The Baltimore Sun

On the fence

July 31, 2003

WHILE IN WASHINGTON this week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stood firm on construction of a security fence across the West Bank. The concrete and razor wire barrier is going up regardless of White House concerns about its impact on the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process now under way. But in a gesture to his friend George W. Bush, Mr. Sharon assured the president that he would build the fence "with every effort to minimize" the impact on Palestinian daily life.

Mr. Bush permitted Mr. Sharon to have the final word on the fence during his Washington visit. The president softened his characterization of the fence, referring to it as a "sensitive issue" rather than a "problem." Now Mr. Bush must insist that the Israeli prime minister live up to his word. And if Mr. Sharon is sincere in his pledge, then he can demonstrate his sincerity in the West Bank village of Khirbet Jubara, about three miles south of the Palestinian city of Tulkaram.

The security fence surrounds the village and cuts off its 200 to 300 residents from their olive groves, farm fields and greenhouses. According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, the fence precludes vehicle access to a main road that leads to a medical center and schools used by Khirbet Jubara villagers. In its efforts to protect the Israeli settlement of Salit, the security fence around Khirbet Jubara is larger than it needs to be, the group says. Also, the security gate through which villagers must pass to reach their fields is closed.

Mr. Sharon also could make good on his promise in Masha, a West Bank village en route to the large Israeli settlement of Ariel, an easy commute to Tel Aviv. The security fence isn't completed there yet, but it will isolate the village from about 95 percent of its agricultural lands, B'Tselem says.

Then there is Nazlat Issat, a village of 600 people about 12 miles east of the Israeli city of Hadera. Earlier this year, Israeli defense forces bulldozed a village marketplace on the planned pathway of the security fence.

There are dozens of opportunities for Mr. Sharon to show his good will on the issue of the fence because there are dozens of villages and towns - about 210,000 Palestinians - adversely affected by it. Palestinians charge that the fence delves too deeply into the West Bank and unilaterally sets the borders of a future Palestinian state.

If Mr. Bush privately pressed Mr. Sharon to halt fence construction, as some reports indicate, he needs to ensure that Mr. Sharon lives up to his public pledge to minimize the fence's impact on the daily lives of Palestinians. Otherwise, the fence will continue to dominate the discussion on implementation of the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace, the first break in 33 months of violence.

And that won't benefit Israel, which has rightly focused on Palestinian obligations to dismantle the infrastructure of the militant groups responsible for the terrorist attacks, an obligation not yet met.

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