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The Barrier

February 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says it is constructing a barrier between Israel and the West Bank to prevent attacks like last month’s suicide bombing in Jerusalem. A Palestinian from Bethlehem had boarded the bus and detonated 15 pounds of explosives, killing 11 people and wounding more than 50. More than 400 Israelis have been killed in suicide bombings since September 2000. Eli Beer is chief coordinator of a paramedic rescue unit.

ELI BEER: People see what terrorism can do. They don’t want the options for terrorists to come here, and that’s why the people of Israel want the wall. They want to prevent the children to die in these bombings.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom.

SILVAN SHALOM: We have the responsibility to protect our people, and that’s why we are building this fence. We are doing it, because it was the recommendation of the security forces. We adopted it, we are building it, and if we reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and I hope we will be in the near future, and we will agree, one with each other, to move it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Israel began constructing the security fence two years ago. It’s projected to stretch several hundred miles through the West Bank when finished.

As we’ll report in our next story, Palestinian leaders consider the barrier a catastrophe for their people. They condemn it as an “apartheid wall” that is already cutting off large numbers of people in the West Bank from their fields, sources of water and work. In some places, the barrier consists of armed watchtowers, and concrete walls 25 feet high.

Elsewhere it’s a fence with electronic sensors flanked by razor wire and a security road. In the North, the barrier — marked in red on this map — roughly traces what’s known as the “green line,” the armistice line between Israel and the Palestinian territories that existed before the 1967 Mideast War.

But further south, the path is more controversial. Near the Palestinian city Qalqilya, for example, the fence reaches several miles into the West Bank to incorporate Israeli settlements. From here, the fence is projected to extend 13 miles west of the green line to incorporate the settlement, Ariel. The fence will eventually stretch around the southernmost part of the West Bank. Prime Minister Sharon has also raised the possibility of building an eastern fence, which would leave the West Bank encircled; but no decision has been made on that yet.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As you know you’re under a lot of criticism because you’ve deviated from the green line in many places. Is the route fixed or can you change that?

SILVAN SHALOM: First, if we had built this fence on the ’67 borders, it would have been a political fence. Where we are building it now on this route it is a security fence. And I would like you to know, fence is moveable. We’re already experienced with a fence– we moved a fence in Egypt after we signed the peace treaty with them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Eighty-three percent of Israelis polled lay last year said they supported the construction of the fence. Igal Barazani sells flowers on a street in Jerusalem that has been the target of several suicide bombings.

IGAL BARAZANI: I saw them in many places in the city. It’s horrible. It’s terrifying. I’m a father myself. I don’t let my children on a bus, because I’m so afraid. It’s very hard. I say this fence can help a lot.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Israeli defense forces arranged a tour of the northern fence for us with Lt. Col. Dotan Razili, commander of a tank battalion.

LT. COL. DOTAN RAZILI: We keep a high vigil here because we are not afraid, but one of the scenarios is a terrorist crossing over and going to the village.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: To the east of the fence is the West Bank. A bit north is the Palestinian town Jenin, visible through the wire. On the other side are Israeli cities like Afula, where suicide bombers have struck in the past.

LT. COL. DOTAN RAZILI: Without the fence, it’s a matter of an hour walking or 15 minutes by car. And you can get explosives, prepare himself in Jenin, get his directives, and go straight through, and the fence is actually a barrier that stops it. And it has been working since the fence was established it’s been working. When you stand here, you understand the reason for the fence. The fence stops the terrorist from coming over from Jenin to Afula, or from Jenin to other parts of Israel.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The barrier here is actually a complex system of razor wire, an electronic fence, a sand path to trace footprints, a security road and more razor wire.

LT. COL. DOTAN RAZILI: A suicide bomb is a smart bomb. It is the smartest bomb in the world, and we have to use very — either technology or other methods to stop it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it helping so far?

LT. COL. DOTAN RAZILI: Yeah, the fence has been great in helping. This is actually a barrier. Nobody crosses this barrier. Whoever tried to cross it, we catch them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we’re standing here right now and you’ve got cameras somewhere that can see us?

LT. COL. DOTAN RAZILI: Yes, there’s a camera that sees us, that watches us right now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Where could it be?

LT. COL. DOTAN RAZILI: It’s far away from here, I won’t be able to point at it to show you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s far away but it can see us…

LT. COL. DOTAN RAZILI: …but it can see us, yes. The reason for building the fence is we have experience in other borders, Lebanon, Gaza, since 1996 if I’m not mistaken, no suicide bombers went out of the Gaza because we have fenced it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There are some openings in the fence with checkpoints where Palestinians with the right papers are allowed to pass into Israel to trade or work, but here, as elsewhere in the West Bank, the process is slow and frustrating for those trying to cross.

