Continued bloodletting drives Israelis to the wall

BAT HEFER, Israel — The Hefer Valley is an extremely narrow stretch of Israel, where Israelis are squeezed into a 9-mile-wide corridor between the Palestinian-ruled West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea.

So it is a fitting place, perhaps, for the wall.

The thick, gray concrete wall stands nearly 8 feet high between the neat residential streets of Bat Hefer, a town in the valley, and the Palestinian city of Tulkarm less than a mile away.

It also embodies an idea that is rapidly gaining currency in Israel after nearly a year of the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting in decades: separation, the erecting of barriers and buffer zones between the enemies.

Separation is especially appealing to an Israeli public desperate for solutions and skeptical that diplomacy, politicians or military might will provide any.

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon authorized the army Sunday to establish strips of closed military zones along the Palestinian side of the invisible line dividing the West Bank from Israel. Separately, around Jerusalem, trenches, boulders and new checkpoints are gradually separating Jewish neighborhoods from Arab ones.

Advocates argue that putting barriers between Israel and the Palestinians would go a long way toward stopping terrorist attacks in Israel.

But critics, and there are many on both sides, say the plan simply won't work and is impractical — especially in the West Bank, where scores of Jewish settlements fall within Palestinian territory, or in Jerusalem, where the rival communities live intermingled. Where would the line be drawn? Their case was bolstered further Sunday, when an Israeli citizen, an Arab mosque preacher, blew himself up near a train station in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, killing himself and three Israeli Jews.

'Crazy' idea gets extended

The wall shielding Bat Hefer was built at the same time the community was being constructed, in 1996. Back then, people thought it was a crazy idea. Why was a barrier needed when Israelis and Palestinians seemed well on their way to reaching a comprehensive peace pact?

Since the Palestinian uprising erupted in September of last year, however, the residents of Bat Hefer have come to believe the wall has protected them from gunfire and has obstructed the passage of potentially dangerous Palestinians into Israel.

Now the milelong wall is being extended an additional 600 yards. The new section, to the south of the town and closest to Tulkarm, will stand 10½ feet — 2½ feet taller than the older section.

Additional layers of defense have been added to the wall. Running along the Bat Hefer side is a new metal fence that will shock anyone who touches it. Surveillance cameras are being affixed to the wall. The concrete has been etched with a sort of argyle pattern to make it more difficult to scale.

The invisible boundary the wall runs along is the so-called Green Line, the dividing line between Israel proper and the West Bank that existed until Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East War.

The Hefer Valley leadership wants the wall and its reinforcing fence to serve as a model for the country. Other communities have already been coming to the valley for advice, and top national officials have dropped by to heap praise on the project.

'Collective punishment'

But with the new plans to establish military zones along the Palestinian side of the Green Line, Sharon's government appears to be taking separation a step further. Although the government says the zones would be temporary and created on a case-by-case basis, Palestinians would have to have special permits to enter the zones or risk prosecution in military courts.

While Israeli officials say the buffer zones would keep out potential suicide bombers and other terrorists, Palestinian officials counter that the plan constitutes another form of "collective punishment" that would make all Palestinians suffer.

Sharon, for reasons of his own nationalist ideology, is said to favor buffer zones rather than walls and fences near the Green Line because he does not want to establish a de facto border at the 1967 demarcation. The prime minister has said repeatedly that he wants to keep most of the West Bank in Israeli hands and does not want to withdraw to the 1967 lines. To do so would be to abandon dozens of remote Jewish settlements whose strategic positioning was his in the first place.

Among residents in the Hefer Valley, there is appreciation for the safety they think their wall brings — but also ambivalence. As David Ein Dar, an administrator with the regional government, observed: People want it and they don't want it.

"It's a wall, and a wall gives you the feeling of being in a ghetto, in a jail," said Ein Dar, 60, a retired paratrooper. "People came here to get away from the city, to live in green areas, open air, and all of a sudden there's a wall and a fence and another fence. You get the feeling that you live in a place that was not your dream."

Ein Dar, like others in the Hefer Valley, says he wishes walls and fences were not necessary. A wall that divides people is something that belongs in a museum, he says, adding that communities will never get along — and will only find reasons to continue fighting — if they are saddled with physical barriers.

But in the meantime, safety comes first, and while residents know the wall is not 100 percent impenetrable, a barrier helps.

Pros, cons of separation

The wisdom and practicality of attempting to seal the Palestinian West Bank from Israel are being hotly debated by Israelis.

"If the aim is to reduce the number of Palestinians who enter Israel illegally (to work), then this plan has a chance," said retired Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former army chief of staff and member of a centrist political party. "But if anyone thinks this will solve the problem of suicide bombers or terrorist cells trying to get into Israel, then it seems to me that we would be creating an illusion."

Others warn that unilateral separation will do nothing to end the violence.

Barring the entry into Israeli territory of all Palestinians will only further devastate the Palestinian economy, senior United Nations envoy Terje Roed Larsen warned last week.

"Increasing the suffering produces more anger," he said. "Anger galvanizes into hatred, and more hatred leads to more violence."

Proponents of separation have armed themselves with the work of a geographer from Haifa University, Arnon Sofer, who is warning Israelis that the high birthrate among Arabs and Palestinians will cause the "Jewish state" to disappear if it does not separate itself. According to his figures, the population on the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will reach 15.2 million by 2020 — 42 percent Jewish, 58 percent Arab.

"The conflict might continue," Sofer said at a recent conference on security issues, "but the demographic clock is finishing us, and Israel therefore needs to make a brave, most difficult decision to opt for unilateral separation."

Information from The Associated Press is used in this report.