Israeli Cabinet Shelves Proposal to Create West Bank Buffer Zone

As the Israeli death toll from Palestinian terrorism continues to mount, top government officials met this week to review their military options.

At a Cabinet meeting Sunday night — following a day in which five Israelis were killed by Arab terrorists and dozens of others were left wounded — the nation’s ministers declined to adopt new miliary tactics, reaffirming strategies approved after earlier acts of terrorism. Among them was the launching of immediate military responses to attacks — and targeting Palestinian terrorists before they can launch assaults on Israeli citizens.

Ministers spent most of Sunday’s four-hour Cabinet session discussing a proposal to create a buffer zone between Israel and the West Bank.

In June, the smaller Security Cabinet decided to create the buffer zone, but implementation of the plan repeatedly was postponed.

This was the case again Sunday, when the Cabinet voted to shelve the idea. But ministers left open the possibility for putting the plan into effect piecemeal — “from time to time,” as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put it, depending on future events.

Under the plan, Israel would create closed military areas along the eastern side of the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank. The buffer zone would range in width from 50 to 500 yards.

The zone is intended to prevent infiltrations into Israel by Palestinian terrorists.

The plan calls for declaring the zone off-limits to Palestinians except those who live there, and it would permit troops to arrest nonresidents.

The plan also calls for sealing off Jerusalem, a move that would cut off its 200,000 Arab residents from the West Bank. Details were vague about how this part of the plan would be implemented.

Sharon objected to the present version of the plan for two reasons:

The defense line could be interpreted as Israel’s de facto recognition of the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank — a matter still to be negotiated with the Palestinian Authority if violence ends.

The creation of closed military zones could prompt an international outcry, with foreign governments accusing Israel of annexing West Bank territory.

The proposed buffer zone prompted a clash between Sharon and the Israel Defense Force’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz.

The IDF wanted to start implementing the plan last week, while Sharon was on a visit to Russia.

Sharon heard about the IDF’s intention to call a news conference announcing that the plan would be put into effect. While still in Moscow, he put the brakes on the idea, declaring that the entire matter was up to the Cabinet to decide.

Sharon was furious that the IDF wanted to proceed with the plan while he was out of the country.

“There is a government in Jerusalem,” he declared, hinting that Mofaz was usurping his authority.

Meanwhile, Palestinian officials complain that the plan would make life intolerable for Palestinians living and working in the closed zones.

Prior to the outbreak of violence nearly a year ago, some 120,000 Palestinians worked in Israel. Following the imposition of stricter Israeli controls, that number is down to some 20,000 to 30,000 workers.

Even with these reduced numbers, terrorists can sneak through among the laborers with relative ease.

The extent of the problem was made clear Sunday, when the driver of a car filled with explosives set out from the West Bank city of Tulkarm and managed to cross into Israel.

The car bomb exploded later at a busy intersection in central Israel near the city of Netanya. The Palestinian driver of the car, which was waiting at a red light, was killed in the explosion. Police speculated that the driver was heading to Netanya, the scene of several previous attacks.

If the government does implement the plan for buffer zones, large sums of money will have to be appropriated to build walls and trenches and to install electronic detection devices. Palestinian land will have to be confiscated; detention camps will have to be built for infiltrators.

Critics argue that such moves will tarnish Israel’s image.

Israel should do the exact opposite, Gideon Levy wrote in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

According to Levy, Israel should open the border to more Palestinian workers.

“Not only is it in Israel’s best interest to improve the status of the Palestinians and to distance them from the cycle of despair, but it also has the moral and legal obligation to provide for their livelihood, as long as Israel is the occupying power,” Levy wrote.

Leftists argue that the plan would perpetuate the occupation and prevent a possible long-term settlement with the Palestinians.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Israeli settlers oppose the plan because it would leave their settlements on the “wrong” side of the buffer zones.

Settler leader Yisrael Harel argues that any such separation plan would be interpreted by the enemy as flight.

He also maintains that the idea of separation is a mirage, given the 1 million Israeli Arabs — and the estimated 250,000 Palestinians, Jordanians and other Arabs who live in Israel illegally.

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