Olmert Promises New Borders for Israelis and Palestinians

Israel's acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is leading efforts to form a center-left governing coalition after his Kadima party's win in Israel's parliamentary elections. Olmert campaigned on setting Israel's final borders by 2010. Many Palestinians fear that Olmert's willingness to make unilateral moves will deny them a viable state.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

When Hamas militants were sworn in as the new Palestinian government, Israel branded it a hostile entity and ruled out any contact with it. Now, Israel's Prime Minister Designate, Ehud Olmert, is planning to taking unilateral steps to set Israel's final borders and close some West Bank settlements.

Many Palestinians fear the moves will deny them a viable state. And as Israel continues to build its barrier with the West Bank, Palestinians point to increasing hardships. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Several times a week Shareefeh Sahwahreh makes her way down a steep hillside to get to class at a local university. Tall, neatly dressed with her hair hidden under a white headscarf tightly wrapped around her head, the 19-year-old crosses groves of olive and almond trees, over rocks and mud toward a checkpoint and the high cement wall Israel calls its security barrier.

Ms. SHAREEFEH SAHWAHREH: (Through Translator) Our life has changed so much since they began working on the wall. I come this way because I don't want to see the soldiers or have a confrontation with them.

WESTERVELT: Shareefeh passes heavily armed Israeli border police and private security men guarding construction crews, busy working on a freshly dug road that slices across the foot of her village of Numan, just outside Bethlehem. The new road will connect to nearby Jewish settlements to Jerusalem. These days Numah exists in a kind of no man's land between the green line, Israel's pre-1967 war border, and the West Bank barrier.

Israel says the Palestinians here are living on land that's part of greater Jerusalem. But most of the residents here, including Shareefeh, have West Bank IDs, not Jerusalem ones. They complain that they have no direct access to either place.

Ms. SHAWAHREE (Resident, Numah): (Through Translator) They say this has become an Israel area and no one's allowed in except the villagers. In winter, I stopped going to the university. The mud and rain are too much; the wait at the checkpoints, too long; this is a boring life. I'm fed up with this life.

WESTERVELT: Further on, Shareefeh walks past shepherdess, Houda Ahmed. As her sheep wander down the hill, Houda tosses small rocks at them in a fruitless effort to control her flock. The 45-year-old local resident says the village is under a kind of quiet siege of daily irritation and control by the Israelis. Almost all of the town's basic needs--food, gas, water, education, come from the West Bank. But no outside cars, delivery trucks, school buses, or taxis, are allowed into the village, which Israel calls part of a seam zone security buffer between a settlement and the West Bank. Houda Ahmed.

Ms. HOUDA AHMED (Resident, Numah): (Through Translator): Our life has become miserable. Every time you leave they want your ID. They're checking you in and out. Workers can't go to work in Israel, students can't go to school; life has become unbearable.

WESTERVELT: Classics Professor Amiel Vardi is with the Israeli/Palestinian Human Rights Group Ta'Ayush, which supported efforts by local Palestinians to challenge the route of Israel's barrier in a case heard by the Israeli Supreme Court.

Professor AMIEL VARDI (Classics Professor; Member, Ta'Ayush): They ask either to move the route of the wall so they are within the West Bank, or if you insist on the route of the wall, give us residency of Jerusalem so that we can live within Jerusalem. And they were denied both.

WESTERVELT: The court did rule that the Jewish state had to leave an opening in the barrier to allow locals to enter the West Bank under special permission. Vardi charges that across the West Bank daily restrictions on Palestinians and the root of the barrier are deliberate efforts to prepare the ground for the expansion of the large Jewish settlement blocks.

Prof. VARDI: Well, it is quite clear that the fence-the (unintelligible) fence- is used to an annex land, to extend settlements and very often to make the lives of the Palestinians that are included within it so impossible that they are forced to leave. And to tell you the truth, it's working.

WESTERVELT: According to the mayor of Numah, two Palestinian families have left the village in the last six months and Israel has demolished three homes deemed illegal buildings.

Pastor Dave LeGrand hikes up a hill in Numan to check on a family. He works here, and in neighboring West Bank villages, as part of the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment program--Christians who volunteer to assist Palestinian children through checkpoints to a school or hospital. Pastor LeGrand says everywhere he goes here he sees increasing hopelessness setting in as daily controls tighten over Palestinian movement.

Pastor DAVID LEGRAND (Pastor, World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Program): Settlements, the wall, demolition orders, the treatments by Israeli border police, just trying to move around in the West Bank. There's so much control, so much pressure placed on them that, I suppose, you know, psychology you go one direction or another. You internalize and feel hopeless, or you explode and you get angry.

WESTERVELT: Palestinians say there are many cases like Numah across the West Bank. Palestinian activist Dr. Jad Ishak says Israel's barrier is de facto establishing a non-negotiated border that he says will lead to the chopping up of the West Bank into small cantons, negating the possibility of a contiguous, viable Palestinian state.

Dr. JAD ISHAK (Director, Applied Research Institute): I don't think there will be any way by which any Palestinian leader will be able to accept, you know, this cantonization of the West Bank. You know, fait accompli, take it or leave it, will only exacerbate the situation. I know this is not the word of perfect justice. But why should I accept unilateralism?

WESTERVELT: Israeli officials deny that they're trying to force Palestinians off the land in villages like Numah, as they work to complete the barrier around Jerusalem and the West Bank. The barrier, Israeli officials say, has reduced terror attacks and saved lives. And many Israeli leaders say they have little choice but to move unilaterally. The newly elected Islamist militants of Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, continue to reject the idea at the core of the stalled U.S.-backed roadmap peace plan--two states living side by side.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev says Israel remains committed to the roadmap, unlike Hamas.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Israel): What do you do when one of the parties, the Palestinian party, says it has no interest whatsoever, not in the roadmap, not in the two-state solution, not in moving forward in peace and reconciliation? That's not just going to be a problem for Israel. That's a problem for everyone in the international community who wants to see peace in the Middle East.

WESTERVELT: In fact, neither side has lived up to key aspects of the roadmap. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas refused to disarm militant groups, and Israel hasn't frozen settlement expansions. The new Hamas government has so far rejected calls by Israel and the West to renounce violence and recognize the Jewish state. Political analyst and writer Yossi Klein Halevi, with the Shalem Center, says unilateralism is bitter, but necessary, medicine. The rise of Hamas, he says, underscores the absence of any credible peace partner on the Palestinian side.

Mr. YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI (Senior Fellow, Shalem Center): In acting unilaterally, obviously, Israel will not give the Palestinians everything that they would have gotten had they negotiated in good faith. Nevertheless, the end result of unilateralism will be a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and in most of the West Bank. Not good enough for the Palestinians? Why didn't you negotiate when there was the chance? There is a price to pay when one side offers peace and the other side responds with suicide bombings.

WESTERVELT: The prospect of more non-negotiated withdrawals has done nothing to halt the ongoing violence. Recently, the first suicide bombing of the year in the West Bank killed four Israelis. So far, this year, the Israeli Security Forces say they've arrested more than 90 suspected suicide bombers, double the number from this time last year. And in response to daily homemade rocket fire from Gaza, the Israeli military, in the last few days, has unleashed the largest barrage of artillery and air strikes into Gaza since its unilateral pullout of the Strip last summer. Thirteen Palestinian militants, two civilians, and two children have been killed.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow we'll hear from some Israeli settlers who could be forced to leave their West Bank homes if their government goes ahead with more unilateral withdrawals.

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