Israel ponders giant fence to keep out Palestinians TENSION IN THE MIDDLE EAST

January 25, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Would a giant fence work?

Israelis are mulling over the idea of erecting a fence to separate Jews from Arabs, abjectly surrendering any hope of living together.

The idea caught on with commentators yesterday after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once again touted "separation" after Sunday's suicide bombing that killed 19 Israeli soldiers.

The idea is not new to Mr. Rabin. It comes out during times of exasperation. After a similar Arab suicide bomb in October killed 22 Israelis on a bus in Tel Aviv, a tired Mr. Rabin gave a rambling television address that repeatedly returned to the theme of separating Israelis and Palestinians.

After the twin bombs exploded in Netanya Sunday night, he spoke more clearly. "We want to reach a separation between us and them," he said. "The Palestinians in the territories are an entity different from us, religiously, politically, nationally."

Yesterday, he proposed setting up a group to figure out how it could be done. "I intend to appoint a committee to begin to gradually implement the idea of separation," he told the Israeli Knesset, or parliament.

The government took other actions yesterday. It arrested more than 60 alleged Islamic radicals and raided mosques and offices of religious organizations in the West Bank, according to Palestinians. It imposed a "closure" on Gaza and the West Bank, forbidding Palestinians to pass roadblocks to enter Israel proper.

In Gaza, Palestinian police tried to satisfy Israel's demand for a crackdown by detaining Sheik Abdullah Shami, the spiritual leader of Islamic Jihad, the group that claimed responsibility for the Sunday bombings. The sheik was released two hours later but then detained again.

It was the "fence" idea that was most popular in Israel. The Hebrew daily Haaretz said the construction cost already had been calculated: $230 million, with a full year for construction.

The general path was already plotted, the paper said, to snake through the West Bank and to include in the Israeli-controlled area of the West Bank, all of Jerusalem and many Jewish settlements.

Some politicians jumped at the idea. Others were more wary.

"Without separation, it is very doubtful that we can ever achieve good neighborly relations," said Yossi Sarid, a liberal member of Mr. Rabin's Cabinet. But Ehud Olmert, the conservative mayor of Jerusalem, demurred: "I don't know where it would be put. I don't know what exactly it would do." Like other conservatives and Jewish settlers, Mr. Olmert believes all of the West Bank should be Israel's.

Even Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, author of a book predicting an economically unified "New Middle East," was caught up in the debate.

"I'm not against it," he conceded. "Basically, I would like to see the Palestinians running their life and us running our life."

The interest in the idea was a measure of the despair in Israel over the lack of other solutions. A fence would solve none of the underlying disputes that have caused the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and would simply bring them to the fore.

For example, where would the fence be? To decide that is to decide what land is Israeli and what land is Palestinian, a question they have been fighting over for 48 years.

Mr. Rabin said emphatically that any line of separation would not be according to the 1967 borders. Palestinians say this proves Israel wants more land than its internationally recognized boundaries.

And what would be left on the other side of the fence? A Palestinian state? Mr. Rabin says definitely not.

Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, said the only way such a barrier could be justified is as a prison perimeter.

And how could it physically divide Israelis and Palestinians, now as mingled as spaghetti and sauce?

The Palestinian economy is dependant on Israel, the result of Israeli policy over 28 years of military rule. About 60,000 Palestinians work inside Israel. About 140,000 Jewish settlers live outside Israel.

Would all of them cross the fence each day?

Mr. Rabin acknowledged the impossibility of trying to check 20,000 cars that now cross daily between the West Bank and Israel.

And finally, would it be effective? The Gaza Strip, as an example, is almost completely fenced and guarded. But car thieves and smugglers routinely breach the fence to transport their illicit goods.

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