In the wake of the suicide bombing that killed 19 people this week, Jerusalem is nearing a momentous decision: fencing off the occupied West Bank to protect Israel’s heartland from further terrorist attacks.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said Tuesday that he will appoint a ministerial committee at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting with a mandate to begin the gradual separation of Israel from the Palestinian territories.
“This cannot be carried out in a matter of days,” Rabin said, “but in principle we should strive for complete separation.”
The proposed security frontier will include a fence in many areas, government officials said, but it will also rely upon electronic surveillance systems, extensive patrolling by land and air, military outposts and checkpoints for those entering and leaving Israel.
A decision to proceed with the “military separation line” would have far-reaching political implications, because it would effectively define what Israel wants as its borders with a future Palestinian state in advance of negotiations, due in May, 1996, with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Establishing such a security frontier would also imply Israeli abandonment of scores of Jewish settlements that would lie beyond it.
“We will prevent with our bodies the building of such a fence,” said Yisrael Harel, secretary general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. “It would divide the Land of Israel, and that is impermissible.”
Support nevertheless appears to be growing for Rabin’s call for the separation of Israelis and Palestinians, whether by fences or other frontier systems, as a crucial element in a peace accord.
Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, a member of Israel’s negotiating team with the PLO, said that “without separation, it is very doubtful that we can ever achieve good neighborly relations. Without separation, friction between us and the Palestinians will only grow. The fence will be for security, but it will also be a demographic fence dividing us from them.”
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said that some kind of a security barrier “definitely appeals to me” but added that the government must discuss the issue in detail.
Police Minister Moshe Shahal, although strongly supporting a broad demarcation between Israel and the West Bank, said he favors intensive policing of the line rather than a fence. His ministry estimates that it can deploy the necessary patrols in six to eight months if given the funds.
But Shlomo Katan, leader of the Jewish settlement of Karnei Shomron, ridiculed the idea of a security frontier. “I took a map in my office and, just for fun, tried to see what such a fence would look like,” he said. “It is intellectually stimulating, but it leads nowhere. It is impossible to separate Jews from Arabs. You wind up with enclaves and islands.”
The ministerial committee is expected to make a series of recommendations after a month or two of study. The proposed fence would cost an estimated $235 million and take a year to build. Israel is completing a similar fence between it and the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip.
Addressing the nation on television in the aftermath of the suicide bombing near the coastal town of Netanya by members of a radical Islamic group, Rabin said the path to peace with the Palestinians also “must lead to separation,” calling division a means to protect Israelis--"98% of whom live within the borders of sovereign Israel"--from new attacks.
At present, there is no real demarcation between Israel and the West Bank and only intermittent controls. Soldiers check Palestinians at numerous roadblocks on highways leading from the West Bank into Israel, but Palestinians also use back roads to enter Israel.
According to the influential newspaper Haaretz, the fence would be set up inside the West Bank rather than follow the armistice line of more than 90 miles that existed before Israel seized the region from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
In retaliation for the Netanya bombing, Israeli troops raided mosques in several West Bank towns Tuesday and arrested a reported 60 Muslim militants.