Israeli wall splits neighbors apart


BAT HEFER, Israel - Like homeowners frustrated beyond measure by their neighbors, the residents of this Israeli hamlet of modest red-roofed homes decided some time ago that they no longer wanted to live in sight of Palestinians in the West Bank. So the Israelis built a wall.

It is 8 feet high, 3 miles long and made of concrete. It turns this bedroom community near Tel Aviv into an isolated prison camp with palm trees. Everybody agrees that the wall is ugly, but no one wants to tear it down. In fact, residents don't think it's long enough, and a 300-yard extension is being planned.

The issue is simple for these Israelis: The wall separates them from the Palestinian city of Tulkarm, just across a rocky field, and it prevents armed militants there from targeting the houses of Bat Hefer.

"People want to live peacefully in their own homes," said Haim Altman, spokesman for Bat Hefer's resident council. "We didn't want to do this, but we were forced. All we want to do is live, work and take care of our children."

Hefer's wall might be Israel's future.

A growing number of politicians, from the dovish left as well as the hard-line right, want to build a 450-mile barrier along much of the so-called Green Line, Israel's border with the West Bank before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

It is not that a wall would stop the 11-month Palestinian uprising that has claimed hundreds of lives. Proponents argue instead that building a barrier is the inevitable outcome of years of failed negotiations and broken peace accords.

"More dialogue is not a realistic option," said Dan Schueftan, a Haifa University political science professor who has written a book that is essentially a guide for a Palestinian-Israeli separation. "We have to build a wall. Open borders make it possible for Palestinians to blow us up and kill us in our homes."

The wall, Scheuftan suggests, could be built over two to three years. He said the potential $1 billion cost would be cheaper in the long run than supporting an army engaged in an endless low-level war.

In most plans, the wall would start at the northern edge of the West Bank, near Jenin, and work its way down along mountainous ridges and fertile farmland, skirting Tulkarm and Qalqiliya, before reaching Jerusalem. Then it would continue south.

There are varying ideas about how such a wall could protect Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But most proponents concede that settlements built deep in Palestinian territory would have to be evacuated, while those near the Green Line could be included within the walls.

Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, counters that a wall is an impractical response to violence.

"People had started to believe that a peace agreement was possible," he said. "Israelis now understand that it didn't work, so they say, 'Let's build a wall.' I don't think it will be the panacea they believe. It will not solve the security problem."

The concept, called "unilateral separation," is not new. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak broached the idea several years ago. For now, its proponents come from the fringes of the two main opposing political parties, Likud and Labor, and others.

In a sense, separation already is taking place. The Israeli army has barricaded West Bank roads and built checkpoints to control the movement of Palestinians.

The Israeli army said this week that it plans to create a mile-wide buffer zone along the Green Line and forbid Palestinians from entering. The zone would presumably make it more difficult for Palestinian gunmen to cross into Israel, even in rural areas.

Palestinians caught in the zone would be arrested and tried in Israeli courts. The army says the stiff measures are legal because they would be temporary and in the interest of national security.

But the buffer zone falls short of an actual wall. Israeli officials objected when Bat Hefer began erecting a fence in 1996, when the community's first houses were going up. Residents were worried about Palestinians entering Israel illegally from the West Bank.

Then gunmen from Tulkarm fired at the town, and Bet Hefer moved its playground to keep children out of the line of fire. Several homes were hit repeatedly. The community added an electric fence. Then the community began building the concrete wall, with military watch posts and a dirt road for soldiers to patrol.

"We must take care of our lives," said Altman, the community spokesman. "This is the first priority. The line here is very clear," he said, looking at the barrier. "This is the solution."

Building a barrier between border communities may stop bullets, but even sworn enemies need each other. The Palestinian economy is in ruins, in part because access to jobs in Israel has been cut off. Tulkarm's unemployment rate exceeds 60 percent. And the Israeli farms around Bat Hefer miss laborers from the West Bank.

Bat Hefer's wall does not stop the stream of raw sewage that starts in Tulkarm and runs by the town, polluting a nearby stream and raising a stench in the hot air.

The outbreak of violence stopped a German-financed project to build a water treatment plan on the West Bank side and a reservoir on the Israeli side. Two months ago, the towns agreed to let Israel send trucks into Tulkarm to spray for mosquitoes, which are a problem on both sides of the Green Line. Gunfire aimed at the workers stopped that as well.

"Both sides have to cooperate on these issues," Altman said. "There are walls, but it doesn't mean there are no gates."

The view is different on the other side of the wall.

The wall, said Mayor Mahmoud Jallad of Tulkarm, has "killed all of the commitments to build bridges between the two peoples."

The barrier only provokes tension and prevents his citizens from obtaining jobs and providing for their families, he said. "Each hungry person is a ticking bomb. The pressure leads to an explosion."

In a broader sense, Palestinians fear that a wall along the length of the West Bank would keep them from securing enough contiguous territory for a viable independent state. Walls around Jewish settlements in the West Bank would divide Palestinian lands into isolated islands.

"This is a kind of declaration of war," Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said of the project last month. "We will never accept it. We will ask our people to fight for every street and every road. But we will never submit to such a plan that will destroy the life of our people."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres have spoken out against the concept of a wall, arguing that the Palestinians would end up with a substantial part of the West Bank without having to sign a peace agreement.

Labor Party member Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former foreign minister, told a recent political gathering that a wall would lead to a "perpetual state of war."

The Israeli army also has come out against the idea, arguing that it is not a practical solution to end the conflict.

Last month, police in Jerusalem proposed recruiting extra border officers and building fences with electronic sensors and trenches around the city, leaving only nine guarded entrances. Sharon's government rejected the idea.

Construction of Bat Hefer's wall began when a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement seemed within reach. But there was sporadic violence, and gunmen targeted Bat Hefer even though the community was entirely within Israel.

Altman said the wall was an acknowledgment of the uneasy relationship between Israeli and Palestinian neighbors. He wanted children from each town to paint their side of the wall - a joint beautification project to bring neighbors together even as they were being split farther apart.

That venture ended with the start of the uprising in September last year.

"Is this wall normal?" Altman asked, standing next to the imposing structure. "Nothing now is normal."

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