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Are fences good neighbors for Israelis, Palestinians?

JERUSALEM, Nov. 7 (JTA) — This week’s bomb explosions in Netanya have given new life to the controversial idea of creating a physical separation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Deeming it the best way to protect against terror attacks, numerous officials in successive Israeli governments have suggested erecting a fence along the border between Israel and the West Bank.

While some Israelis view the idea against the backdrop of security concerns, Palestinians, despite their eagerness to proclaim their political independence, say separation would be tantamount to economic strangulation.

In one of the rare occasions when they agree with the Palestinians, Jewish settlers in the West Bank also oppose the idea, saying it will forever cut them off from the Jewish state.

The proposal came up again Sunday, within hours after the explosions.

“I think we most move forward and view the separation as a central objective when we reach a final agreement with the Palestinians,” said Communications Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Three weeks ago, anticipating the start of the final-status negotiations, Prime Minister Ehud Barak pulled the separation idea out of the political deep freeze.

“A fence should set a border between the Palestinian entity and the State of Israel,” Barak said at the time.

He made a point of adding: “The fence will not be hostile and should allow for cooperation.”

Barak explained that he was bringing up the separation idea at the start of the final-status talks in order to provide a “technical solution” that could be “translated” into practical terms during the negotiations.

The idea of separation is as old as the Israeli administration of the West Bank.

It goes back to the 1967 Six-Day War, when then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan called for opening borders between Israel and the territories. The idea, which carried the day, ran contrary to the stiff opposition led by then- Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir, who called for separation.

In his comments three weeks ago, Barak was reviving the separation proposal put forward by then-Public Security Minister Moshe Shahal in 1996, following a series of devastating terror attacks in which suicide bombers killed 59 Israelis and wounded some 220 others.

The Shahal proposal called for erecting a fence along Israel’s approximately 190-mile future border with the West Bank, similar to the fence along its border with the Gaza Strip.

It also called for some 15 to 18 checkpoints along the border, with similar arrangements to be made around Jerusalem.

To avoid infiltration, border patrol units, thermal detection devices and reconnaissance planes would be employed to prevent any unauthorized crossings.

The fence would cost a projected $300 million.

Three years ago, a delegation of senior Israeli police officials visited the border between the United States and Mexico to learn from the American experience.

Despite the difficulties that U.S. immigration officials encounter, the Israelis came back with the conclusion Israel could at least equal what the United States is doing along a border that is 10 times longer.

The separation concept is problematic for Israeli supporters of a “Greater Israel” because it would mean that Israel has accepted the 1967 borders.

This reason is why former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government would not follow the separation concept of the previous Labor administration.

“I foresee a settlement in which there are two living entities that are integrated with one another,” he said, dismissing the separation idea.

However, following a number of terrorist attacks against Israel, Netanyahu changed his mind.

He instructed the defense establishment to prepare blueprints for a physical separation and to impose stricter limitations on the entry of Palestinians into Israel.

This possibility is what the Palestinians fear most.

“The present economic conditions in the Palestinian Authority are worse than during the Israeli occupation, and most Palestinians fear that things will get worse,” Hisham Awartani, head of the economics department at Najah University in Nablus, said last week during a lecture in Jerusalem.

Awartani cautioned against taking the separation idea too far.

“If they want to separate and cooperate, why not,” he said. “But if they mean economic divorce, it is suicide.”

In addition to creating “economic suicide” for Palestinians, separation would create a major security problem for Israel, he warned.

“You cannot have hungry neighbors,” he said.

But some Israeli experts claim that the economic argument is invalid.

Dan Shueftan of Haifa University writes in his soon-to-be-published book, “The Necessity of Separation,” that any improvement in the standard of living in the territories would not necessarily diminish the level of Palestinian violence against Israel.

Shueftan quoted figures showing that Palestinian violence increased even in those years when the Palestinian economy was showing a marked improvement over earlier years.

Shueftan further argued that Palestinian radicals are not economically motivated.

Because a quick solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is not in sight, he concluded, Israel must adopt a strategy of total separation.

Was this what Premier Ehud Barak meant when he spoke recently of separation?

Barak did not elaborate on the issue, which generated suspicions that he was not quite sure what exactly he had in mind.

Perhaps more clues will come from him as the final-status talks proceed.

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