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There were tense moments among the audience when U.S. President George Bush spoke in the Rose Garden: Would he use the word "wall" or "fence" to describe the political phenomenon that bulldozers are creating between Israel and Palestine?

Each of the two words has a fateful meaning on the Israeli scorecard. The use of "wall" indicates the president accepts the Palestinian interpretation, but if he calls the barrier a "fence," that would be an Israeli victory.

"Fence," as everyone knows, has only benevolent connotations - the Good Fence that once existed between Israel and Lebanon, immediately comes to mind. "Wall" always has a different connotation, as in Berlin Wall. Thus, with consummate skill, Israel steered the dispute to this unimportant semantic question.

However, even the more substantive contention, that the fence effectively is the unilateral marker of a border between Israel and Palestine, is only loosely related to what is being built on Israel's eastern edges. The unilateral aspect did not begin with the fence, and the fence is not intensifying it.

Nor does Israel recognize the 1967 Green Line as the agreed border between it and Palestine; for the past 36 years it has done everything in its power to blur the line. The government does not even accept the term occupation. The areas in question are, after all, controversial territories."

Intrusive route

The fence cannot demarcate a border as long as "legal" settlements or "illegal" outposts exist. They have long since become the milestones that mark Israel's impossible borders. The settlers, too, know this, and they do not devote so much as one article, one reflection, one reader's letter to the fence in the latest issue of their magazine, Nekuda. As far as they are concerned, including the city of Ariel within the fence will not make it any more a part of Israel than it already is. The same is true of the Jewish Quarter in Hebron, which is not asking for a fence, or the settlements in the Jordan Rift Valley. If the hudna collapses and terrorists attack the settlements because it's more "convenient," the erection of the fence as a border line will be meaningless. The Israel Defense Forces will take action against the perpetrators as though communities in Israel had been attacked.

It follows that the separation fence is delusive not only as a border marking instrument. By its intrusive route, it also ostensibly undermines the view of those who think that it constitutes an effective security means. Because in their view, if the fence had been build exactly along the Green Line, it would not generate any dispute, whereas now it is liable to bring about new pretexts for terror attacks against Israelis.

However, this argument, too, is groundless. This is because the proponents of this argument would not have been willing to agree, from the outset, that everyone living across the fence on its eastern side is doing so on his responsibility: they are "on the other side of the fence," in the Jewish sense of the word, meaning they are not part of the community.

None of these people will say, after the fence's establishment, that the life of a citizen in Kfar Sava is more precious than the life of a citizen who lives in Ariel. Sharon doesn't mean to say that, either. His idea is that some of Israel's citizens will be protected by a fence and others by close-support soldiers. It's not a border.

Why did the Bush administration choose this moment to state that the fence is the source of all problems? If Bush wanted to raise objections to the legitimacy of the fence, he should have declared what he considers the final borders of the state of Palestine to be, propose a real map or at least have made nasty noises during the past year, when the fence was being built.

Was the U.S. administration - which has photos of every mobile home in the territories - unaware of the true route of the fence? But the administration is at best treating the fence as a humanitarian matter: an obstacle that infringes on the Palestinians' rights of transit or is stealing a little more land from them.

All that's left in defense of the fence is the saying, "Good fences make good neighbors." The only trouble is that the "good neighbors" are behaving like the neighbors of the gentile woman Shkrupinshtshika in Bialik's tale "Behind the Fence": "They are dripping the bad water into her courtyard, they cleared stones from their area and dumped them in hers, they smashed her fences into toothpicks and kindling wood." These are intolerable acts but Shkrupinshtshika says, "I am not moving from here, Jews! You can bust a gut - I will not move!"