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Israeli-Palestinian separation becoming a reality

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JERUSALEM, July 10 (JTA) — Even as attempts to save a fragile U.S.-brokered cease-fire continue, a “solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is quietly being implemented.

Local councils along the Green Line — the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank—are building local “agricultural security fences.”

The short-term idea of the fences is to cut down on Palestinian infiltrators. But the fences are also part of a longer-term idea of separation between Israel and the Palestinians that is gaining in popularity among disillusioned supporters of the Oslo peace process.

The Israeli government has refrained so far from adopting an official decision to erect a wall along the 200- mile border, for both financial and ideological reasons.

But the fence building is carried out with the silent support of the Defense Ministry — and its financial backing, say local leaders.

The separation “emerges from the field, not an orderly political decision,” said Nahum Itzkovitz, mayor of the regional council of Emek Hefer, which lies in the coastal plain.

“In the absence of such a decision, and the deteriorating security situation,” Defense Ministry officials “prefer that the initiative is ours.”

While the idea has long been floated as a possibility, the specifics of a possible plan were presented last week by scholars at a conference here.

Israel should announce the unilateral withdrawal from Jewish settlements in Gaza, where some 2,200 settlers are surrounded by close to 1 million Palestinians, said Shlomo Avineri, a scholar who was a passionate supporter of the Oslo accords — and who now backs the separation idea.

Avineri, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, believes Israel should then implement a deal that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak proposed to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Arafat rejected — transferring to the Palestinians more than 90 percent of the territory of the West Bank.

As far as Jerusalem goes, former Internal Security Minister Moshe Shahal, who seven years ago proposed the creation of the separation line, proposes that Arab neighborhoods outside the Old City should be turned over to the Palestinian Authority, with checkpoints into Jerusalem proper.

An eastern ring road will allow Palestinian movement from the northern West Bank to the south without entering Jerusalem.

The tense status quo in the Old City will be preserved, according to Shahal — thus leaving a sore wound open.

Proponents of the plan say that while Israel’s borders would not be final, a certain truce could be achieved, such as the quiet on Israel’s current border with Syria.

Both Israel and Syria understand that the present line in the Golan Heights will not be the final border between the two countries, and yet they treat it as if it is.

The fact that even political thinkers like Avineri have joined the camp of those who believe that Israel can no longer wait for an agreement with the Palestinians, but must take unilateral separation measures, is an indication of the depth of the ideological crisis within the Israeli left.

Despite a growing consensus in favor of separation, implementing the idea indicates a reversal of policies that Israel followed for many years.

Since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War, tens of thousands of Israelis have settled over the Green Line — the armistice line at the end of the 1948 War of Independence — in effect blurring the line.

Separation undoubtedly would perpetuate the current situation, in which Palestinians can no longer look to Israel as a potential work market.

Before the 1987-1993 intifada, some 120,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, a number that is now far lower.

Shahal believes he has a solution to that problem of lost jobs — international loans that would help the Palestinians create jobs within their own territory.

Following the bloody terrorist attacks of 1994, Shahal worked out a separation plan that he presented to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Much to his surprise, Rabin welcomed the ideas, but was murdered before the plan could be funded.

Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, objected to the plan because of his belief in a “New Middle East” of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation across borders.

The separation idea was put on hold — only to be revived by Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the end of his tenure.

“There is no way to avoid the decision,” Shahal said last week at a symposium at the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“I don’t know of any other country in the world which has given up its right to control who enters its territory,” Shahal said, referring to the current situation in which hundreds of Palestinians — most of whom are seeking work — enter Israel daily, and Israel’s security forces are unable to stop them.

In addition, too easy access to jobs inside Israel may in fact reinforce Palestinian militancy — leading them to conclude not that they are fortunate to have jobs in a foreign country, but that they have the right to work in what they still consider Palestine.

“Every Palestinian worker entering Israel realizes, in effect, the Palestinian demand for their ‘Right of Return,’ ” said Avineri, referring to the Palestinian desire to return to homes abandoned during Israel’s War of Independence.

But not everyone — whether on the left or the right — agrees on the need for separation.

“We are actually talking about forced separation, where one party would dictate the rules of separation to the weaker party,” said Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. “The principle of ‘separate but equal’ does not work if the dominant party is the one that dictates the rules.”

Hard-liners, including leaders of West Bank settlers, also staunchly oppose the plan for ideological reasons, albeit different ones: They fear the fences will lead Israel to ignore the precarious situation of West Bank settlers.

“If one wants to protect the Israelis, one should not neglect the Israelis” in the West Bank, said Ron Nachman, mayor of the settlement city of Ariel.

But these voices not only are becoming a minority — they now fly in the face of the fence-building work.

“Sometimes you pay dearly for financial savings,” Shahal said. “By failing to erect the separation line in time, we have not saved money, but we continue to pay the heavy price of human lives.”

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