After attack, Israeli fence becomes lightning rod

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TEL AVIV — An austere monolith of reinforced concrete, the 25-foot-high wall that separates parts of Israel from the West Bank conjures images of the Berlin Wall, Hadrian's Wall or even the Great Wall of China.

But some Israelis fear the wall — part of a security barrier that will have electronic fences, ditches, patrols and high-tech monitoring devices — may bear a greater resemblance to the Maginot Line, the fortification France built in the 1930s to protect itself from German assault.

That supposedly impregnable line of defense failed to protect France from German attack in 1940.

The Middle Eastern wall, being built to protect Israel from Palestinian infiltration and assault, already has failed.

Last week, Palestinian terrorists managed to crawl through a sewage tunnel underneath the barrier near the Palestinian city of Kalkilya, cut through steel grating and make it to Israel's Highway 6. There, they shot dead Noam Leibowitz, a 7-year-old girl in a passing car.

Only small sections of the fence will actually include a wall, in areas where Palestinian towns and cities come so close to the fence that Palestinians could shoot at Israelis nearby.

Called the "security fence" by the military establishment and the "separation fence" by many others, the barrier has been assailed in the press and by some right-wing politicians as a white elephant — a costly obstacle unable to thwart determined terrorists.

Yet this is hardly the first time the $200 million, 100-mile-long fence has come under political fire. Ever since the Cabinet gave the nod to contractors to begin their massive excavations last July, the fence has served as a lightning rod for controversy.

It runs roughly along the contours of the Green Line, which demarcates the boundary that separates Israel proper from the West Bank, captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. At certain points, however, the fence is slated to cut east into the West Bank to protect large Jewish settlements.

The Palestinian Authority has charged that the fence is the first step in establishing a border that would create a Bantustan-style Palestinian state, with isolated towns in non-contiguous territories at the mercy of the Israeli army.

Palestinians living along the Green Line also have accused the Israeli government of stealing their lands to clear a path for the fence — though they have been compensated for their losses.

For their part, Israeli settlers fear the fence could one day isolate them on the Palestinian side of an international border. Though Israel says the location of the fence is temporary and could be moved after a final peace agreement, many believe the fence will establish the de facto border of a future Palestinian state, which most settlers vehemently oppose.

"We've opposed the fence since it was first debated in the government almost two years ago," said David Wilder, a leader of Hebron's Jewish community. "It is a de facto political determination — in fact a border — which only radiates weakness to the Arabs. And, as the last few weeks have shown, it does not stop terror."

One should not build a fence to fight against terrorism, he said.

"The only way to prevent terror is to uproot it where it starts, in Palestinian cities," Wilder said.

Put simply, the underlying principle behind the fence is physical separation: us here, them there.

"Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean live 10 million people," Israel's former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said at a conference last week that examined the failures of the July 2000 Camp David summit.

The land between the river and the sea can "either be a Jewish state or a democracy," Barak said. If Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the Palestinians are not given the vote, he added, "then Israel will be an apartheid state."

In his 90-minute speech, Barak slammed the current Israeli government for dragging its feet in building the wall.

He said that had the wall been built sooner — plans for the fence were explored as early as 1994, under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — then an additional "500 people could have been walking among us today."

Dozens of local Israeli leaders whose communities are situated close to the Green Line have been making the same argument. Some, like Danny Atar of the Gilboa Regional Council, have said the Sharon government's delays in building the fence constitute criminal negligence.

Defense Ministry sources contend that the fence's construction is a Herculean task.

"It's like building a superhighway on tough terrain under constant attack," said Netzach Mashiach, the Defense Ministry's project manager of the Seam Line Construction.

Over the past 11 months and despite a bitterly cold and wet winter, Defense Ministry officials said contractors have excavated 15 million tons of earth, replaced it with millions of tons of gravel, sand and concrete and laid the groundwork for a "dead zone" stretching 65 yards on either side of the fence.

Besides the millions of dollars worth of electronic equipment required to monitor movement along the fence, the ministry is to install 310,000 square yards of metal fencing and 1,000 miles of barbed wire.

Military sources interviewed at the site of last week's terrorist shooting said the project has been hampered by frequent Palestinian sabotage.

"We lay down a stretch of 100 meters of fencing, and they steal or destroy 50 of it," one source said.

Looters also have been stealing everything that is not bolted down — and much that is, they added.

Mashiach says a fence is only as good as the forces that monitor it and the intelligence units that provide the Israeli army with alerts.

"Every obstacle can be infiltrated if it is not properly patrolled and maintained," he said.

The fence's failure to save the life of last week's young casualty is not due to faulty construction but to the fact that the fence is not yet complete, Mashiach said.

The day after the attack, the sewage tunnel under the fence near Kalkilya still had not been fitted with electronic monitoring systems. There were no soldiers posted in the guardhouses set up every 500 yards along the 1,300-yard wall. Army patrols were sporadic.

The fence is slated for completion early next month, according to Mashiach, though he said he wouldn't be surprised if it was "a few days" late.

Kalkilya, along with several other Palestinian cities that straddle the fence line, are problematic, said Itzhak Ron, the security officer in charge of protecting the residents of the Southern Sharon Regional Council, which abuts Kalkilya.

The teeming Palestinian city looms on a hill barely 800 yards from the eastern edge of the Israeli city of Kfar Saba. Separating the two cities is problematic, Ron said, because for years workers from the West Bank metropolis have been dependent on jobs in Israel.

Even the Palestinian water, sewage and electrical grids are connected to those on the Israeli side.

"We never promised that this would provide 100 percent security, because nothing can," Mashiach said. "This is the reality in which we live.''