Israel begins fencing off part of West Bank

Saturday, June 15, 2002

UMM EL-FAHM, Israel -- An elderly Palestinian struggled up a steep path, bowing under a load of burlap bags filled with oranges as he crossed the unmarked line between the West Bank and Israel.

Soon the line will no longer be invisible -- and 70-year-old Mustafa Akel, who lives in the West Bank, will no longer be able to sell his produce in Israel.

Israel is fencing in part of the West Bank to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen who have killed more than 520 Israeli during 20 months of fighting.

Yet the 75-mile barrier, which is to run largely along the so-called Green Line -- Israel's frontier before the capture of the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war -- has many opponents.

Right-wing Israeli politicians fear that what is being billed as a temporary "security fence" will evolve into Israel's permanent border with a future Palestinian state, leaving 200,000 Jewish settlers on the wrong side.

The Palestinians believe the barrier is part of a secret Israeli plan to carve up the West Bank. About 30 square miles in the West Bank have already been seized by the Israeli military for the $80 million fence project that is to get under way Sunday.

Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer says Israel has no choice but to erect the barrier since an offensive against Palestinian militias in April and May failed to stop terror attacks. Ben-Eliezer says the fence is temporary -- not a border.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the architect of Israeli settlement expansion, long opposed the barrier for ideological reasons, but reluctantly gave his approval this month.

Losing access to jobs

The fence is to run from northeast of Tel Aviv to south of Afula, a town in northern Israel. It will separate the West Bank towns of Jenin, Tulkarem and Qalqiliya from nearby Israeli cities that have frequently been targeted by Palestinian attackers. Nearly 70 suicide bombings have been launched from the West Bank, compared to none from the Gaza Strip, which is fenced in.

For thousands of Palestinian laborers who sneak across the Green Line the fence means losing access to better-paying jobs in Israel.

Mustafa Akel will no longer be able to sell his oranges and other produce in more affluent Israeli markets. These days, Akel manages to evade Israeli military patrols and climbs a narrow path early in the morning through a garbage dump.

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