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The West Bank security fence that was to have kept Palestinian militants from crossing into Israel has come to delineate - and exacerbate - new divides, distancing Israel from its closest ally Washington, and dividing Israelis from one another.

So sensitive has the fence issue become, that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acted to head off frictions with the United States overnight by cancelling a long-scheduled meeting of the security cabinet.

The session was to have given the green light to a new section of the much-maligned barrier, which leftists once hoped - and rightists feared - would someday demarcate a permanent, nearly 400-kilometer border between independent Jewish and Palestinian states.

The Bush administration strongly signalled Israel this week that its patience is flagging with respect to continued work on the fence.

The White House came closer than ever before to linking the barrier project to its stance on settlement construction, which Washington has condemned for decades as a central obstacle to Middle East peace.

Not by coincidence, Sharon aides were quick to dismiss any tie between U.S. pressure and the postponement of the meeting.

In strikingly similar denials two days earlier, officials said American displeasure had nothing to do with a high-level Israeli decision to revise the route of the fence.

The revision may have done little to calm Washington, but it angered settlers and their rightist allies, eliminating a bulge that would have taken the barrier's course far from the 1967 border, simultaneously embracing the city-settlement of Ariel and effectively annexing large tracts of Palestinian land and large numbers of Palestinians.

"I don't understand the 'technical reason' that caused the cabinet postponement Wednesday but I understand the actual reason," said cabinet minister Effie Eitam, leader of the far-right National Religious Party.

"The Americans, with their pressure, are the ones who are now delaying and opposing the building of the fence along the lines that the defence establishment recommended."

Nonetheless, Eitam said, "We are the representative government of a sovereign state and an independent people, and which must consider what is best for the security of our citizens."

The brief history of the fence has been as tortuous as the serial switchback twists of the Green Line border that separated Israel from the Jordanian-controlled West Bank from 1948 until the 1967 Six-Day War.

The origins of the fence lay, firstly, in the hermetic success of the long-standing security fence encircling the Gaza Strip in preventing suicide attacks against the adjacent Israeli Negev.

Of the more than 100 suicide bombings carried out against Israel in recent years, all but one was launched from the unfenced West Bank, the sole exception an attack on a Tel Aviv bar carried out by British nationals who had earlier passed through the Strip.

The concept of a fence roughly following Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank was initially hailed by Israeli leftists and a number of prominent former generals - notably ex-national security adviser and one-time deputy chief of staff Uzi Dayan - who viewed the separation project as a proactive initial phase of political mitosis into independent Israeli and Palestinian states coexisting in harmony.

But as the route planned by the Sharon government quickly took increasingly large bites eastward into West Bank territory that Arabs envisaged as part and parcel of their future state, Palestinian coolness and skepticism turned to outright anger.

PA officials led by Yasser Arafat said the fence had become nothing more than a justification for Israeli land grabs and reversals of the Oslo agreements, ensnaring Palestinians within islands of Israeli control, cutting many off from their livelihoods and cropland.

At the same time, Palestinians enraged Israelis by using the imagery of World War II Nazi policies to condemn the fence, which they have compared to the Warsaw Ghetto, where hopelessly outgunned Jews, penned up in preparation for shipment to extermination camps, made a courageous but doomed last stand against their German occupiers.

On Tuesday, soon after stating that it would deduct money that Israel spends on settlement from its $9 billion loan package, the White House hinted that a further deduction - tied to funds spent on the fence - might be down the road.

"We have made our concerns known. Those concerns remain," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said of the dispute over the security fence. "We will continue to talk about these concerns with the Israel government."

With Israel mired in military and economic distress, the mention of loan guarantees as a means of less-than-friendly persuasion between friends is a pointed message indeed.

During the first intifada in the early 1990s, then-Likud prime minister and settlement champion Yitzhak Shamir went to the mat with George W. Bush's father, who ultimately withheld $10 million in crucial loan guarantees aimed at helping settle a recently-arrived flood of a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Israel remains the largest single recipient of American foreign aid. Eitam said "the United States is an important ally and helps us a great deal economically, but there must be a limit to the intervention of an outside nation in security considerations as fateful as these."

The fence project has also caused mounting friction within Israeli society. At the outset of the uprising, polls showed that Palestinian terror on both sides of the Green Line divide had spurred a sense of shared concerns among settlers and residents of Israel proper.

But arguments over the fence have driven a wedge between the two groups, as well as between residents of West Bank settlements slated to be included within the Israel side of the barrier and those left on the Palestinian side.

Settlement leaders acknowledge that they risk antagonizing the public within Israel by appearing to be standing in the way of a project aimed at keeping suicide bombers from reaching the Jewish state's major cities.

However, borrowing back imagery from the Palestinians, setlers counter that walling them into West Bank ghettoes would leave them incalculably more vulnerable to terror.

A member of the town council of Karnei Shomron, a "suburb settlement" many of whose residents commute to jobs in Israel, publicly vowed Wednesday to hire tractors to hack away at the fence near the Palestinian flashpoint village of Qalqilyah, declaring that the government was "recklessly abandoning" his enclave by excluding it from the Israeli side of the fence.

Eitam blamed the sudden U.S. pressure over the fence on a banding together of the Israeli left and the Palestinians, and their "horror depictions of ghettoes into which we were supposed to be planning to herd the Palestinians."

Settlement movement leaders in the Knesset, unconvinced by Sharon's repeated assurances that the path of the fence will not demarcate a future border, have successfully thrown a legislative spanner into the works, holding up funding and thus bringing construction work to a recent halt.

A key figure in stalling the fence has been Uri Ariel of the far-right National Union, former senior official of the Amana spearhead settlement organization and of the Yesha settlers council, now chairman of the Knesset committee overseeing the defense budget.

Earlier this week, with Ariel off on a visit to China, acting committee chairman Shaul Yahalom of the settler-dominated National Religious Party took up the cudgel, pledging to delay the approval of new funding with the contention that the only sections going forward are those laid out close to or directly on the Green Line.

"Until we are presented with the whole plan [for the route], there will not be a vote on additional funding for the fence," Yahalom told reporters. Citing the two most populous settlement-cities, he added, "Anyone who expects me to abandon tens of thousands of residents of Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim will be disappointed."

In any event, Ariel said Wednesday, Israel must not allow the fence to dictate the future border. "This cannot be a diplomatic fence. It must be a security fence. As it stands at the moment, it is diplomatic, as per the request of the Americans and the left."