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Arafat Criticizes New West Bank Security Fence

Israel began work yesterday on a sophisticated security system that would seal off the Palestinian-controlled part of the West Bank, after a series of suicide bombings increased security concerns about the open border. In some areas, the fence will be built of concrete to prevent sniper attacks, but most of it will be barbed wire, similar to fences on the Lebanese border.

Another Palestinian-controlled area, Gaza, is already sealed off by a patrolled border, that has proven relatively effective at limiting attacks. The Israeli government blames almost all of the 70 suicide bombings that have taken place over the last two years in Israel on Palestinians from the West Bank.

Both Israeli and Palestinian officials expressed worry that the physical barrier will in time turn into the official borders between Israel and a Palestinian state, without proper negotiations.

One Palestinian cabinet minister, Saeb Erekat, told the Washington Post that the fence would divide up Palestinian territories into small cantons and “start a new apartheid system, which is worse than what happened in South Africa.”

Israeli officials denied such motives.

“It is a security fence. It is not diplomatic. It is not political,” Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said at the groundbreaking yesterday. “It is a fence that separates the suicide bombers from the population centers in the state of Israel. Every extra day that passes without the fence being built could cost us more victims.”

The fence could be extended the entire length of the West Bank, 200 miles, and could cost as much as $2 million a mile.

The controversial construction comes at a time when President Bush is preparing to give a policy speech about the future of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state. According to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the state should not be based on Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, but rather the ideals of a democratic institution.

“Frankly, the Palestinian Authority, which is corrupt and cavorts with terror . . . is not the basis for a Palestinian state moving forward,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the San Jose Mercury News editorial board this weekend.

Arafat rejected the comments and told reporters, “we are implementing only what our people want us to do and we do not take orders from anyone.”

The speech by President Bush is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday.