Fearful Israeli villages build their own West Bank border

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

RAM-ON, Israel -- Fearful of Palestinian militants, several Israeli villages began building their own security fence Monday to separate them from the West Bank, using $1 million in donations from American Jewish communities.

The farmers of the Gilboa region said they took action because the government's West Bank barrier now under construction leaves their community, like many others in northern Israel, unprotected.

Progress on state-sponsored construction has been slow. Just a little over two miles of fence have been completed in six months. Israel's entire frontier with the West Bank is 228 miles long. The government has decided in principle to fence off the whole line but has not mapped out the route in the north and south, deciding to start in the center, across from Israel's main population centers.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon initially resisted a West Bank barrier because it leaves Jewish settlements on the far side of the fence and because of concerns it could be seen as Israel's future border with the Palestinians.

However, a majority of Israelis support the fence construction as perhaps the only way to stop Palestinian suicide bombers. In the past 26 months of fighting, Israeli military offensives in the West Bank have failed to halt such attacks.

In contrast, no assailants have been able to reach Israel from the Gaza Strip, which is ringed by a tall fence topped with barbed wire.

In the end, Sharon agreed to construction earlier this year, but for now only along a third of the frontier. The issue is expected to dominate the campaign leading to a Jan. 28 general election, with opposition leader Amram Mitzna calling for separation from the Palestinians, whether as part of a peace deal or as a unilateral move.

On Monday, workers poured cement into holes for fence posts and unfurled coils of barbed wire near Ram-On, one of several villages in the rolling hills of Gilboa in northern Israel, just opposite the West Bank town of Jenin.

"A fence will save lives," read a sign next to the project. Dan Attar, head of the Gilboa Regional Council, told reporters against the backdrop of the construction, "Where those who should be taking responsibility are lacking, we will be present."

The Gilboa Regional Council is planning to build a 15-mile fence, although the $1 million raised in a dozen Jewish communities in Connecticut, Minnesota and Washington, in recent months will cover only part of the cost.

Attar declined to name the donors, but said there was great willingness to give. With the money, the Gilboa council is also buying surveillance cameras, an ambulance and two patrol vehicles.

Raanan Gissin, a Sharon adviser, declined comment on the private fence construction. The government's fence is over six feet high, has concrete foundations, touch-sensitive springs and is topped with barbed wire. Alongside it runs a sandy track designed to reveal infiltrators' footprints.

Attar says he doesn't know why the government-sponsored fence is not extending to Gilboa. Several other at-risk areas, including the town of Beit Shean in the northern Jordan Valley, have also been left out, prompting Beit Shean Mayor Pini Caballo to warn that he would organize street protests to sway planners.

Caballo charged that the government was guarding established cities in the center of the country, and well-off farmers were protecting themselves, leaving working-class towns like his vulnerable to attack.

Last month, two Palestinian gunmen sneaked into Beit Shean from the West Bank and opened fire on the local headquarters of Sharon's Likud Party at a time when it was crowded with voters casting ballots in a leadership contest. Six Israelis were killed in the attack before security forces shot dead the gunmen.

The Gilboa villages have also been targeted frequently.

In June 2001, Palestinian militants planted a bomb in a field near Ram-On. There was an explosion but no injuries. On March 30, a Palestinian gunman sneaked into Ram-On, firing at houses. The attacker was arrested after tripping a makeshift electric fence and alerting security forces.

The Defense Ministry quickly dug a deep trench and erected a three-feet-high steel barrier running along the council's border in an attempt to deter militants from driving across the open fields.

It had little effect.

On June 5, a Palestinian teenager from Jenin blew up an explosive-laden car he was driving next to a bus at a nearby junction in Israel, killing 17 people.

About two weeks later, the government began construction of its security fence from that point southward, at an estimated cost of $1.6 million a mile.

Attar said he wants to rouse public opinion and convince the government to take over the fence project. "I'm looking for ways to shock them, to make them emerge from their indifference," he said.

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