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The defense establishment is asking the government to add hundreds of millions of shekels to the budget for the construction of the separation fence, to finance measures to ease the disruptions that the barrier has created in the daily lives of Palestinians who live west of it.

If the addition is approved, the total budget for building the fence this year would come to over NIS 3 billion. This figure is predicated on the construction of 265 kilometers of fencing this year, at an average cost of NIS 10.5 million per kilometer.

In response to the international criticism of the way the fence's route interferes with Palestinians' daily lives, the Israel Defense Forces' deputy chief of staff, Major General Gabi Ashkenazi, set up a task force to draft proposals for improving the situation. The task force proposed a number of recommendations, including the following:

- Dozens of alternative roads, tunnels and gates in the fence should be built to connect Palestinian villages to major urban centers in the West Bank, or to other nearby villages, in cases where existing transit routes have been disrupted by the fence. Work on the first underground road, between the village of Habla and Qalqilyah, began last week.

- Israel should fund organized transportation for schoolchildren whose homes are separated from schools in another village by the fence. The IDF has already allocated NIS 160,000 to bus children in Hirbat Shabra.

- Israel should finance the establishment of a dialysis unit at Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem to ease the problems currently encountered at roadblocks by Palestinians trying to reach Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital for this purpose. In addition, five Palestinian ambulances should be placed under close IDF supervision, and these ambulances should then be allowed to pass through roadblocks swiftly, without the lengthy security checks to which ordinary Palestinian ambulances are subjected for fear that they might be smuggling explosives.

At a meeting with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz last Thursday, officials in charge of the fence's construction said that the work was currently on schedule, meaning that by the end of the year, stage three of the construction will be completed and work will have begun on stage four. To date, almost 200 kilometers of fencing have been completed; if this year's timetable is met, there will be 461 kilometers of finished fence by the end of the year.

In total, the fence is slated to be 705 kilometers long; of this, 151 kilometers is the Ariel salient, which is slated to be built only in 2005.

The officials also told Mofaz that the 20-kilometer section of the fence from Har Avner to Tirat Zvi would be completed by July 2004.

One problematic section of the fence is the area around Baka al-Sharkiyeh. The fence was originally slated to pass east of this town, but the army later reconsidered and decided instead to raze 40 illegal buildings located between Baka al-Sharkiyeh and the Israeli town of Baka al-Garbiyeh, thereby enabling the fence to be built on the Green Line, west of Baka al-Sharkiyeh. This 8.5-kilometer section of the barrier, of which 800 meters will be an eight-meter-high wall, is slated to be completed by the end of this month.

In the meantime, however, the army has already wasted NIS 140 million on the abandoned route east of Baka al-Sharkiyeh; it is now considering razing these portions of the fence.

Completion of both the Baka al-Sharkiyeh and the Har Avner-Tirat Zvi segments will produce a continuous 196-kilometer stretch of fence running from the Jordan River to Elkana.

Eiland: We must change fence path where necessaryThe planners of the separation fence between Israel and the West Bank failed to foresee the degree to which it would disrupt Palestinians' daily lives, and this error must now be rectified - including changing the route of the fence, National Security Council Chairman Giora Eiland said Sunday.

Eiland, who was speaking in Munich at a panel on the Middle East that was part of the 40th Munich Conference on Security Policy, described the fence as a "necessary, legitimate and temporary measure." Nevertheless, he continued, "the planning and the implementation of the course of the fence had failed to foresee all the repercussions the fence had on the life of innocent Palestinians." Now, he said, Israel must ameliorate the situation, "including, where necessary, changing the original path of the fence."

Eiland said that since unilateral measures are inferior to a negotiated settlement, Israel is still committed to the U.S-backed road map. However, he continued, if it becomes clear that the road map cannot be implemented, "Israel will simply have no alternative other than to initiate unilateral disengagement... to try and produce a new and better reality," since the alternative is to "permit the current deadlock and bloodshed to continue."

Nevertheless, he stressed, the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 decisively disproved the claim that all that is needed to end the Israeli-Arab dispute is an Israeli evacuation of Arab lands. In Lebanon, Israel scrupulously withdrew to the international border, he said, yet Hezbollah continues to wage war on it, and has created a strategic threat along Israel's northern border by stationing some 10,000 rockets there - activities that could wind up dragging Israel and Syria into a military confrontation against their will.