian militants, the barrier's winding route through the West Bank suggests that it's also meant to buffer Israel from attack by Arab countries to the east.
Yet in using the barrier to protect Israel from regional threats, analysts say Sharon is exposing his country to profound internal danger. They say the barrier, along with Israeli settlement in the Palestinian territories, is tightening Israel's hold on the territories to such an extent that it could torpedo a two-state solution to this conflict. With the Palestinian birthrate set to make Jews a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in a decade or so, Israel will soon face a choice: whether to be a Jewish state or a democratic one.
"If you look at the route of the fence now, it serves Sharon's strategic vision," says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "Sharon, in my understanding, believes that Israel must maintain overall military control of the West Bank and Gaza."
Increasingly, Israelis are debating the double-edged dilemma raised by that strategy. "We cannot keep the territories and preserve a Jewish majority in the world's only Jewish state - not by means that are humane and moral and Jewish," Avraham Burg, Speaker of Israel's parliament from 1999 to 2003, wrote in August.
From his earliest days, helping his father work their citrus orchards, Sharon's preoccupation has been the physical terrain and its link to security.
Sharon grew up in Kfar Malal, a small village 15 miles northeast of Tel Aviv that sat "in the shadow of Arab towns," as he notes in his autobiography, written with American journalist and author David Chanoff. Sharon's Russian parents were "pragmatic Zionists," particularly his father, a fiercely stubborn man who refused to obey community rules he disliked.
The Scheinermans imbued their son with a love of the land, an absolute certainty that Palestine belonged to the Jews, and a determination that nothing would force them out.
"When the land belongs to you physically, when you know every hill and wadi and orchard, when your family is there, that is when you have power, not just physical power, but spiritual power," Sharon writes. "Like Antaeus, your strength comes from the land."
In the aftermath of the 1967 war, when Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sharon was director of military training. To secure Israel's hold on the newly occupied territories, he felt that it should establish footholds at important road junctions and on the hilltops overlooking Israel's narrow coastal plain.
This skinny strip of Israel proper, 8.5 miles wide at its narrowest point, holds two-thirds of Israel's population, much of its industrial infrastructure and its main airport.
Sharon saw it as vulnerable to attack, not just by Palestinians, but also from the hostile region beyond. Holding the West Bank would provide vital strategic depth, so Sharon used his position to move infantry training camps into the newly occupied territories.
"Yet I knew ... that the only way to permanently secure the most strategic terrain in our hands was to live on it," he writes. In 1976, Prime Minister Menachem Begin made Sharon chairman of the Committee on Settlement Policy. With the help of like-minded Israelis intent on populating the West Bank and Gaza with Jews, Sharon got to work.
"Regardless of whatever political solution the future might hold, we would have to keep the high controlling terrain," Sharon writes of these settlements. "That was an indispensable, necessary minimum, and I never considered for a moment that we could relinquish control over territory that was essential to our survival."
A quarter-century later, the barrier has become part of that larger security system. On Oct. 1, Sharon's government approved another 170-mile stretch of Israel's largest infrastructure project, which combines obstacles from hi-tech fencing to low-tech razor wire and concrete slabs. Despite opposition from the US and others, the barrier will not follow the Green Line, which divides Israel proper from the West Bank. Instead, it will dig deep into the West Bank to wind around areas Sharon and his close advisors consider crucial.
The "fence" will dig 10 miles into the central West Bank, almost bisecting it, to include the settlement of Ariel. South of Jerusalem, one barrier will encircle a scattered group of settlements. Two barriers will go up near Ben Gurion Airport, outside Tel Aviv, to shield planes from attack. Yet another will run along the Jordan Valley, cutting the West Bank off from Jordan.
The barrier's wide arcs will keep 44 settlements on its "Israeli" side, trapping 274,000 Palestinians in 122 villages, according to a UN report released this week. The report, rejected by the Israeli government, also finds that the barrier's incursion take 14.5 percent of the West Bank land, excluding East Jerusalem.
Sharon is also expanding settlements in areas the barrier will encircle despite a commitment to freeze this construction under the US-backed roadmap peace plan. In October alone, the government approved the construction of almost 900 buildings in these settlements.
The road map also requires the dismantling of outposts, which are used to expand or establish a settlement. Since June, though, the Defense Ministry has been upgrading some outposts to the status of settlements, making them eligible for services and financial support.
The road map is meant to help establish a Palestinian state, yet settlement construction and the barrier's incursions into the West Bank will make that goal much harder to meet, critics say. This is, in part, because few people expect Israel to dismantle the $7.6 million-per-mile barrier quickly, but also because settlers in the territories and Jerusalem now number more than 400,000. They have become a powerful voting bloc.
At the same time, right-wing politicians and members of Sharon's Likud party stress that keeping much of the settlement-barrier infrastructure is essential.
"For a Palestinian state to be viable, it has to be contiguous, but people should think about the Jewish state," says Yuval Steinetz, chairman of the parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "It should be viable as well in this hostile region, and that means it should be defensible. It will be more difficult to defend the country with no strategic depth."
