It may not be the Great Wall of China, but the three huge rings of barbed wire installed recently by the Israeli army here have far-reaching implications.
The wire, on a pastoral slope lined with olive trees, is aimed at preventing Palestinians from the West Bank from walking into Jerusalem a security measure that has complicated the lives of hundreds of illegal laborers. Now they have to find other pathways through the porous areas where Israel has erased the 1967 border by settling Jews in the West Bank. As Israelis have found out all too frequently, suicide bombers easily slip through into their cities.
Fueled by the ensuing fatalities, variations of the barriers, be they trenches, high walls, or other obstacles have sprung up here and there inside the West Bank to foil penetrations. And it has been a routine, and sometimes deadly, army practice to seal off Palestinian villages with trenches and checkpoints during the fighting of the last year and a half.
But now Haim Ramon, an influential politician and a prime ministerial hopeful, is calling for a much more extensive barrier that would enable a "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians. His plan, outlined in an interview in today's Yediot Ahronot newspaper, calls for "a 400 kilometer [250-mile] border in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip which no one may cross without the permission of the State of Israel."
Mr. Ramon says he does not yet know whether the "border" will include land mines or simply a fence. "That is not the main issue. What is important is that we have a line, a border, it does not matter what you call it."
Analysts say the idea of a unilateral separation enjoys the support of most Israelis, who see it as a panacea to suicide attacks. But in political terms, the wall itself faces formidable barriers. Supporters of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon oppose it because it would point to a relinquishing of West Bank territory east of any fence, while some left-wingers, like former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, argue that security can only come through a peace agreement with the consent of the Palestinians. All of those espousing "unilateral separation," with the exception of Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, want to build the barriers inside territory occupied in the 1967 war, rather than along the old Green Line border that separated Israel and the West Bank. Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer supports what he terms a "security separation" to be erected on West Bank land but stresses he wants negotiations with the Palestinians now in order to resolve borders and other outstanding issues.
Mr. Ramon says his fence would include blocs totalling 75 percent of the Jewish settlers, bringing 15 percent of the West Bank inside the new envelope. He calls for a withdrawal from remote settlements and all of the Gaza Strip, and says final borders can be negotiated only at a later stage.
Fences cut crucial services
Israeli human rights group B'tselem argues that any barriers set up inside the West Bank are likely to cause blatant violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
"It could cut off a lot of people from their families and work," says researcher Yehezkel Lein. "A lot of villages and towns are dependent on services and hospitals in the main Palestinian cities such as Ramallah and Nablus." Already, many Palestinians have died because of being unable to get past barriers and checkpoints around their villages, he says.
"Where would people go for medical treatment? We are talking about a big disruption to the lives of those living to the west of this fence."
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, says the only acceptable separation is along the 1967 borders. "This means not only creating an apartheid situation, it means taking more land," she said. "It will create more anger. We need to lift the siege, not to consolidate it and make it more stringent."
According to a report by Mr. Lein issued this week, 41.9 percent of the West Bank is under control of the settlements. Political geographer David Newman, chairman of political science at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, says that because the West Bank settlements "are scattered everywhere and anywhere," it would be impossible to make a clear line of separation without evacuating many of them.
That reality, along with territorial claims to all of the West Bank by some Israelis, has made unilateral separation unpopular with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party. "A separation without reaching arrangements beforehand will establish a situation that will impact on the negotiations," says Anat Friedman, spokeswoman for Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin.
Newman believes unilateral separation would not add all that much to Israeli security. Already, Israel strongly controls internal movement in the West Bank through checkpoints and roadblocks, he says. Moreover, rockets could be fired despite the fences and those determined to enter Israel for attacks will find open routes, perhaps those used by settlers, he says.
"The problem with unilateral separation is that it is a unilateral action, it is imposing a solution," he says. "Paradoxically, you [could] impose the solution the Palestinians want, and they will reject it because it is an imposed solution."