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Construction of a fence to wall Palestinians off from Israel - an unsinkable proposal that never seems to set sail because of the political dynamite in its hold - has received an unexpected push from the head of the Shin Bet secret service, an endorsement quickly seconded by a former key general.

The "separation fence" concept has been bandied about for years, spurred by the inability of tens of thousands of Israel Defense Force troops, policemen and Shin Bet agents to keep Palestinian militants from crossing the tortuous West Bank border to carry out suicide bombings and shootings in the Jewish state.

But Israeli hard-liners have fought "separation" tooth and nail, fearing that any physical delineation of the unmarked frontier between Israel and the West Bank would be translated in future peace talks into a permanent border closely akin to the lines in force prior to the 1967 Six-Day War.

Speaking before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter noted that the great majority of the 52 Palestinians who mounted suicide attacks within Israel in the last six months entered from the West Bank. He called the erection of physical barriers around Jerusalem, and along the West Bank's Green Line border with Israel, essential to reducing terror.

"I don't see any method other than a physical barrier that can prevent attacks," Dichter told the committee Tuesday.

Dichter's statements re-ignited the debate over separation, raising hackles among rightist settlers, for whom separation may be the most threatening of all non-military initiatives at a time when the peace process seems to have breathed its last.

Gaza settler leader Avi Farhan, a vocal member of the central committee of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud, blasted the separation concept Wednesday, calling it aimed at camouflaging a de facto Israeli withdrawal from the territories, along with eviction of Jewish residents of the West Bank and Gaza.

"It is time to expose the truth - or the scam - behind the various separation plans. The goal of most of these plans is to uproot us from Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Gaza," Farhan said. "The driving forces behind these plans are the same people who gave us the Oslo accords and who gave the Palestinians guns."

Leftists countered that the price of political opposition to border barriers would be paid in blood.

If Yasser Arafat continues to hold hard-line positions and resist reining in militants, said senior lawmaker Ran Cohen of the dovish Meretz party, Israel will have no alternative but to put up a fence.

"To my great dismay, there is political opposition on the part of the settlers and the prime minister, who don't want a separation fence even at the price that we're paying in blood. It's a fact, that all the terrorist attackers - every one - who entered the state of Israel and blew themselves up wherever it was that they exploded, they all came from the West Bank and not from the Gaza Strip, where there is a separation fence that protects Israel."

Shoring up the Shin Bet director's call for physical barriers, Major-General (res.) Gideon Sheffer, formerly a member of the IDF General Staff and ex-deputy chairman of the National Security Council (NSC), said Wednesday that separation between Israel and Palestinians was a foregone conclusion, and that "the sooner we begin, the better. It is possible to create separation that is, of course, not hermetic sealing-off, but which will be much better, much more controlled than the situation that exists today.

"Amazingly, it is clear today where the line should run," said Sheffer, a party to detailed past NSC discussions of the possible geography of a separation fence. "If one asks if that will be the final line, the answer is no, but there are areas that doubtless will be the final line - areas where Israeli and Palestinian areas are situated back-to-back, where there is no space between them."

At present, Sheffer said, diplomatic complexities render it impossible to put up a fence in Jerusalem, for example, "but you don't need a fence in every area. There are other solutions, which cost money but could save lives." What is needed is a separation "space," which in some places could be a Great Wall of China, in some places a fence, in others a stretch of land in which entry is barred in other ways, or an observation post with no fence at all.

He cited the Qalqilyah-Kfar Sava interface as an example of an area where the proximity of the two populated areas allowed little room for negotiation. "Other locations are much more amorphous," he said, citing the Gilboa and southern Judea regions, where there are few populated areas dictating a line.

At the same time, pressure for separation has been undermined by the firing of Kassam-2 rockets capable of being launched from behind the 1967 lines and still hitting targets more than eight miles into Israel proper - effectively placing much of Israel's urban majority at peril.

According to Ha'aretz commentator Amir Oren, "Arafat's openly declared platform - one can only harbor suspicions about his secret one - seeks to bring Israel back to the Green Line, by means of combined political and military activity." By contrast, "for Hamas, this line has no significance, and they are erasing it with rockets, which fly over the previous and future border."

But as for suicide terrorists on ground-based missions of death, Israel's challenge remains "the unbearable ease of uncontrolled entry into Israeli territory," Sheffer said. As for Israeli politicians who have found it easier to decided not to decide, "whoever waits for a solution to the arguments between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in order to institute separation will have to wait for many years to come, and one day, when he finally goes ahead with it, will be asked, 'Where were you all this time?'

"If, in the future, a leader waits until the number of casualties is such that he says, 'Gentlemen, I have no alternative but to institute [the separation]," Sheffer asked, "will the people, in the end, find themselves able to forgive that man?"