Israel may impose a `security space'

Solution to bombings would close porous West Bank border

June 06, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QALQILYA, West Bank - At a tent where family and friends mourned the suicide bomber who killed himself and 20 young Israelis Friday night, a 16-year-old cousin sat near a Hamas banner depicting a bus engulfed in a fireball and said, "Everyone wishes to be a martyr."

If such words strike fear into Israelis, so does the site from which he uttered them. Qalqilya is within walking distance of a notoriously porous border between Israel and the West Bank, across which suicide bombers have moved undetected in recent months en route to cities along Israel's congested coastline to try to kill as many Israelis as possible.

In the wake of Friday's attack at a nightclub in Tel Aviv, Israel is contemplating a sweeping solution to the problem: a "security space" in the West Bank up to 5 miles wide that would be heavily patrolled by Israeli troops, perhaps include closed military zones, and keep Palestinians inside their towns and villages at night. An electrified fence and land mines over part of the area are being considered, a senior defense source said.

The so-called Green Line border barely separates a cluster of populous Palestinian towns from an outcropping of Israeli suburbs and farm villages. The affluent Kohav Yair, where former Prime Minister Ehud Barak lives, practically hugs the line.

The Green Line was drawn in the armistice that ended the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, separating Israel and what was Jordanian-controlled territory until Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war.

In quiet times, tens of thousands of Palestinians crossed the border daily to jobs in Israel, where their inexpensive skilled labor was welcomed. On weekends, Israelis would flock into the West Bank looking for bargains.

But since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September, the line has become a ribbon of fear for both sides. Frequent battles erupt between Israeli soldiers at border checkpoints and Palestinian militias in Tulkarm and Qalqilya.

In the cycle of provocation and assault, an Israeli industrial zone near Tulkarm has been fired upon repeatedly by Arabs and a nearby Palestinian college has been pounded by Israeli tank shells. A Fatah leader in Tulkarm was assassinated by Israeli forces, and Palestinians murdered a pair of Israeli restaurateurs looking to buy flower pots. At night, some Palestinian residents close to the line leave their homes in fear.

For Israelis, the worst threat is from Palestinian bombers, three of whom have struck in the coastal city of Netanya this year, others in the nearby towns of Kfar Saba and Hedera. Friday's suicide bombing at the disco on the Tel Aviv beachfront was the worst terrorist attack in Israel in five years.

According to cousins and uncles, Saeed Hotary, 22, was typical of the thousands of workers who cross into Israel, and gave no hint of his fierce political leanings.

Raised in Jordan, he came here two years ago to look for work. Hotary found regular work as an electrician for a contractor in the Arab-Israeli village of Jaljulya and sent money home to his family in Jordan. But in recent months, work has been scarce.

"His family was very poor," said cousin Abdel Araouf Hotary, 23. "His father was sick. He used to buy medicine for his father. He said once that he was very frustrated that he can't buy medicine for his father."

Neither he nor Hotary's 16-year-old cousin Mohammed imagines himself as a suicide bomber, but they say they can see why some are drawn to it.

"The hard pressure from the Israeli side sometimes pushes people to think of alternatives," Mohammed said.

Friday's bombing brought renewed attention to a question raised by Israelis for months.

"Is there anyone who can stand before us today and explain why up to now no fence has been erected which could prevent (or at least make it harder) for Palestinians to enter Israeli territory?" asked an editorial in Yediot Ahronot. "Why it is not being erected right now?"

The answer is mostly political. Israel's right wing does not want to fix a solid border along the Green Line because that would appear to cede the West Bank to the Palestinians and separate numerous Jewish settlements from Israel. The left fears that a rigid separation would set back hopes for peaceful coexistence and cooperation.

"Of course, it is a problem, but it is an unsolved problem. To have a fence or a minefield is not an option. How do you do that in Jerusalem?" a senior security official said.

One answer put forward by the army, writes Zeev Schiff, the respected security affairs commentator for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, is to enlarge the "seam zone" along the Green Line eastward to form a strip 3 to 8 kilometers wide, or almost 2 to 5 miles.

"A majority of the roads in that strip will be blocked physically in order to prevent motor vehicle travel on them. The rural Palestinians will be permitted to work their lands, but when night falls they will have to shut themselves up in their villages. They will be permitted to travel eastward only."

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