Israeli wall splits neighbors apart

Town safety barrier could reflect future

September 07, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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.

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