Israelis to Proceed with Separation Barrier
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
Just days after evicting thousands of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, Israel has announced plans to build more housing units in already established settlements in the West Bank. That announcement fueled suspicions among Palestinians that Israel withdrew from Gaza in order to expand its far more populous West Bank settlements. Israeli leaders deny this; at the same time, they disclosed plans to extend the 30-foot-high concrete separation barrier around Jewish settlements near Jerusalem. The Palestinians say this is a plan to cripple any future Palestinian state. NPR's Mike Shuster reports.
MIKE SHUSTER reporting:
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SHUSTER: Abul Hassan(ph), a Palestinian living in Jerusalem, is a tour guide. But Abul Hassan forgoes all the ancient sites in this city and calls his tour the `Jerusalem political tour,' and the highlights are visits to the concrete separation barrier that Israel has built around much of this city and the West Bank. In Arab east Jerusalem the wall snakes through crowded districts, separating neighbor from neighbor, cutting off residents from jobs and shops, children from schools. Abul Hassan describes the progress of the wall's construction around Abu Dis, a neighborhood that many expected to be the capital of the future Palestinian state.
Mr. ABUL HASSAN (Jerusalem Tour Guide): You see--and look how the wall's going. It's not straight. And where the--see the trees up there--do you see the trees up there? There, where it will be, Israeli settlements. This is the plan. Already have a house occupied in the bottom. And now they want to plan--the plan is to build an Israeli settlement up there. The building--what you see sit--straight ahead from here, this is supposed to be the Palestinian parliament. It will be inside the West Bank. But, of course, this is here for Palestin--this is Jerusalem.
SHUSTER: Not far east from this spot is the largest Israeli settlement on the West Bank, Maale Adumim, with 35,000 people. Between here and Maale Adumim is a parcel of hilly, dry land simply known as E-1. Before the Gaza withdrawal, Israel announced that it would extend the Jerusalem separation barrier around Maale Adumim and E-1 and that it would build a police station in E-1 and 3,500 housing units there. Palestinian planning minister Ghassan Khatib was dismayed.
Mr. GHASSAN KHATIB (Palestinian Planning Minister): This is exactly what we have been warning against. When everybody was busy celebrating with excitement the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and evacuating settlements there, we were warning that Israel seems to be planning to move into a dramatic increase in their illegal settlement activities in the West Bank.
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SHUSTER: Maale Adumim is not a hotbed of ultra-rightest settlers like those who fought the pullout from Gaza. There are thousands of middle-class Israelis living here who work in Jerusalem and sought less expensive housing just a few minutes' drive away. It's become a large suburb of Jerusalem, with its own schools, shopping mall and medical clinic. Construction continues and the Jewish population of Maale Adumim is expected to double in just a few years.
The current Israeli government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says it and previous governments have always insisted this community will be part of Israel proper, no matter what eventual Palestinian state is carved out of the West Bank. For Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, there's no question that the concrete separation barrier should enclose Maale Adumim.
Mr. YUVAL STEINITZ (Chairman, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee): Maale Adumim is part of the minimal security zone that Israel has there to preserve, even in case of ...(unintelligible) disagreement. And therefore, it will be only reasonable and logical to include it within the security fence.
SHUSTER: Senior Israeli officials close to Ariel Sharon say they hope the Gaza withdrawal will lead to actions on the Palestinian side, especially a crackdown on armed attacks against Israel that could lead to peace negotiations on the basis of the document known as the `road map.' This is a plan adopted two years ago by the US, Europe, the UN and Russia that envisions a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the eventual creation of a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli state. The US view, based on the `road map,' is that Israel should refrain from additional settlement construction and specifically should not build on the land known as E-1. According to Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the announced plans have been put on hold.
Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Israeli Foreign Ministry): Because of our `road map' commitment, commitment specifically to the US administration, we're not now building residential housing in E-1. What we are doing is security. Thirty-five thousand people living in Maale Adumim are entitled to the same protection that other Israeli civilians are, so we're building a fence. We're putting a police station in there. But there's no decision at this stage to build residential housing in E-1.
SHUSTER: As for any criticism of the separation barrier, Regev says it has lowered the violence and contributed to a level of political stability that was impossible to achieve in recent years.
Mr. REGEV: The fence has led to a dramatic reduction in successful suicide bombing penetrations into Israel. You just look at the map and where the fence is being completed and you look at those Israeli communities shielded by the fence, you see a reduction almost to zero in successful, for want of a better word, suicide bombings.
SHUSTER: But critics of the Sharon government say the fence in the Jerusalem area is not for security alone. Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney and peace activist, believes the route of the fence around Jerusalem, coupled with ongoing expansion of existing settlements such as Maale Adumim, will make the ultimate goal of the `road map,' a viable state for the Palestinians, impossible.
Mr. DANIEL SEIDEMANN (Attorney, Israel): If these settlements be built and if the wall become a hard wall that is lined with these settlements, we are jeopardizing the possibility of ever arriving at a two-state solution. Because a two-state solution is going to require, A, a Palestinian state with a modicum of geographical integrity, and, number two, a geographical and consequently political connection of some sort of another, to East Jerusalem. If we build massive settlements that dismember that West Bank and seal East Jerusalem, we can kiss the two-state solution goodbye.
SHUSTER: Sharon's government rejects this argument, denying that it has such ulterior motives in building the separation wall. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says any wall that is put up can be taken down under the right circumstances.
Mr. REGEV: The fence is a security mechanism only, and I can't strong enough the fence is not a political border.
SHUSTER: For Daniel Seidemann the issue is not just the wall, but the building of the wall coupled with the expansion of the settlements.
Mr. SEIDEMANN: If you build the wall, you can take it down. But if you line that wall with tens of thousands of residential units, a largely reversible security measure becomes eminently irreversible.
SHUSTER: For both Israelis and Palestinians, the arguments come down to survival. The two communities have been struggling for survival in one way or another for more than a century. Now survival is seen through the prism of the Jerusalem wall and the settlements on the West Bank. Again, Knesset member Yuval Steinitz.
Mr. STEINITZ: Look, many people are speaking about viable Palestinian state. I agree. But there should be also a viable Jewish state. We would like to have no fence. It is costing quite a lot to build it. But after four years of terrible terrorist attacks, we have to erect such a defensive barrier and the Palestinians should ask themselves why they forced us to build the fence.
SHUSTER: The wall may have brought an improvement in short-term security for much of Israel. Daniel Seidemann acknowledges this. But in the longer run, he believes the Palestinians will not tolerate Israel's unilateral actions in Jerusalem.
Mr. SEIDEMANN: It is my fear that the same tool that Israel is using to prevent the suicide bomber from entering into the city of Jerusalem from Ramallah is going to radicalize the 250,000 Palestinians who are on the Israeli side of the wall. Are we entitled to believe that we are going to seal them from their neighbors, relate to them as if they're Israelis without giving them rights of citizenship or without giving them the right to vote, and they're going to be placid?
SHUSTER: The Israeli military says construction of the wall around Jerusalem and around the entire West Bank could be completed sometime next year. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Jerusalem.
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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