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Israel Begins Erecting Walls, Electric Fences Around Palestinian Borders - 2002-06-14

Israeli moves to erect security fences and protective walls have enraged Palestinians who call it another form of collective punishment. Analysts say unilateral separation may be unrealistic and harmful to peace efforts.

A fortified wall and electrified fence already border the northern Israeli community of Bat Hefer. It acts as a protective buffer from the Palestinian town of Tulkarem on the other side of the so-called Green Line that delineates Israel from the Palestinian territories it seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

After more than a year and a half of suicide bombings, drive-by shootings, roadside ambushes and mortar attacks Israelis say walls and fences may be their only guarantee for security.

Israel's military has already tightened the roadside checkpoints between Palestinian areas and Israel. And it has built more cement and dirt barricades on back-road detours that Palestinians have used to get around the usual checkpoints.

The objective is to prevent militants from crossing over to attack Israelis. More than 900 people have died since the latest Palestinian uprising erupted more than a year and a half ago.

Zalman Shoval, Israel's former ambassador to the United States and top advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the defense community is not convinced fortified barriers will do the job. The idea of unilateral seperation, he says, has sparked a serious debate.

"Some people say it's a just a knee-jerk reaction by the population, which says, 'Let's build a fence and let the Palestinians be on the other side, we don't want them here, we don't want them to work here'," he said, "Others say without an agreement, a fence would be a halfway measure anyway. Today, you can shoot a mortar shell over a fence. And historians will say the Chinese wall did not prevent the Mongols from getting into China."

Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib prefers to use another wall as an example of barriers that could undermine peace efforts. "Whenever there was a conflict, the approach of trying to stop the conflict or protect one side by the same idea of building walls and fences has been always failure," he said, "because people can always find their way. I use the example of Berlin Wall, which couldn't last for long. It falls. And also when it was built, it wasn't successful in preventing infiltration."

Israeli diplomat Shoval says the idea of unilateral separation may be controversial but it will probably become a reality.

"It's a big debate in Israel. But the feeling is that there probably will be a fence, more because it's, on the one hand, [a] popular demand, and on the other hand, the Labor Party in search of a platform is probably going to adopt the idea because they think it will give them bigger popularity than they have now."

Analyst Ghassan Khatib, who was recently named the Palestinian Authority's Labor Minister, says Israel's security fences, checkpoint and trenches are on Palestinian land. That, he says, blurs the whole issue of borders for a future Palestinian state. He points out that UN resolution 242, which is based on the principle of land-for-peace, calls for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders.

"Had it been a consolidation of borders according to the UN Security Council resolution 242, then we wouldn't have a problem," Mr. Khatib commented, "because any country has a right to close its border with its neighbors. But they are erecting these walls with buffer zones between us and them, and extending them inside our territories in a way that contributes to the cantonization process."

Israeli and Palestinian peace activists insist that a comprehensive peace deal, not walls, is the best guarantee for security on both sides, but they acknowledge the unrelenting violence that has claimed hundreds of lives on both sides has undermined the mutual trust that would make such barriers unnecessary.