Archive for Thursday, August 23, 2001

Israelis debate sealing borders with walls

August 23, 2001


— With the Mideast conflict still burning after 11 months, Israelis have launched a vigorous debate over whether it's better to simply draw their own borders, building high walls and disentangling themselves from the Palestinians, rather than try to revive peace talks.

While the notion is opposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, among others, a growing number of Israeli politicians say it is time to reconsider the separation approach.

Among them is former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had largely vanished from public view after being soundly defeated by Sharon in February, but resurfaced this week as the most prominent proponent of unilateral separation.

"If we do not separate from the Palestinians, this country cannot continue to exist as a Jewish, Zionist, democratic state," Barak said.

The idea of separation has been raised before, and opponents have called it impractical, unfair and dangerous.

First, the two peoples' economies are tightly interwoven, with Israel relying heavily on Palestinian labor and the Palestinians dependent on Israeli products and services. Such a fence would also cost millions and would not solve the problem of Jewish settlers living outside the fence.

Palestinian leaders have said unilateral separation would fall far short of the minimum requirements for a Palestinian state. Drawing its own border would lead Israel to keep parts of the West Bank to include settlements and provide a defensible frontier. Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi calls that "collective punishment."

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and Gaza for a state and demand that all Jewish settlements be removed.

The separation idea has generated support among a broad cross-section of Israelis looking for a way out of the morass.

"We are facing many years, even generations, of hostile relations between Israelis and Palestinians," said Dan Schueftan, a Haifa University professor and author of "Disengagement," a book that offers a blueprint for a full Israeli-Palestinian divorce.

The Mideast violence, punctuated by Palestinian suicide bombings, has injected urgency into the Israeli discussion of how to physically separate the sides.

But Schueftan said demographics, not violence, is the most compelling reason for Israel to wall itself off from the Palestinians. Israeli Jews now account for 5 million of the 9 million people in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But within 20 years, the higher Palestinian birthrate means that they will outnumber the Jews.

Israel, he argues, should start erecting walls along a self-defined border in the West Bank and place sharp restrictions on the number of Palestinians entering Israel. The door would be left open for negotiations, but without deadline pressure.

Separation should be carried out in a "carefully staged manner over about four years," said Barak, with Israel building a border fence stretching for hundreds of miles through the hills and valleys of the West Bank.

At present, the Gaza Strip is fenced off. Though West Bank roads have Israeli military checkpoints, thousands of Palestinians bypass them, crossing into Israel each day on foot to work.

On the highly emotional issue of Jerusalem, where Palestinians are seeking a capital in the traditionally Arab eastern sector, Barak said the entire city should be kept under Israeli control for now.

However, "even Jerusalem clearly has to be fenced," he said.

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