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Israeli Security Fence Creates Controversy - 2002-06-16

Israel began construction Sunday of a security fence around the West Bank in a bid to prevent more terror attacks, angering both Palestinians and Israeli right-wingers.

As construction began on the new fence, one Palestinian cabinet minister, Saeb Erekat, accused Israel of seeking to divide the territory into cantons.

He says the final result will be "a new apartheid system worse than the one that existed in South Africa."

The West Bank is home to some two million Palestinians and 200,000 Jewish settlers. Many in both groups will be living on what for them will be the "wrong" side of the new fence, with access in and out of the territory controlled by the Israeli army.

Members of the Yesha council, which represents the Jewish settlers, fear settlers will be left isolated.

The issue resulted in a heated exchange of words in Sunday's Israeli cabinet meeting between ministers on the left who support the fence and those on the right, who are vehemently opposed to it.

The chairman of the National Religious Party, Effi Eitam, said the new fence would be interpreted internationally as defining the nation's political boundaries.

His faction believes Israel should never give up the West Bank, which it seized during the 1967 Middle East war.

But Israeli Cabinet Minister Matan Vilnai, a member of the left-leaning Labor Party, says the fence is vital for the country's security. "The first thing is the security of our people, the people of Israel, and the purpose of this fence is to defend the people," he said.

The electronically-monitored fence is expected to take a year to build.

It will compromise different barriers, according to the varying terrain, including fences, trenches and concrete walls, with special sensors.

The first phase of the fence will run more than 100 kilometers, along the north-west of the territory.

This is an area from which Palestinians have launched numerous terrorist attacks against Israel's northern coastal cities, including suicide bombings.

The fence will eventually stretch 350 kilometers and, it is estimated it will cost $1 million for every kilometer.