by Charles A. Radin
August 2, 2003

FALAMIYA, West Bank - Iyad Khalaf stood on an outcrop of rock in this hilltop Palestinian village, squinting and straining to the west, trying to spot his sheep amid the olive trees on a knoll perhaps a mile away.

He can no longer just stroll over and look for them, as he would have before Israel built the barrier that now divides Khalaf and other villagers from their lands, and separates the 600 residents of Falamiya from the 5,000 residents of the nearby Israeli town of Kohav Ya'ir. "For sure this will become the border," said Khalaf, 26, focusing his gaze on the 50-yard-wide stretch of ditches, barbed wire, electronic sensors, and patrol roads. "I don't believe they will ever remove it."

Jonathan Rimon, the mayor of Kohav Ya'ir, said he will not object to the removal of the barrier - just as soon as Arab-Israeli conflict ends. "I'd love to have a border like America has with Canada," Rimon said. In the meantime, he is convinced, the fence is needed.

The experiences of people in Falamiya and Kohav Ya'ir, and in many other places along this first 74 miles of the barrier to be completed, reflect the ways in which the debate over the barrier pushes some of the hottest buttons in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: Where should the border between these two peoples be? Will it be open or closed? Will one side pay a price in acreage for the bloodshed of the past 35 months?

Much of the barrier is being built to the east of the so-called Green Line, the cease-fire line in Israel's 1948 war of independence, thus violating what many Palestinians say is the minimum acceptable border for their future state.

Neither the Israelis of Kohav Ya'ir nor the Palestinians of Falamiya liked the idea of a fence when it first came up, about two years ago. Israelis here and in most places along the ill-defined border of the West Bank, however, learned to love the fence, and Palestinians learned to hate it, both with such intensity that the fence was a principal topic when their leaders met with President Bush over the past week.

The Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, demanded that construction stop. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel insisted that it continue. Suddenly the fence, which attracted so little attention during its first year of construction that there is not even a reference to it in the "road map" toward Middle East peace, was in the international spotlight. Yesterday, Palestinian demonstrators and their international supporters clashed with Israeli soldiers at a section near Tulkarem, the latest in a series of recent protests.

"It started out as security, to stop people going to Israel and making attacks," said Khalaf, but now he, like the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, believes the project has become political - a way for Israel to control more Palestinian land. "If they wanted real security," Khalaf said, "they would put it on the Green Line."

Rimon sees the security calculus differently. To provide security, a barrier must discourage intruders, must alert defenders to their presence, and must give the defenders time to react, he said. A fence on the Green Line - where the fence was originally planned by the Israel Defense Forces - would be little more than 10 yards from the last row of homes in Kohav Ya'ir, he said, and this would allow security patrols virtually no time to react to an intrusion.

Kohav Ya'ir leaders lobbied successfully for the barrier to be built east of the Green Line, through lands owned by Palestinians. The eastern edge of the town is now 820 yards from the barrier at its nearest point, about 2,100 yards at its farthest. Palestinians theoretically can reach their lands on the west side of the fence through a gate specially built for the farmers and herdsmen of Falamiya, but they say that they never know when the gate will be open or closed, and they dread contact with the Israeli Army.

Nati Sharoni, a retired major general and a leader of the Council for Peace and Security, said this sort of diversion is relatively minor and is not what has landed the fence enterprise in the international spotlight. The problem, he said, is changes in the route of the fence that could place thousands of acres of Palestinian-owned land, and thousands of Palestinians, on the same side of the fence as Israel.

"Sharon was against the fence from the beginning," said Sharoni, who notes that the fence originally was part of a plan backed by hundreds of former military commanders, diplomats, and intelligence chiefs to separate Israelis and Palestinians and to evacuate at least 40 to 50 Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. The plan was for the fence to run very close to the Green Line and to take in very few Palestinians, he said, and was fiercely opposed by the prime minister and other leading supporters of the settlement movement.

The prime minister changed his public tune to support the fence in the face of overwhelming public support for the project, according to both Israeli and foreign analysts. A July 4 poll for Ma'ariv, a leading newspaper, showed 68 percent in favor of the fence - a significantly higher percentage than Sharon's own approval rating.

Sharon also made major alterations in the initial conception of the route - extending it to encompass the large settlement at Alfei Menashe and ordering that Ariel, the largest settler city, also be included. The Alfei Menashe change forced planners to encircle the major Palestinian city of Kalkilya, disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinians, and the order on Ariel set off more alarms among the Palestinians, bringing the issue to a boil.

For most of its length, the fence is made of open-mesh wire, some of it electrified, other parts equipped with sensing devices and flanked with patrol roads and barbed wire on either side. Palestinians usually call it a wall, invoking images of the Berlin Wall, but the few miles of actual wall that have been incorporated into the barrier are mostly part of pre-planned barriers along highways. Bush at first called it a wall when he criticized it during Abbas's visit to Washington. Bush later shifted to the term fence.

"The fence is a positive step - if it follows the right track, if it doesn't create facts on the ground that do not serve the ultimate goal of two states for two peoples," Sharoni said. "Putting it in the middle of the territory has an impact that is not good politically and is not good from a security perspective."

That is exactly what President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have been saying with increasing force over the past two weeks. Powell told the Israeli daily Ma'ariv yesterday that the fence "is going [up] in ways that will make it very difficult to get to the next phases of the road map."

Members of Israel's security establishment, while more careful about expressing political views, basically agree.

He said the security services strongly support the fence and the patrol roads and sensors around it because they are effective in limiting routes suicide bombers and other attackers can take to reach Israel's coastal population centers.

Iyad Khalaf, the Falamiya shepherd, said he could agree with the idea of a fence if it were located in the proper place, the Green Line, because "there should be a wall to separate us and them. With a fence," he said, "they could not approach us so easily."

His uncle Aref, 50, an arborist who now has 15 acres that he must cross the barrier to reach, remains embittered by events that occurred decades ago.

"Until 1948, we had hundreds of acres, including Kohav Ya'ir," he said, with a gesture toward the neighboring town and coastal Israel beyond. Regaining it "is our right. The war will never stop."

Sharoni, the separation advocate, said such views demonstrate why "the fence has to be built. There will always be extremists who are against the existence of Israel, who have hate, who seek blood revenge . . . You have to do what you can to protect yourself."