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West Bank fence not done and never will be, it seems

Amos Harel | Ha’aretz

14 July 2009

Seven years after construction work began on the West Bank separation fence, the project seems to have run aground. Work has slowed significantly since September 2007, and today, after the state has spent about NIS 9.5 billion, only about 60 percent of the more limited, revised route has been completed.

With fierce opposition coming from the United States, Israel has halted work on the “fingers” – enclaves east of the Green Line that were to have included large settlement blocs such as Ariel, Kedumim, Karnei Shomron and Ma’aleh Adumim, within the fence. The military has, in practice, closed up the holes that were to have led to these “fingers.” But giant gaps remain in the southern part of the fence, particular in the southern outskirts of Jerusalem, in the Etzion bloc and in the Judean Desert.

Since the cabinet under former prime minister Ariel Sharon first approved construction of the fence, in June 2002, the route has undergone some dramatic changes. The original route, which was inspired by Sharon, was to have effectively annexed about 20 percent of the territory of the West Bank to Israel.

In June 2004 the High Court of Justice, ruling on a petition by residents of Beit Sourik, ordered the state to amend the route to reduce the disruption it caused to Palestinians.

About nine days later the International Court of Justice in The Hague issued an advisory opinion declaring the barrier illegal and demanding that Israel dismantle it.

In response, the cabinet amended the route in February 2005 to include just nine percent of the West Bank. In April 2006 an additional one percent was shaved off by the government of Ehud Olmert.

In practice, however, the route encompasses only 4.5 percent of West Bank land. The four “fingers” in the last map (and which Israel presented at Annapolis in November 2007) were never built, not at Ariel and Kedumim (where a “fingernail” was built, a short stretch of fence east of the homes of Ariel); not at Karnei Shomron and Immanuel; not at Beit Arieh, nor south of that, at Ma’aleh Adumim. Instead, with little publicity, fences were put up to close the gaps closer to the Green Line, at Alfei Menashe instead of at Kedumim, at Elkana instead of Ariel and in the Rantis area instead of at Beit Arieh.

About 50,000 people in these settlements remain beyond the fence. West of Ma’aleh Adumim the wall built along Highway 1 blocks the gap in the barrier and leaves the city’s 35,000 residents outside of the barrier, forcing them to pass through a Border Police checkpoint in order to reach Jerusalem. The fact that the “fingers” were never built also damages these people’s security because the state refuses to build periphery fences around them and declare their proximity to a “special military area.”

In some cases, such as the roads built around the original barrier route at the Beit Arieh enclave, hundreds of millions of shekels were wasted on unused roads that may never be completed.

Large gaps remain in the southern West Bank. Between Gilo in south Jerusalem and Gush Etzion are tens of kilometers of barrier, work on which was suspended due to two High Court petitions – one filed by residents of Beit Jala, the other by villagers from Batir, Husan and Nahalin. As a result access to Jerusalem from the direction of Bethlehem is relatively easy – for commuters and terrorists both.

In the case of the former petition, the state has delayed submitting its response for months. In the second, the High Court has still not ruled after about two and a half years. Part of the dispute is over the construction of the eastern barrier, one of two surrounding Gush Etzion. The bloc, which even the Palestinians will presumably agree to keeping – at least part of it – within Israeli territory in the final-status agreement, has been without a barrier for seven years.

A second, 30-kilometer gap in the fence, stretches from Metzudat Yehuda (Yatir) in the west to the Dead Sea in the east. The state announced during a recent High Court deliberation of a petition submitted by area Bedouin that work on the barrier there was suspended.

The delay in building the barrier at Ma’aleh Adumim is typical and illuminates the state’s conduct overall. The High Court has intermittently deliberated on a petition by resident of Sawahra against the route of the fence at Kedar that was to have been built on their land. Work was suspended, and the state recently submitted a new map that annexes less of the territory, but at the last High Court session, earlier this month, the representative of the state said the work would not be resumed “for budgetary and other reasons.”

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch suspended the court’s ruling, in light of the state’s response, saying she had no intention of “dealing with virtual matters.” That description seems apt for the entire separation fence, at this point.

The Brodet Commission, which in 2007 examined the state’s military budget, included in its report scathing criticism of the way the budget for the separation barrier was handled.

“The conduct regarding construction of the fence is another example of wasteful, inadequate conduct. The committee was not persuaded that the process was carried out with due, detailed consideration that took in all of the economic and security considerations. The commission saw no analysis of cost-effectiveness or a thorough examination. The army viewed itself as a subcontractor,” the report said.

IDF Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli, who has studied the fence issue extensively on behalf of the Council for Peace and Security, told Haaretz in response: “The desire to include more territory within the confines of the fence than is practically possible has resulted in a situation where the settlement blocs are left outside of the fence while other blocs remain vulnerable and do not receive protection. In addition, exorbitant sums of money have been pumped into infrastructure and fences that were supposed to follow a route that was impossible to complete.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak is “determined to complete the security fence, despite the delays,” his office said in a statement. “The minister and the military establishment are working to solve the problems delaying its completion.”

Defense Ministry officials pointed out that Barak was “among the first supporters of the fence and did much to advance its construction.”

Security officials claim the rate of construction depends on finding a solution to the legal issues and point out proudly that there is an unbroken barrier from Tirat Zvi in the Beit She’an Valley to the southern entrance to Jerusalem, and from southern Gush Etzion to Metzudat Yehuda.