JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel is considering two plans to extend a barrier separating Israelis from Palestinians, officials said yesterday. Both would likely claim more land for Israel and muddy progress on a U.S.-backed plan for Palestinian statehood.
Israel says the electronic fences and cement blocks that Israelis have been calling a “separation fence” are meant to protect Israel proper and Jewish settlements from attacks by Palestinian militants.
The barriers do not run strictly along the border of undisputed Israeli territory; instead they bite in several areas into the West Bank, which the Palestinians claim as the heartland of a future state, incorporating thousands of Jewish settlers – and Palestinians.
Two proposals revealed yesterday would increase the amount of land the Palestinians would lose compared to previous plans, although an exact figure was not available. Israeli officials said the barriers could be demolished and moved if and when a permanent border is set for a Palestinian state.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat accused Israel of trying to sabotage international peace efforts at a time when the world’s attention is diverted by the fighting in Iraq.
“This is part of Israel’s exploitation of the war in Iraq,” Erekat said. He said he would seek clarifications from international mediators.
Skeptical Palestinians and human rights groups also called it an illegal land grab and said that the new barriers would in effect dislocate more than 200,000 Palestinians, leaving them on the “Israeli” side of an imposed border.
“Before these new proposals, Palestinians were going to lose between 8 to 10 percent of land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Now it’s more like 20 percent,” said Michael Tarazi, legal adviser to the PLO. The West Bank’s total size is about 2,200 square miles, slightly larger than Delaware.
Israel began constructing a barrier last year to try to keep out Palestinian militants. Only a few miles of the fence have been completed.
According to the initial plan, parts of the fence were to run along the now-invisible Green Line, which demarcated the frontier before Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war. Other stretches were to run somewhat further to the east, encompassing several West Bank villages with about 11,000 residents.
The Haaretz newspaper said one new proposal involves moving the fence further west in a way that would link to Israel several clusters of settlements.
Yehezkel Lein of Btselem, an Israeli human rights group, said the “main impact will be that the movement of Palestinians will be restricted and many – we estimate 200,000 – will lose work, be cut off from the land or face other restrictions.”
The other proposal would extend the fence east of the main Palestinian cities in the hilly center of the West Bank, in effect creating a buffer between the West Bank and Jordan and linking to Israel the Jordan River Valley where several thousands settlers live.
Defense Ministry spokeswoman Rachel Niedak-Ashkenazi confirmed the reports in principle but would not go into details. “The raison d’tre of the fence is to protect Jewish Israeli settlements from security threats,” she said. “If and when peace negotiations take place, the borders will be moved. The fence is only made of concrete and wire and can be brought down just like the Berlin Wall.”
Defense officials will formally present the proposal for the western barrier to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in coming days. It is unclear when the eastern proposal will be discussed.
Questions abound on how the proposed barriers will affect Palestinian villages caught in between.
It appeared unlikely that Palestinians on the “Israeli” side of the fence would be offered Israeli citizenship, at least before any peace deal.