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Israeli Security Barrier Adds New Dimension to Middle East Conflict - 2003-11-14

Over the past year, a new dimension has been added to the decades-long Middle East conflict - an Israeli attempt to physically separate itself from the Palestinians. Israel began building a barrier - part barbed wire fence, part concrete wall and much of it is located on Palestinian land. Israel says it is needed for security. The Palestinians call it a land grab.

This was the old road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It wound its way around the Old City, through the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and down the hills to the Dead Sea.

Not anymore. The road now ends abruptly on the outskirts of Jerusalem, blocked by heavy slabs of concrete more than two meters high. On one side is the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud. On the other lie al-Azaria and Abu Dis, areas Palestinians also consider part of the city but Israelis say are part of the West Bank.

There are a few heavy iron gates built into the barrier. But people say the Israeli soldiers on guard seldom open them. So, using rough stepping stones, people cross over from one side to the other to go school, go shopping, go to the doctor or visit family.

On the other side there is a narrow gravel path leading to the main road to Abu Dis. There, a mini-bus terminal has sprung up to transport people to and from the barrier.

Palestinians call it the apartheid wall. Israelis say it's a security fence. In reality, the structure is, in places, part electronic fence topped with razor wire and part concrete wall interspersed with watchtowers. Israel says it's necessary to keep out potential Palestinian terrorists and to protect Israeli lives. According to opinion polls, most Israelis support the barrier.

Construction began over a year ago, and the wall was expected to be built more or less along the so-called Green Line, which marks the boundary between Israel and the West Bank area it captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. But, the barrier reaches far into Palestinian land in some areas to encompass Jewish settlements. In places, it cuts off Palestinian villages from each other, Palestinian farmers from their fields and children from their schools.

Speaking recently to visiting members of the European Parliament, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended the barrier.

"The fence is very important, first of all, to help us to act against the infiltration of terrorists into the heart of the country," he said. "Also important to prevent the illegal entrance of tens of thousands of Palestinians that move and live among the Palestinian population in towns and villages in Israel."

Mr. Sharon says every nation has the right to defend itself against illegal immigration. He insists Israel will continue building the barrier, despite widespread international condemnation and even criticism from Israel's closest ally, the United States.

The small community of Bat Hefr in central Israel sits just on the Israeli side of the Green Line. It was among the first areas to have the security barrier completed. Local resident Elle Chavit was pleased.

"It's a very difficult situation, because the wall is not a very beautiful place here, but we feel very secure here," said Elle Chavit. "All the neighbors here near the wall think the same."

The barrier here at Bat Hefr is a grim looking structure of gray concrete, not unlike the walls of a maximum security prison. It's an eyesore in this little community of tidy stucco villas with red tile roofs, patios and gardens. But, it makes the residents of Bat Hefr feel more secure from the menace they feel from the Palestinian city of Tulkarem, just a few kilometers on the other side.

Palestinian mapping expert Khalil Tofakji of the Arab Studies Society, rejects the Israeli explanation that the barrier is primarily for security. He believes it is part of a political strategy by Ariel Sharon to divide Palestinian areas with fences and roads to create small, separate enclaves, or cantons.

"He speaks about two lines, east and west and between the two lines there are five lines," he said. "It means that in the end we have eight cantons on the ground. In Qalqilya, you see it with your eyes. They surrounded the whole Palestinian city with walls. If you want to enter, there is one gate, you enter according to [a] soldier ['s decision]. In my opinion, I think that Sharon has a strategy, the West Bank will be eight cantons surrounded by Israel. The Palestinian state will be in Jordan."

Some members of the Israeli government have spoken openly about a future Palestinian state in neighboring Jordan, where Palestinians already make up the majority of the population. Prime Minister Sharon has not recently stated such a view, but most Palestinians believe he has no intention of ever allowing a viable Palestinian state to exist in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Back along the barrier in Jerusalem, taxi driver Rami Effendi says this is Israel's way of pressuring the Palestinians into forgetting about a future state, about Jerusalem as their future capital and about letting Palestinian refugees ever return home.

"They want us to get frustrated, not to dream about the refugees, just to dream about going to work, to get 100 Shekels ($23 US)," said Rami Effendi. "Don't dream about Jerusalem, don't even think about the refugees. This is what they want. They want us to give up at the end. They will never see this day."

The barrier is separating the two communities, but it is not changing the atmosphere of fear, anger and distrust. Indeed many people believe it is making that atmosphere worse.