ARIEL, West Bank (Feb. 19)
For now, the hills outside this sprawling Jewish West Bank city are quiet, absent the bulldozers that have been busy elsewhere laying the groundwork for Israel’s West Bank security barrier.
But the question of whether or not they’ll come here may yet make Ariel the center of a political firestorm.
Israelis, the U.S. administration, Palestinians and local residents all have their eyes on whether or not Israel’s government will extend the security fence 13 miles into the West Bank to include this community of 18,000, one of Israel’s largest settlements, and a few neighboring communities of Jews.
The open question — Israel has yet to make a decision on the matter — has become the focus of global attention.
Indeed, the controversy over the whole barrier will come to the forefront of international debate next week, when the International Court of Justice at The Hague holds a hearing scheduled for Feb. 23 on the fence’s legality. Israel has announced it will not make arguments in the trial, saying The Hague has no jurisdiction in the matter.
The United States has also said it will not make arguments in next’s week proceedings.
But inside Israel, the debate over the fence continues.
Extending the fence to include Ariel would cut off much of the northern West Bank from the rest of the West Bank, which Palestinians say would make the creation of a viable Palestinian state extremely difficult.
Palestinians say Israel is using the security fence as an excuse for a land grab, and that the barrier is separating Palestinians from each other, their property, their schools and their livelihoods.
Israeli officials say the fence — which along most of its route is comprised of a sophisticated network of wire mesh fences built with electronic sensors, patrol roads, ditches, cameras and watchtowers — is the best solution to stopping suicide bombers from entering Israel via the West Bank.
Those attacks have left more than 1,000 Israelis dead and thousands more injured.
Jewish residents of the West Bank fear that if they are not included in the route of the fence they will be isolated from Israel and at greater risk of Palestinian terrorist attacks. They are lobbying the government hard to build the barrier to include their communities, even those relatively far from the Green Line — the armistice line from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, which served as a de facto border between Israel and Jordan until the 1967 Six-Day War.
So far, the government has approved a horseshoe-shaped ring of fence to be built on the eastern edge of Ariel, as well as to the east of nearby settlements Kedumim and Emmanuel, both sizable West Bank Jewish population centers. In total, 45,000 Israelis live in the Ariel area.
It is not yet clear if those independent fences will be linked with Israel’s main, contiguous West Bank security fence, or whether gaps would remain open to allow for contiguous Palestinian-controlled territory.
In this cookie-cutter city, with its windswept views, neat rows of white houses with red-tiled rooftops and mix of native Israelis and Russian-speaking immigrants, the fence is both an international problem and a local issue.
Residents say they support the idea of the fence but are not certain it will bring the security they seek.
“I think it’s more important for the sense of security it would provide,” says Shosh Levavi, a social worker who heads the settlement’s social services department.
“But I don’t think the fence will solve the problem.”
Levavi, originally from Haifa, moved to Ariel 25 years ago. She and her husband had been looking for a good place to raise their children, a family-minded place where they could feel part of building a community.
She says she is angry that efforts to placate the U.S. government may determine how the fence is constructed in the Ariel area.
“What happens will depends on the Americans,” she says. “The government is becoming more and more an American colony and because of that, what the United States says is what will be.”
Part of the plan to legitimize Ariel and increase its chances of one day becoming part of Israel proper was the construction of the city’s College of Judea and Samaria, which now boasts a rapidly growing student body that now stands at 7,000.
Alexander Bligh is head of the college’s political science department. He says that whether or not the Ariel area becomes part of the main fence is critical for establishing political facts on the ground — it could tip the scales in favor of Ariel’s one day becoming part of Israel proper.
Israeli leaders have been careful to say that the fence is only a temporary response to present security needs and that it does not predetermine the future boundary between Israel and an independent Palestinian state.
Bligh dismissed such cautions.
“In spite of what our leaders say, the fence really is a political policy statement and therefore it is very significant where the exact line of the fence is,” he says.
Meanwhile, Israel’s defense ministry, which is building the fence along government guidelines, still does not know if Ariel will be included in the route of the fence.
According to senior Israeli security officials, that decision will be made at some unspecified future time. They stress, however, that Ariel’s security — a settlement considered among the most unlikely for evacuation given its relative size, its proximity to Tel Aviv and its population of suburban commuters — will be guaranteed one way or another.
Political observers say the government’s apparent hedging on the Ariel issue is a way to buy time and stave off U.S. and international criticism.
After a spate of criticism of the West Bank fence last fall from within Israel and abroad, government officials said some changes would be made to the barrier’s route. Then they announced the construction of the separate Ariel fence, leaving open the decision of whether or not ultimately to link it to the main West Bank barrier.
The U.S. administration reportedly has threatened to cut loan guarantees to Israel over the Ariel fence issue.
“The prime minister has made it clear there will have to be adjustments made in the fence and it could be that in retrospect it could have been planned differently,” said David Baker, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “The prime minister has yet to determine what changes will be made.”
Sitting behind a wide wooden desk in his office, Ron Nachman, Ariel’s outspoken mayor, says that as a general rule he is against fences of any kind. But, he says, he has lobbied the government to include the settlement he helped establish in 1978 inside the loop of the fence.
“In general the world is opening up and I’m not pro-fences. Every place you put it down it will have political aspects.” But, Nachman says, “we need to defend ourselves.”
Nachman blames the Palestinian Authority for the fence, saying that if the Palestinian leadership had done more to fight terrorism there would be no need for Israel to take such measures now for the defense of its citizens.
“Israel did not want the fence because we know it has political connotations,” Nachman says. “The fence is not intended to set boundaries, but to safeguard against terror.”
“I don’t want the fence around Ariel, but the question is how to get to Tel Aviv and other settlements without being hurt along the way.”
Palestinian Cabinet member Saeb Erekat sees things differently. He says to include Ariel on the Israeli side of the fence means Israel is not serious about helping create a Palestinian state.
“Ariel is in the heart of the West Bank, and with all due respect to the wall and the security situation, if they want a wall why not build along the 1967 borders? Why build a wall that separates Palestinians from Palestinians?” Erekat says.
“If they want to maintain Ariel, it means they want to sabotage the idea of a two-state solution,” he says. “Contiguity will be cut from the north and middle of the West Bank.”
Within Israel, the fence also has critics.
In Ariel’s quiet, suburban-style streets, residents follow the back-and-forth over whether or not they will or won’t be part of the contiguous West Bank security fence network.
Among them is Yigal Orgad-Cohen, who served as finance minister under former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1984 and now is in the business of real estate management.
“Not only I do not know where the fence will be,” says Orgad-Cohen. “I think the government does not know where it is going to be and if it is to be put up at all.”