Mr. Steinetz says a viable Israel requires security zones around the coastal Tel Aviv area, around Jerusalem and along the Jordan Valley - in effect, the barrier's route. Indeed, a senior official told the Associated Press that the Jordan Valley barrier reflects Sharon's belief that Israel must have permanent control over the valley to buffer Israel from attacks from Jordan.
"Israel faces great challenges in the next five to ten years," Steinetz says.. "We don't know what will happen with Iraq. In case of a regional general conflagration, we have to have a way to keep the Syrians or Iranians from crawling in."
Increasingly, though, voices on the Israeli right and left are joining Palestinians who warn that Sharon, Steinetz and others are overlooking the threat from within.
"The classic argument is that you need the West Bank to provide a buffer," says Gerald Steinberg, director of Bar Ilan University's program on conflict management and negotiation. "The argument is, can you afford to give up that buffer zone? But we have to ask, what are the costs of keeping it?"
The dilemma has bedeviled Israel for decades. The country's founders wanted a state that was Jewish, democratic and anchored in their historical homeland, an area that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea into parts of Jordan. The early Zionists won their Jewish, democratic state in 1948. They gained their historic lands when they occupied the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
But it has been a Pyrrhic victory, because the presence of 3.2 million Palestinians in the territories means that Israel can only ever fulfill two of the three elements of its perceived national destiny.
To keep its biblical lands, Israel can only be Jewish if it denies Palestinians political rights. To be democratic, and give Palestinians a vote, means the loss of Israel's Jewish identity. To remain Jewish, democratic and hold the land requires expelling Israeli Arabs and Palestinians to other countries, an option likely to meet fierce international resistance.
For years, Israel has avoided examining this predicament too closely, but inaction has a cost. There are 4.9 million Jews in Israel and the territories and approximately 4.4 million Palestinian Arabs, according to Israel's Bureau of Statistics and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). With Palestinian women having an average of 5.9 children each, compared with Israeli women's 2.9 children, according to the UNFPA, Arabs are expected to outnumber Jews by 2015 at the latest.
In the meantime, maps show Israeli settlements and Palestinian towns often cheek-to-jowl. In many of these areas, where Palestinian villages fall on the western, or "Israeli" side of the barrier, they will be walled inside secondary barriers.
"What Sharon has done is hijack the fence not so much to keep Palestinians out of Israel as to keep Palestinians inside what he envisions as enclaves," says Mr. Alpher of the Jaffee Center. "It is not a vision that could conceivably be acceptable to Palestinians, and it makes it that much harder for Israel to deal with demographic problems."
Indeed, Muhammed Dahleh, a Palestinian-Israeli lawyer working against Jerusalem's barrier (see part 4), recently told Palestine Report Online that, "at this stage, I don't think we can divide Jerusalem anymore. I don't think we can divide Palestine anymore. The way it's being done, it's dragging the two people, whether they want or don't want, to a different kind of struggle in the future, whereby there's nothing left to divide. And I don't think the day is distant when I'll be hearing Palestinians call for one man, one vote."
Mr. Steinberg, a conservative analyst, calls this a "one-state trap ... to defeat and destroy the Jewish state."
He advocates dismantling some settlements, incorporating others and separating from the Palestinians. "It's very important to look at the demographic issue. There will be an inevitable Arab majority if this is a single national entity," he says. "There's a lot of disappointment in Sharon about the fact that the fence does not take the cleanest route to separate Palestinians and Israelis."
Palestinian fears that Israel will use the barrier to take their land are deepening. Palestinians point to the Israeli army's decision, in October, to make 18,000 acres of land between the barrier and the Green Line a "closed zone," meaning no one may enter or exit without a permit. This includes the 12,000 Palestinians living in the area. They will have to apply for permits to continue living there and to exit and reenter the area. Israeli citizens and internationals of Jewish descent are exempt from any permit requirement.
The permit system "turns a right to reside in one's own home and with one's family into a revocable privilege allotted on a case-by-case basis," the United Nations noted in a recent report.
Yet while Palestinian concerns increase, the vast majority of Israelis continue to back the barrier, despite its failure to stop three recent attacks by Palestinian militants and US plans to exact financial penalties for its construction.
Eighty-three percent of Israeli Jews support the barrier. Of that number, 63 percent say it should follow the route the government selects, according to the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University. Only 19 percent think it should be built along the Green Line that divides Israel from the Palestinian territories.
The recently approved route for sections north and south of Jerusalem brings the barrier's length to 450 miles. The UN's recent report estimates that 680,000 Palestinians will be directly harmed by the barrier. The figure is strongly disputed by Israel, which has called the report "propaganda."
These are people no longer able to easily access schools, healthcare, jobs and, crucially, their land. They cite the army's closure during harvest time of barrier gates meant to allow access to farmers' fields.
The Israeli human rights group B'tselem estimates that a total of 102,000 Palestinians will be caught between the barrier and the Green Line. Most of these villages will be enclosed within secondary walls or hemmed in between two barriers.
Palestinian movement will also be restricted around settlements that remain on the eastern side of the barrier. The defense ministry wants to establish "special security zones" that Palestinians would not be allowed to enter.
These zones will cost over $2 million each, adding to a barrier price tag that is now between $1 and $2 billion. That cost will grow when the US deducts the cost of the barrier in areas where it believes it does not fulfill a security function.