JERUSALEM -- In the smoke from Sunday's terrorist bombings, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres may have seen an image of his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, saying, "Build a fence to keep out the Palestinians."
It was a favored -- if flawed -- proposal of the late Mr. Rabin. Coincidentally, work began Monday on the first small section of such a fence, whose construction was authorized before Mr. Rabin's death.
Mr. Peres is not a wholehearted supporter of Mr. Rabin's dream to segregate Israelis and Palestinians. But Sunday's bombings that killed 27 people, including two suicide bombers, might force him to embrace the idea, if not the whole fence.
Immediately after the bombings, Mr. Peres barred Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from entering Israel. His ministers suggested yesterday that the closure will last a long time -- possibly through the May 29 Israeli election.
"From our perspective, we can continue [the closure] forever," Police Minister Moshe Shahal told Israel radio yesterday.
Sealing out the Palestini
ans is an appealing notion to soothe the nerves of Israelis worried about further bus bombings. Mr. Peres, faced with what could be a close election fight, must win the trust of voters who saw him in the past as not tough enough with Palestinians.
But segregation flies in the face of his pet themes of a "New Middle East" united by free trade and easy commerce across borders. And Mr. Peres knows there are severe drawbacks to any attempt to separate the two antagonistic but entwined peoples.
Closing off Israel from Palestinian workers cuts off the chief source of income for the Palestinian economy and worsens poverty for thousands of families. The closure also blocks Israeli goods from entering the Palestinian areas, and leaves Israeli contractors and farmers without cheap labor.
"Long-term closures of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would strangle the Palestinian economy and lead to a very sharp decline in living conditions, which would produce a breeding ground for violence and extremism," Terje Larsen, the United Nations special envoy and coordinator of international aid to the Palestinian territories, said yesterday.
Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian authority, complained this month that a closure costs the Palestinian economy $6 million a day. He told European donor countries that 250 days of Israeli closures in the past 15 months had cost more money than had been contributed to the fledgling Palestinian autonomy.
Secondly, a complete closure is impossible. There are too many open fields and back ways across the invisible border between Israel and the West Bank. That border is further eroded by Jewish settlers in the West Bank, who drive about 20,000 cars daily into Israel to their jobs.
At a checkpoint north of Jerusalem last week, evidence of the difficulties of a closure was clear. As Israeli soldiers turned back Palestinians attempting to enter Jerusalem for Friday prayers, hundreds more simply walked in through the back streets of the area, entering easily and illegally.
"We just go around that house and walk about 100 meters," said electrician Hami Fareed, 28, as he bypassed the checkpoint on his way into Jerusalem from the Palestinian city of Tulkarm.
But it is also risky. Israeli troops reportedly shot and seriously wounded yesterday a Palestinian who they said ran an Israeli roadblock in the Gaza Strip.
Mr. Rabin used to talk at nearly every opportunity of his desire for complete separation of Palestinians and Israelis. He endorsed in April a plan for a "separation line" as a visible symbol, even though it was clear the plan was impractical.
The 200-mile line of fences, guard dogs and electronic monitors would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, would not have been foolproof and would have established boundaries roughly along the old 1948 territorial lines, which would have excluded many West Bank Jewish settlements.
Nevertheless, the Rabin government authorized the first step in that plan, and bulldozers this week began clearing a strip for a large security fence between the Jewish town of Kfar Saba and its Arab neighbor, Qalqilya, on the border of the West Bank 12 miles northeast of Tel Aviv.
Mr. Peres, who took over after Mr. Rabin was assassinated Nov. 4, has not publicly reversed Mr. Rabin's policies. But he was expected to quietly let the separation line idea drop after the election. The Peres government had increased the number of Palestinians allowed to enter Israel for jobs, reasoning that improved economic conditions would encourage Palestinian support for peace.
But after Sunday's bombings, Mr. Peres said the closure of the Gaza Strip and Palestinian areas would last "as long as is required from a security standpoint."
According to Israel radio, the army drafted a list of harsher punishments, including cutting off water, electricity, mail, health and phone services. That brought a rebuke yesterday from Israeli Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who said it would have amounted to collective punishment.