Background / Suicide Bombs Fuel Pressure to Fence Off W. Bank

Two suicide bombs in as many days have force-fed Israeli public support for fencing the West Bank off from the Jewish state, despite bitter opposition by settlers who fear a security fence may turn into an international border.

Two Palestinian suicide bombs in as many days have force-fed Israeli public support for fencing off the West Bank from the eastern border of the Jewish state, despite bitter opposition by settlers who fear a security fence may well be recognized in the future as the permanent border of an independent Palestine.

Responding to desperate pleas from leaders of Israeli towns and villages along the seam line [also known as the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank], Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer Monday set a six-month deadline for the erection of a long series of fences, electronic detection devices and other obstructions meant to foil the entry of suicide bombers and other militants into Israel proper.

At particularly sensitive points, the fence may be a solid, thick wall as much as eight meters, or 26 feet, tall.

Ben-Eliezer issued the order after meeting with regional officials, just hours after a suicide bomber blew himself literally to pieces when Israeli paramilitary Border Police approached him at a bus stop not far from the edge of the northern West Bank.

The blast came barely half a day after another bomb-laden militant killed three people and wounded scores in the open-air produce market of the seaside town of Netanya, once a popular resort destination, now known the world over as the final stop of a dozen suicide bombers in recent years. Netanya is a quick drive - as short as seven minutes' duration - from the border of the West Bank, located at one of Israel's narrowest and most vulnerable points.

Settlers and their supporters within Israel have staunchly opposed the erection of a fence, arguing that it would be ineffectual. But they have made little secret of their underlying fear - that in building a fence along the nation's most vulnerable frontier, Israel may be doing in less than a year what the Palestinians have failed to do during the last three decades: define and demarcate the ultimate border between the two entities.

Proponents of the fence cite the security boundary that surrounds the much-smaller Gaza Strip as proof that a high-tech perimeter bristling with detection devices and physical barriers can repel attacks. In fact, indirect confirmation of the relative efficacy of the Gaza fence has been provided by Hamas activists, who have in the past admitted the difficulty of successfully attacking Israel from the Strip.

Hamas rejects the concept of Jewish statehood in historical Palestine and aims for the establishment of a Muslim Arab Palestine from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan. Whether ironically or by design, the bombings that are Hamas' stock-in-trade have tended to reinforce the Oslo vision of two states bordering the seam line.

Additional momentum for the border fence concept has come from ranking Israeli police officials who have stressed that all obstructions along the line are welcome and potentially helpful. Their view has been bolstered further by the Council for Peace and Security – a group of hundreds of former Israel Defense Forces generals and spymasters who advocate erecting such a fence in tandem with dismantling dozens of small, difficult-to-defend settlements in remote areas of the territories.

MK Haim Ramon, who hopes to become the Labor Party's candidate for prime minister in elections slated for no later than October, 2003, has hitched his political star to "unilateral separation," a proposal based on the concept of Israel constructing a physical boundary of its own choosing along the West Bank, then withdrawing from all the territory on the other side.

Defense Secretary Ben-Eliezer, meanwhile, has spoken of a somewhat vaguely described "security separation" coupled with future peace talks aimed at a permanent Israel-Palestinian accord.

Officials representing communities along the western, Israeli side of the seam line said after meeting Ben-Eliezer Monday that time was critical. "The point of departure here is the timeline," said regional official Shmuel Riffman, one of the participants in the meeting. "All of us insisted on this: We told the defense minister 'the security obstruction must be pushed as fast as possible. Every passing day endangers Netanya, Tel Aviv, and other places. Start working and stop talking!'"

The time factor was underscored by growing alerts of fresh attacks waiting for the go-ahead. The army was reported Monday to have thwarted three planned large-scale bombings, including one in which a full ton of explosives was to be detonated against an undisclosed target. An earlier Israeli operation foiled a plot to drive a truck packed with explosives into the underground parking lot of Tel Aviv's Azrieli Center, the Israeli counterpart to New York's Twin Towers.

Defense officials have spoken of the need to erect a system of barriers along the 364 kilometers of the twisting, topographically and geographically complex Israel-West Bank border. Riffman said Monday that the funds allocated to the project are woefully inadequate, providing for no more than 80 kilometers of fencing, centered around Jerusalem, the northern area and the "soft underbelly" of central Israel opposite Netanya.

Work has already begun on some sections of the fence. But as costs of the Israel-Palestinian war have mounted, funds have dwindled, and planned sections have been shortened as a result. As Ha'aretz military commentator Amnon Barzilai notes, the cuts have also increasingly annoyed Defense Ministry Director General Amos Yaron, a former major general who is the senior go-between in a round-robin that includes the government, the IDF, the Shin Bet, the police and civil agencies responsible for the actual work.

"If there's no ongoing solution on both sides of the fence, and if the fence isn't contiguous, then we'll have a problem," Yaron said last week. "It would be like building a steel door in the middle of the desert."