Israel's Great Wall? Critics Belittle A Barrier Against Palestinians

SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a wall.''

Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's proposal to create a new security boundary between Israeli and West Bank Arab population centers has triggered deep-seated resistance among both Israelis and Palestinians - the kind described by poet Robert Frost in his work, ``Mending Wall.''

Some Israelis and Palestinians claim that fences, walls, or barriers will neither improve neighborly relations nor stem the terrorist attacks of Islamic militants opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace pact.

Mr. Rabin proposed the security line in a nationally broadcast speech this week after the suicide bombing by Islamic radicals on Sunday of an Israeli soldiers' bus stop.

The attack killed 18 young recruits and a civilian, shocking the nation and forcing the government to take some sort of action, while keeping the peace alive.

But the prime minister asserted that his unilaterally drawn boundary would run east of the internationally recognized Green Line, which divides pre-1967 Israel and the occupied West Bank. His announcement prompted sharp criticism from members of the Gaza-based Palestinian Authority (PA) - the body set up in July to administer Palestinian self-rule.

``This would unilaterally change the map for a final settlement,'' says Ahmed Tibi, one of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat's top advisers. ``We say `yes' to political separation, meaning the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But all other steps are closure and siege. It will only increase violence and terror and weaken the PA.''

Meanwhile, Jewish advocates of a ``Greater Israel'' also have opposed the plan fearing that a new security line would also signal the beginning of an Army withdrawal from significant portions of the occupied West Bank.

``It's withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines [pre-1967 Green Line] under the excuse of security. It's cutting the country into two,'' says Israel Harel, chairman of the Council of Jewish Settlements of Judea and Samaria, who threatened to ``uproot any fence'' the Army tries to erect.

Some Israeli sympathy

Mr. Rabin's idea struck the most sympathetic response from center-left Israelis, who see the ``separation'' slogan as a way of coaxing the country's security-minded mainstream into redeploying its Army from West Bank Arab population centers to other areas - despite the popular anger over a recent wave of suicide bomb attacks, or attempts.

``I think it could work,'' says Joseph Alpher, former head of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

``Given the mood of the Israeli public after these terrorist atrocities, this is the only way to sell the process of withdrawal ... to the public,'' he says.

Israeli security experts have said that while no fence or barrier can block all infiltrations, a combination of physical barriers and beefed-up Army patrols would make it more difficult to organize the logistics of complex bombing operations - in which guerrillas typically travel back and forth between Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank collecting money, intelligence, and materials.

The current debate over a physical separation from most of the West Bank hearkens back to the 1993 controversy vis a vis tentative Israeli proposal for an Army withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

That strategy was also proposed in terms underlining Israeli security needs rather than in the language of a military withdrawal - to generate mainstream support.

And that proposal was also dismissed as unworkable both by Israeli settlers, fearful of isolation, and mainstream Palestinians who saw it as a unilateral Israeli proposal. But Rabin's current proposal for ``separation'' from the West Bank also implies far greater problems than did last summer's Israeli redeployment in Gaza - logistically, politically, and economically.

In Gaza, a partial Army withdrawal was more politically acceptable to Palestinians because Israel had made no attempt to redraw the traditional pre-1967-war Green Line divide between Gaza and Israel. But in the case of the West Bank, Rabin has stated over and over that Israel has no intention of withdrawing back to the pre-1967 lines, even as part of a permanent settlement.

Gaza's handful of Jewish settlements also are concentrated more or less in one enclave.

But in the West Bank, some 100 existing Jewish settlements have blurred the old pre-1967 borders with Israel. And around Arab East Jerusalem, the construction on tens of thousands of new Jewish housing units have made re-partition virtually impossible - while Rabin has pledged that the city won't again be physically divided.

Precisely because of these complexities, Rabin has hesitated to make the hard decisions about where the Israeli Army should redeploy as part of the negotiations going on now with the PLO, in relation to the expansion of the Palestinian self-rule entity created in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho last summer into large portions of the West Bank.

Creating the line for a ``security fence'' will be no easier. Everyone is keenly aware of the precedent a fence or barrier would create in advance of talks on a final border between Israel and the Palestinian entity, which are due to begin in 1996.

``You cannot simply draw lines for so-called temporary security purposes and ignore their ramifications for final status,'' Mr. Al-pher says. ``If you create new lines or barriers, you are deliberately contributing to the evolution of these lines as final-status borders.

``There can be no separation as long as settlers remain in the heart of the Palestinian territories,'' Mr. Tibi adds.

Palestinian woes

Stricter limits on the movement of Palestinians back and forth between Israel and the occupied territories in present circumstances would not only choke off Arab East Jerusalem from the West Bank, it could send the Palestinian economy into a tailspin, Palestinians say. Palestinian workers in Israel bring home some $230 million to $300 million annually - an amount roughly equal to the amount of annual development aid.

Still some Israeli government ministers, such as the left-wing Environment Minster Yossi Sarid and Education Minister Amnon Rubenstein, have suggested that Israel's $60 billion-a-year economy could more easily absorb the economic cost of compensating Palestinians for lost wages than Israel can absorb the political and emotional toll of Islamic attacks.

``Even if it costs us, it is worth it,'' Alpher says. ``But first, a decision has to be made that the security issue takes priority over the economic issue - and that closure is the best means of improving security.''

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