The Baltimore Sun

A barrier to peace

July 21, 2003

ONE MAN'S security fence is another's political border. In the contentious Middle East, that's the debate. At issue is Israel's construction of a 118-mile barrier between the Jewish state and Palestinian areas of the West Bank. But the Bush administration can't accept both views of the project, and progress on the road to peace. Recognizing that fact, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has told Israel that its fence looks like a unilateral border.

That's certainly the view of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who arrives in Washington this week for talks at the White House. He and other Palestinian leaders have criticized the fence project as another "land grab" by the Israelis, who have confiscated additional West Bank acres to include Israeli settlements within the fence. They view the fence as a concrete way to fix the borders of a future Palestinian state to Israel's advantage. Palestinian villages have been entrapped within the fence; others have lost farmland to it; and more will be isolated by its wide berth.

The Israelis are as adamant in their description of the fence - it is a defense line to keep suicide bombers and other terrorists from entering the country. Israeli military officials contend the first 60-mile segment of the fence, built in the northern end of the West Bank, has proved beneficial, walling off previous centers of terrorist activity. It is not a permanent border, but a way to save lives, they say.

With Mr. Abbas in Washington later this week and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon due there the following week, borders, fences and settlements will be on the agenda.

The Middle East conflict is at a sensitive juncture. There has been a halt in terrorist attacks against Israelis since Mr. Abbas helped negotiate a cease-fire among the three Palestinian militant groups. Israel has responded by withdrawing its troops from the Gaza Strip and Bethlehem. The relative calm has given the U.S.-backed peace plan a chance to proceed, albeit slowly.

At this time, the Bush administration would do well to persuade Israel to halt construction of the fence. The design of the fence diverges from the "Green Line" - the border at the time of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war that led to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories held by Jordan and Egypt. Like the continued expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the fence further segregates Palestinians who want a contiguous independent state.

Mr. Abbas, however, must be prepared to take the actions required of him under the peace initiative, to dismantle and disarm the militant groups of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah. Mr. Bush should press the Palestinian minister on that pledge.

The death of the Oslo accords spelled the end of any talk of Palestinians and Israelis living together peacefully. It brought 33 months of terrorist attacks and military reprisals that killed about 2,100 Palestinians and 760 Israelis. But the physical separation desired by both people is best served not by a barrier wall or electrified fence, but by an independent Palestinian state.

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