Israel dismisses U.N. barrier vote

Thursday, October 23, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Israel rejected an overwhelming call by the United Nations to dismantle a massive barrier being built in the West Bank, with a top official dismissing the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday as hostile to the Jewish state.

"The fence will continue to be built," said Vice Premier Ehud Olmert.

Israel says the wall is needed to keep suicide bombers out of the country. The Palestinians say Israel is using the barrier as a pretext to take Palestinian land.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Israel's police minister toured a disputed holy site -- the first visit by a senior Israeli official since Israeli-Palestinian fighting erupted there three years ago.

Muslim administrators of the site called the visit a provocation, though Police Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said it was coordinated with them. The visit ended without incident.

Visit to holy site

The site is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, an area of destroyed ancient temples; Muslims call the compound the Harem as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, where the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosques are located.

Hanegbi went to the site to survey security arrangements in preparation for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week, his office said. The site, which had been open only to Muslims since the violence erupted, was reopened to others in recent weeks.

"We didn't want the visit to have the nature of a demonstration, we didn't want any tension there," Hanegbi told Israel Radio.

The General Assembly's call to dismantle the West Bank barrier was passed late Tuesday after more than six hours of negotiations.

The compromise resolution wasn't legally binding, but was seen as a gauge of world opinion. Palestinians praised the measure, which passed with 144 countries in favor and four opposed, including the United States. There were 12 abstentions.

Olmert, speaking to Israel radio Wednesday, dismissed the resolution as an example of the world's hostility toward Israel.

"Everything connected to Israel gets an automatic majority. The one positive element is that the European Union proposal came to replace a proposal that is even more extreme and hostile to Israel," Olmert said.

In return for EU support, the Palestinians and their supporters agreed to drop a second resolution that would have asked the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands, for an advisory opinion on the legality of the barrier.

The backers of the resolution also agreed to add a condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombings, Israel's targeted killings of Palestinian militants and the Oct. 16 bomb attack on a U.S. diplomatic convoy in the Gaza Strip that killed three American security guards.

Asked if Israel would stop building the barrier, Olmert laughed and said: "You have a sense of humor."

"We have to worry about Israel's security and it is clear that we will not act according to the instructions of a hostile, automatic majority ... who has always acted against Israel," Olmert said.

"If the whole world is on one side, and America and Israel on the other side, I'm proud to be on the American side," he added.

Israel began building the barrier last year after waves of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed hundreds of people in Israel. Attackers had infiltrated easily across the unmarked and almost undefended border with the West Bank.

Israel's Cabinet voted this month to speed up construction, aiming for completion in a year.

So far, about 90 miles, mostly along the northern edge of the territory, have been completed. The final route, which remains undecided, could run nearly 400 miles.

Most of the completed section runs close to the Israel-West Bank border -- but several planned sections would dip deep into the West Bank to incorporate some Jewish settlements. The snaking barrier in some areas also surrounds Palestinian communities and cuts farmers off from their land.

The barrier also surrounds Jerusalem, cutting off the eastern sector -- which Palestinians want for a capital -- from the West Bank.

On Wednesday, Eymad Eimam, a 21-year-old Palestinian, stood near a stretch of the barrier being built in east Jerusalem, guarding heavy equipment used in the project. An electrified fence was surrounded by coils of razor wire, with an asphalt patrol road running along the Israeli side.

"Mortal danger -- Military Zone. Any person who passes or damages the fence endangers his life," a sign read in three languages.

Like many Palestinians, Eimam works at the project though he personally opposes it because of the dire economic situation.

The Jerusalem resident said he feared Palestinian laborers from nearby Bethlehem will no longer be able to reach construction jobs in Jerusalem once the barrier is completed. Those workers currently must arrive at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m., and wait half an hour to get into the city. Crossing will only become more difficult once the barrier is completed, he said.

"The fence will be a problem," he said. "People want to work, but after, if they don't have work, they start to steal."

Violence continued to flare in the West Bank and Gaza on Wednesday. Israeli troops shot and killed three Palestinian militants in a series of raids and clashes. Two Jewish settlers and two Palestinians were also wounded in the violence.

Also Wednesday, a Palestinian wounded in Monday's Israeli missile strike in the Nusseirat refugee camp in Gaza died of his wounds, bringing the death toll to eight. Palestinians identified him as Ayoub Manek, 21, a bystander.

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