As bulldozers began scooping out earth to build a security fence between Israel and the West Bank, Israeli Cabinet ministers sparred this week over the potential political implications of the barrier.
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer reiterated at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting that the fence is aimed at preventing Palestinian terrorists from entering Israel.
But right-wing ministers were sharply critical of the fence, saying it would leave Jewish settlements on the wrong side of the barrier and would establish a de facto border.
“This is not a security fence, but an outline for a withdrawal through which a terrorist state will be established,” said Cabinet minister Efraim Eitam, a member of the National Religious Party.
If Israel wants to build a fence, it should build fences around Palestinian towns and cities, Eitam added.
Science Minister Matan Vilnai, a member of the Labor Party, dismissed the claims.
“The fence is not a border, but an obstacle that will prevent terrorists from slipping into Israel,” Vilnai said.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the Security Cabinet would meet in the coming days to hold further discussions about the fence.
After bulldozers worked for several days clearing land at a site near the northern West Bank, Israel officially launched construction of the fence on Sunday.
Ben-Eliezer toured the construction site for the inauguration of the $220 million project.
“The aim is to separate only from a security point of view. Security separation, not political separation,” Ben-Eliezer told reporters.
The first section of fence will run about 75 miles, from northeast of Tel Aviv to southeast of Haifa.
A nearly 10-mile-long barrier in the Jerusalem area has also been approved by the government.
Ditches, patrol paths and electronic surveillance devices are also planned.
According to the director general of Israel’s Defense Ministry, Amos Yaron, the fence is not following the border that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War. Instead, he said, the fence would be part of a 3- to 9-mile-wide “seam” or buffer straddling the border.
During Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Sharon also described the fence as part of the government’s overall plan to establish buffer zones.
Discussing his meeting at the White House last week with President Bush, Sharon also said at the Cabinet session that conditions are not ripe for the creation of a provisional Palestinian state.
Sharon’s remarks followed media reports that he would support Bush’s call for a provisional Palestinian state, with full statehood dependent on the implementation of large-scale democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority.
Bush is expected to make a major statement in the coming days on how to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported Sunday that while Sharon had informed Bush he could not publicly support the idea of an interim state at this time because of the wave of terrorist attacks, he was open to the idea.
According to the report, Sharon’s outline for resumption of political talks includes implementation of security reforms in the Palestinian Authority within 30 days, and the creation of an interim state for a year, after which elections would be held.
However, Sharon made backing for any of the steps conditional on a complete halt to Palestinian terrorist attacks.
Over the weekend, two Israeli soldiers were killed in a clash with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
The soldiers were identified as Staff Sgt. Hezki Guttman, 22, of Beit El and Sgt. Alexei Gladkov, 20, of Beersheba.
Four other Israeli soldiers were wounded and one Hamas gunman was killed in Saturday’s clash.
The fight took place in northern Gaza, where earlier in the day Israeli security forces foiled a terrorist attack.
In that incident, soldiers identified a suspicious car near the settlement of Dugit and opened fire, causing the explosives inside to detonate. The vehicle contained more than 330 pounds of explosives as well as mortar shells.
It was the third large car bomb found in recent days by Israeli forces in northern Gaza.
In another development over the weekend, Israeli troops arrested a Palestinian suspected of killing four people in a terrorist attack on a settlement near Hebron.
The Palestinian is suspected of taking part in an infiltration of the settlement of Dura in late April, in which four people, including a 5-year-old girl, were killed and seven others wounded.
And in another incident on Sunday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man after he ignored orders to stop at a checkpoint in the Jordan Valley.
The man was carrying a suspicious-looking bag and did not stop when warning shots were fired, according to an army spokesman. Two other Palestinians who fled the scene were later apprehended.