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Fencing in Jerusalem Proving to Be No Easy Matter for Israel

July 19, 2005
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A year after the United Nations-affiliated International Court at The Hague ruled that Israel’s West Bank security barrier is illegal, controversy over the section in and around Jerusalem could spark new international pressure on the Jewish state to change the fence route or stop construction altogether. Palestinian leaders warn that the planned route of the “Jerusalem envelope,” which would cut off more than 50,000 Palestinians from the city, could spell the end of any peace initiatives with Israel, and they’re threatening to take the case back to the United Nations.

As with the first West Bank security-barrier case, they can count on international support. World leaders have been critical of the Jerusalem barrier for two reasons: Most of it lies outside pre-1967 Israeli territory and, they say, it could cause severe hardship for Palestinians who find themselves outside its limits.

There’s criticism of the barrier in Israel too: Hawks in the governing Likud Party castigate the government for putting a barrier, part fence and part wall, through the heart of Jerusalem — which, they say, will divide the city in two and make nonsense of the mantra “Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Labor Party doves say the government should admit that the fence is designed not just to keep out terrorists but also to secure a Jewish majority in Jerusalem and in the rest of Israel by creating the basis for a border that serves Israel’s demographic needs.

Partly to pre-empt international criticism and to forestall decisions against the government by the country’s Supreme Court, Israel is taking measures to ensure that Palestinians cut off from the city suffer as little as possible, promising that they’ll continue to receive the full range of municipal services.

Nevertheless, left-wing Israelis, who empathize with Palestinian concerns, argue that no matter how hard Israel tries, the fence will undermine Arab life in the city. That result, they warn, could lead to further Palestinian radicalization.

Rather than prevent terrorism, the barrier might actually spark more Palestinian violence, they maintain.

In July 2004, the International Court ruled that the barrier is illegal, and it called on Israel to dismantle the fence and compensate Palestinians who had suffered from its construction. The world court was especially critical of the fence’s route, which in many places dips into territory the Palestinians demand for themselves.

Israel continued building the barrier but, after criticism from its own Supreme Court, rerouted much of it closer to the pre-1967 armistice line between Israel and the West Bank, known as the Green Line.

Since the construction of the fence, the number of suicide bombings in Israel has fallen dramatically — although, remarkably, the International Court did not consider terrorism against Israel relevant to the discussion. Since construction began, bombers have been able to penetrate Israel only in areas where the barrier is still incomplete.

But Jerusalem poses a special problem. Some 230,000 Palestinians live in the city, and a fence around it would do nothing to stop terrorists among them from attacking Jewish neighborhoods.

Defending the capital’s Jewish neighborhoods, where 250 people were killed during the intifada — most of them by suicide bombers — is a security imperative for Israel. In some areas, however, Arab and Jewish neighborhoods interlock to form intricate tapestries that no fence can follow.

There also are Jewish neighborhoods and settlements outside the city limits that the government wants included as part of Israel in any final peace deal with the Palestinians. Moreover, the Likud leadership wants to retain as much of Jerusalem as it can as Israel’s capital.

The compromise is a barrier that runs in and out of the city, including some Arab neighborhoods and excluding others, and adding 30,000 Israelis who live outside the city limits.

That’s a tortuous arrangement with no single rationale, which the government could find difficult to defend before the world court.

A mid-July government decision on the fence route highlighted Israeli plans to ease conditions for Palestinians whom the barrier will cut off from the city. There will be 12 crossing points, where residents will be able to move in and out of Jerusalem after passing though a security check.

The municipality and government will provide garbage collection, postal, health, education, transport and other services to Palestinians on the other side of the fence. The government has allocated about $5.5 million for those services, and it intends to raise money from the international community for the crossing points.

None of these moves has placated the Palestinian Authority leaders. President Mahmoud Abbas attacked the Israeli plan, saying, “Approving the fence route in Jerusalem could bring about the end to relations between the two sides. Such steps will not serve peace, nor will they serve Israel’s security.”

Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei called the construction a “theft in broad daylight” of Palestinian land.

“This decision makes a farce of any talk about peace and turns the Gaza withdrawal into a useless initiative,” he said.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, expressed sympathy for the Palestinian position. Because the fence is not in territory recognized as Israeli, it creates legal, political and humanitarian problems, he said.

The Israeli government argues that the barrier is being built for one reason only: to stop terrorism. Therefore, it says, the fence should have no political ramifications.

Left-wing Israelis have mixed feelings. Some, like Labor’s Haim Ramon, a minister without a portfolio in the national unity government, argue that the fence should be seen in a positive light, as a first step toward a division of Jerusalem that will enable the city to serve as the capital of two states: Israel and Palestine.

But others on the left are worried. Danny Seidemann, a lawyer who has petitioned the international court against the route on behalf of Palestinian clients, argues that the fence will radicalize Palestinians on both sides: Palestinians outside the fence will be dragged down to the standard of living in the West Bank, he says, while Palestinians inside the fence will be cut off from cheaper West Bank markets. The end result, he argues, will be greater poverty and more terrorism.

Writing in Ha’aretz, the historian Meron Benvenisti, a former Jerusalem deputy mayor, predicted that “the fence, and the human disaster it will bring about, are liable to turn hundreds of thousands of people into a sullen, hostile community, nurturing a desire for revenge. The Jewish community will not escape the effects of the Palestinian communal breakdown, and the fence will herald Jerusalem’s return to the pre-1967 years, when it was a besieged border town.”

Much will depend on what transpires after Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza next month. If that move reinvigorates a peace process, Palestinian criticism of the fence may be put on the back burner. But if the process bogs down, there could be another Palestinian move to put Israel in the dock at The Hague or at U.N. headquarters in New York.

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