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Israel's fence mixes security and politics

Barrier alters cease-fire line, opponents say

HABLA, West Bank -- Hussein Yousef Salman, a Palestinian schoolteacher and farmer, surveyed the massive fence that has gobbled up his land, destroyed his greenhouses, isolated his well and surrounded his town, cutting off his family from the schools, hospitals and markets in the nearby city of Qalqilyah.

The Israeli government is building the fence to separate Israel from the West Bank and to curb attacks by Palestinians. In Habla, the fence runs one mile into the West Bank.

"It makes hatred between us and them," said Salman, 43, as he tended his remaining greenhouses on the Palestinian side of the fence.

Five miles away in Elqana, home to 3,500 Jewish settlers, Marcel Gans welcomed the fact that the fence extended about two miles into the West Bank to encircle his community. Gans, the head of Elqana's governing council, said the new barrier offers protection from Palestinian shooting and bombing attacks. According to the Associated Press, more than 850 Israelis and 2,470 Palestinians have been killed in the past three years of fighting.

If the Palestinians complain that the fence is encroaching on their territory, he said, they should remember that they brought this upon themselves.

"They are making a lot of fuss about nothing," Gans said.

Nearly sixteen months after its construction began, the fence has evolved from a relatively modest, $120 million concept into one of the largest, most expensive and most controversial projects in Israel's history.

If completed as planned -- at an anticipated cost of $1.3 billion -- the 60- to 100-yard-wide combination of fences, ditches, roads, 25-foot-high concrete walls, barbed wire, watchtowers, cameras and electronic sensors would extend about 400 miles around the heart of the West Bank, swinging miles into Palestinian territory at some places to surround Jewish settlements and keep them on the Israeli side.

Already, the nearly complete first phase extends 78 miles from the northern tip of the West Bank to within 23 miles of Jerusalem; Israeli security officials say 75 percent of the Palestinian suicide bombers who have struck inside Israel came across that stretch of border. Two other sections of the fence, totaling about 12 miles, have been completed north and south of Jerusalem.

In places, the fence reaches as far as three miles into the West Bank to encircle 10 Jewish settlements with a total of 19,000 residents. In doing so, it also carves off about 47 square miles of land from the Palestinian side of the Green Line, the cease-fire boundary between Israeli- and Arab-held territory established after the 1967 Middle East war. This land amounts to about 2 percent of the West Bank and contains at least 13 Palestinian villages and 12,000 residents, according to Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups and the World Bank. So far, fence construction has demolished an estimated 100,000 Palestinian olive and citrus trees, 75 acres of greenhouses and 23 miles of irrigation pipes.

Critics say the path of the fence -- away from the Green Line -- is evidence that Sharon is using the project to unilaterally redraw the political boundary between Israel and the West Bank, and by extension, any future Palestinian state.

"To annex land and destroy the Green Line -- this was the idea of the decision makers when they decided the route of the fence," said Najib Abu Rokaya, an analyst for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, during a recent tour of the fence line. "The route is just for stealing land."

Retired Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, the former chairman of Israel's National Security Council who now heads Security Fence for Israel, an umbrella organization of groups advocating rapid completion of the fence, noted that the Gaza Strip has been surrounded by a 36-mile fence since the mid-1990s, and that not a single Palestinian suicide bomber has made it from Gaza into Israel in the past three years. "Gaza is an overwhelming example of how effective a fence can be," he said.

"We're people in a prison," said Abed Hafiz Odeh, 58, a farmer who lives in Al-Daba, a Palestinian village of about 200 residents south of Qalqilyah that has been caught in a no-man's-land. Al-Daba is close to the Jewish settlement of Alfe Menashe, and when the settlement was fenced off from the rest of the West Bank, so was Al-Daba. Already prohibited from crossing into Israel, Odeh and the other residents of Al-Daba now cannot enter the West Bank, either.

Washington Post staff researchers Samuel Sockol, Hillary Claussen and Robert E. Thomason contributed to this report.


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