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Citizens of Israeli Town Near West Bank Grateful for Security Fence - 2003-01-20


As Israelis prepare to vote for a new government on January 28, security is a campaign issue. After more than two years of a Palestinian uprising, many Israelis feel that building a high wall between the two communities may be the only way to enhance their security. Sonja Pace visited the small Israeli community of Bat Hefr, where the controversial "security fence" has been built.

This could be a small suburban community somewhere in southern Europe or southern California. It is a collection of a few hundred tidy stucco villas with red tile roofs, patios and gardens lined up in neat rows.

But Bat Hefr is in central Israel and sits right on the so-called Green Line, which marks the division between Israel and the Palestinian territories of the West Bank.

Just across from the last row of houses is the "fence," a grim-looking structure that is part barbed wire, part electrified metal, and part high concrete wall with a watch tower and sniper positions. It is designed to keep Palestinian militants out.

Local resident Elle Chavit is taking her young son for a stroll. She likes the idea of the fence. "It is a very difficult situation because the wall is not a very beautiful place here, but we feel very secure here," she said.

According to opinion polls more than 70 percent of Israelis favor the idea of a security barrier to control Palestinian access to Israel.

As the peace process eroded during the past several years and suicide attacks increased, talk of a security fence became more frequent. Finally the government agreed, and construction on the first phase began last June, but there has been little progress since then.

Officials envision that the fence will eventually run close to 200 kilometers and will cost about $1 million per kilometer to build. The three-kilometer-long fence at Bat Hefr is just one link in the chain.

The mayor of the district around Bet Hefr, Nachum Itzkovitz, began promoting the fence eight years ago.

"I knew there are always people against the peace in the Israeli side and of course in the Palestinian side and I was afraid that the children in Bat Hefr will be injured, will be affected by shooting from the Palestinian side and it happened," he said. "But the wall stop[ped] it."

There have been numerous such incidents in which Palestinian attackers have infiltrated into Israeli towns.

Mr. Itzkovitz complains that the politicians are dragging their feet and not building the fence quickly enough, and that has become a campaign issue.

In his campaign advertisements, Labor Party candidate Amram Mitzna says if elected, he will make sure the fence is finished quickly.

"Over the past two years all of us have been living with the daily fear of bloodshed and attacks. Let me make this clear: if there had been a wall from Beit Shean in the north to Erat in the south most of the suicide attacks would not have happened," he said. "Why did not Sharon build the security wall? It is because he wants a greater Israel more than he wants safety and security. In this election you will decide whether it will be Sharon without a security wall and without security, or a government that I will lead that will separate us from the terror."

Supporters of the security barrier cite Gaza as an example. Barbed wire fences have been strung along the line between the Gaza Strip and Israel, effectively cutting off infiltration by militants.

But, there is also opposition to the fence. Some Israelis fear that it will become a de facto border and will leave a number of settlements on the "wrong" side, well inside Palestinian territory.

Palestinians describe the fence as another Berlin Wall that turns Palestinian areas into giant prison camps.

"The wall means they are stealing our land," said Mahmoud Jilad, mayor of the West Bank city of Tulkarem, located just 1.5 kilometers from Bat Hefr on the other side of the fence, "It means the Palestinians are more cut off, and it means that the gap between the Palestinians and Israelis is getting wider," he said. "As proof that this wall is not helping the Israelis, since they started building it the number of attacks has grown. They lie when they talk security. The only purpose is to take more land and make us live in cantons."

Palestinians say proof that the fence is just an Israeli land grab is clear in its proposed location, which is not exactly along the Green Line. Israel is swinging the fence around some West Bank settlements and other areas the Israeli army wants to patrol.

Israel says both sides will have to yield some territory for the barrier. But Palestinians look at the proposed location and see too many areas where they are ceding large tracts of land. Some Palestinian farmers say the fence will block them from moving between the villages where they live and the fields they work.

Mayor Jilad says he understands Israeli security concerns, but he also believes the fence will make a meaningful peace even harder to reach.

"We, as Palestinians, believe in peace for the two people, so we are never going to be happy if any of their sons are killed," he said. "We are also not going to be happy if our sons are killed, and that is what happens daily because of them. Even if you are made of stone you must feel this."

His counterpart on the other side of the wall, Nachum Itzkovitz, agrees that the two communities should be able to live together, but he says not yet.

"We need a border. If we will have an agreement we can open the fence and make another arrangement," he said. "The question is how to save lives."

Israelis who live along the fence, like in Bat Hefr, agree. Some remember better times when they met with Palestinian friends in nearby Tulkarem and maybe they will do so again in the future. But for now, they feel they need the security wall to protect them from what lies on the other side.

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