Palestinians view the complex of barriers and guarded gates as a humiliating tool of control by an occupying power. But in Israeli towns like Kfar Saba, which is just a few miles from the West Bank, many residents are grateful for the protection. A suicide bombing in this mall just over a year ago killed a security guard.

ESHAI BRENER: We live so close here, you know. I’m not talking about the big issues. I’m just talking about my own life and as a human being, as a person. To hear every day that so many people get killed or to see so many people on television, you know, to see the blood, suffering, that’s what I care about. I’m for the fence. That’s it. It’s very simple.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But nothing is simple in this tortured land, and the separation barrier is no exception. It has generated opposition not only in the West Bank, but in Europe and the U.N. as well, and President Bush said the path of the barrier would make it hard for Palestinians to build a contiguous state.

The idea for a barrier separating Israelis and Palestinians originated with the Labor Party. Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party had long resisted drawing any line in the sand that would necessitate giving up large amounts of the West Bank and uprooting Israeli settlements. Ehud Barak, Labor prime minister between 1999-2001, advocated construction of a fence after the failure of his Camp David negotiations with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

EHUD BARAK: When I left power, the intifada, this new eruption of violence, was half a year old. We had 59 people killed on our side. They had some 500. Several weeks later I met with Sharon. I told him, “Look, there are now 70 people killed. When there will be 700, you will build the fence whether you like it or not. And I know why you reject it, you understand that the moment you delineate the line, it will mean politically — whatever you say about it, that that’s a political line.” That the beginning of a process that will disengage ourselves from the Palestinians.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sharon’s line, the path of the current fence, is aimed at including as many Israeli settlements as possible on the Israeli side of the fence, but Sharon has also warned repeatedly in recent weeks that most settlements in Gaza and a few in the West Bank will have to be uprooted in order to disengage from the Palestinians if violence continues.

During a visit to the coastal city Ashqelon last week, Sharon said, “Not only is this difficult for the settlers, but also it is more painful for myself than anyone in Israel. It pains me a lot, but I’ve reached a decision and I’m going to carry it out.”

So far, Sharon is just talking about removing settlements, and there’s some skepticism in Israel that he’ll actually do anything. But political analyst Yaron Ezrahi said the rhetoric is something new.

YARON EZRAHI: The Sharon government, which I would say is the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, has changed its rhetoric in that the prime minister and deputy prime minister have begun to speak against the occupation and about partial withdrawal. This is a very significant development.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: According to former Prime Minister Barak, one reason for the change is demographics. The Palestinian population is increasing at a faster rate than the Jewish population, and Barak said Israeli leaders on all sides are beginning to recognize they will eventually have to give up lands to ensure a Jewish majority inside Israel.

EHUD BARAK: The political realities are such that we have to protect a Jewish majority for generations to come within our borders. If we control the Palestinians, as are the dreams of some of the right-wing extremists, we’re going to end up either with a non-Jewish or a non-Democratic state.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Prime Minister Sharon’s new rhetoric on disengagement from the Palestinians has infuriated some settlers and their supporters. More than 100,000 turned out in Tel Aviv last month to protest the plan to remove settlements. And on the Israeli left, some peace activists are also protesting the Sharon government’s separation plans. Late last month, activists joined Palestinians in Abu Dis, a village on the border of east Jerusalem, in a demonstration against the wall. Mary Schweitzer moved to Israel from the U.S. 21 years ago.

MARY SCHWEITZER: There’s nothing about security in the wall. The wall represents humiliation. It represents degradation. There is no reason at all that Jews should be building ghettos. Jews should be the first people to stand against ghettos.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some of the left critics have in various ways compared what’s happening in the West Bank with the fence to ghettos.

SILVAN SHALOM: It’s unbelievable to hear it from Jews. They know it’s not true. They are doing it only to picture Israel as the bad guy here in the region.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Whatever the disagreements within Israel, construction on the fence continues. Most Israelis still support the barrier. In the north, Lieutenant Colonel Razili said the fence recently played a role in stopping a suicide bomber headed towards an Israeli school.

LT. COL. DOTAN RAZILI: What we understand, from that incident, we understand the fence gives us time so we can acquire the target. We understood that someone tried to cross over. We found him before he crossed over. The fence gave us that time. That was important and we saved the kids.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: With that kind of testimonial, the barrier may be here to stay, at least until there’s a major change in relations between these neighbors whose enmity doesn’t cease.

JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow night in part two, Elizabeth looks at the barrier from the Palestinian perspective.