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Some Israelis Hoping for a Concrete Line in the Sand

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Hefer Valley is an extremely narrow stretch of land, 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 a wall.

A 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.

The wall 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 the military will provide any.

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

Advocates argue that erecting barriers between Israel and the Palestinians would go a long way toward stopping terrorist attacks in Israel. Violence would diminish, they contend, because the two sides would essentially be kept apart.

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?

Palestinian officials have already warned that they would not accept the Israeli military zones, which they say would amount to illegal annexation--and which Israelis acknowledge could violate established treaties and agreements. Some Israelis also worry about setting down de facto borders.

Residents Believe Wall Has Protected Them

The wall shielding Bat Hefer was built at the same time that 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?

When the Palestinian uprising erupted last September, however, Bat Hefer residents thanked their lucky stars. Now they believe that the wall has protected them from gunfire and obstructed the passage of potentially dangerous Palestinians into Israel.

Today, the mile-long wall is being extended 600 yards. The new section, south of the town and closest to Tulkarm, will stand 10 1/2 feet high--2 1/2 feet taller than the old one.

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Residents and army engineers have added layers of defense to the wall. Running along the Bat Hefer side is a new electric fence. Surveillance cameras are being affixed to the wall. The concrete has been etched in a sort of argyle pattern to make it more difficult to scale.

The invisible boundary that 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.

But with the 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 need special permits to enter the zones, or risk prosecution in military courts. The army will have to obtain Cabinet approval for each zone it declares.

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Though 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 over 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 that he himself strategically positioned.

Barrier Also Creates a Sense of Being in Jail

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Among residents of the Hefer Valley, there is appreciation for the safety they believe 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 and lifelong kibbutznik. “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 separates 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.

“We all the time declare that the minute peace will break out, we will be happy to break down the wall, like in Berlin--sell the pieces,” he said.

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

Sharon Ezer, a Bat Hefer aerobics instructor who has been living with her parents in a two-story house facing the wall for the last five years, says the concrete construction blocks the view of the surrounding countryside. But, she says, it has made her feel safer, and now she would like the wall to be higher, longer and wider.

“We don’t have clear borders in our country. We are mixed together with them, and it’s not a good thing,” said Ezer, 24. “They are very angry, and their anger is too deep.”

Local Palestinians, Israelis Once Got Along

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Residents of Bat Hefer and Tulkarm used to get along, more or less. Palestinian workers from Tulkarm built Bat Hefer and crossed into Israel for jobs for many years. Israelis would venture into Tulkarm for meals or shopping. A little over a year ago, Tulkarm and the Hefer Valley municipalities drafted plans to share construction of a sewage line.

But all of that is finished.

Israeli forces shot and killed a top Palestinian activist, Thabet Thabet, on Dec. 31 in Tulkarm. The Israeli army had accused him of ordering attacks on Jews, although many Israeli peace activists who knew Thabet disputed the charge. A Palestinian militia that was formed to retaliate for his death and that operates out of Tulkarm has since killed six Israelis, including two Tel Aviv restaurateurs who stopped in Tulkarm for lunch with an Arab friend.

On Thursday, Israel fired missiles at members of the militia cell, killing two; Palestinian gunmen then crossed the Green Line from Tulkarm, killing one off-duty Israeli army officer and seriously wounding another. The ambush took place about 2 1/2 miles north of Bat Hefer.

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The wisdom and practicality of trying to seal off 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 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.”

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the foreign minister under Sharon’s predecessor, Ehud Barak, and one of the chief negotiators in now-dead peace talks, said the idea of separation was born of diplomatic paralysis and deepening desperation.

However, Barak--who coined the phrase “Us here, them there"--has come out of semi-retirement to promote the building, over four years, of fences and walls as part of a unilateral separation.

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Proponents of separation have armed themselves with the work of a demographer from Haifa University, Arnon Sofer, who is warning Israelis that the high birthrate among Israeli 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--and be 42% Jewish and 58% Arab.

“The conflict might continue, but the demographic clock is finishing us, and Israel therefore needs to make a brave, most difficult decision to opt for unilateral separation,” Sofer told a recent conference on security issues. He would have Israel evacuate 35 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and turn over some predominantly Arab parts of the northern Israeli region known as the Galilee to a new Palestinian state.

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 U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen warned last week.

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


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