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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

March 2004

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Retired U. S. Ambassador Bill Dale, who served 1964-68 in Tel Aviv in a very senior embassy position, assesses the security barrier being raised to separate Israelis and Palestinians. Now between one-fourth and one-third completed, it promises to be an irritant in U. S.-Israeli relations. —Ed.

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon's security barrier is not just an isolated creation intended to protect against suicide bombers. It is an inherent part of the whole panorama of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since this conflict is essentially about control over land, boundaries have been an essential element in it since the Israeli war for independence in 1948.when the green line which separated the opposing forces became a border between the new state of Israel and the Jordanians on the West Bank. Then came the 1967 War in which the Israelis occupied the Arab populated West Bank and Gaza Strip and established Jewish settlements throughout the area.More recently, that piece of land was divided in a most complicated way after the Oslo agreement. The Palestinians lost much of the territory they had gained then when Prime Minister Sharon seized it back during the second Infitada which is still underway.

Now, the conflict appears to be entering a new phase in which walls, watch towers, fences,ditches, and patrol roads will delineate boundaries for an unknowable period. This physical barrier costing in all between two and three billion in dollars will to some extent protect the Israelis from the Palestinians inhabiting the West Bank. The Gaza Strip already has borders between Palestinian and Israeli marked by barriers.

The West Bank barrier now under construction follows the old Green Line but generally runs inside it and in several places extends in what are called "fingers" far into the Palestinian areas to embrace the larger Jewish settlements. The Jordan valley remains under Israeli control as planned for shortly after the 1967 War in the Allon Plan. In total, the barrier commenced in 2002 and scheduled for completion in 2004 would leave only between forty and fifty percent of West Bank land in Palestinian hands. It would separate up to 366,000 Palestinians on the West Bank and East Jerusalem from their fellows inside the Palestinian heartland and isolate thousands of Palestinian farmers from their land.

Prime Minister Sharon had actually drawn up such a route for a West Bank boundary as early as the 197O’s. Now, the suicide bombers have provided him with the political impetus required to put it into effect. In doing so, he is converting a politically inspired plan into a security measure, creating a long term interim boundary between Israelis and Palestinians..

If the Prime Minister manages to complete the wall, he will have procured for Israel several important strategic advantages. Israeli controlled territory will surround the Palestinian enclaves, except for the Gaza Strip, on all sides. A physical barrier will separate the Palestinians living in Israel and the those in Gaza from the West Bank, making any large scale revolt extremely difficult.

The Security BarrierThere are also disadvantages in the boundaries being put into place by the Israeli prime minister. The Palestinian entity would be divided into four separate pieces. The Gaza Strip is over fifteen miles from the nearest West Bank land. The Arab area surrounding Jericho is nearly six miles from the West Bank. Finally, the extension of Israeli controlled Jerusalem and new Jewish settlement blocs will sever the Northern portion of the Palestinian West Bank, called Sumaria by the Israelis, from the Southern portion, called Judea. The Israelis claim that they will maintain the territorial integrity of the Palestinian entity by a ring road around Jerusalem and a few road tunnels and bridges. In fact, a future Palestinian state based on Mr. Sharon's borders would consist of four separate areas - the Gaza Strip, Samara, Judea, and Jericho. It would have no chance of becoming a viable entity politically or economically. The Israeli government's order controlling passage through the new barrier is very strict, making Palestinian contacts with their brothers on the other side of the barrier a difficult exercise entirely dependent on Israeli army wishes.The Palestinian people, other Arabs and probably the Europeans will probably not recognize the Prime Minister's borders, even if he claims they are only a temporary arrangement and even allows the Palestinians to call the areas they still control a Palestinian state. The barrier would almost certainly entail a continuation of internal turmoil and international disagreement for both Israel and the Palestinians. From a military point of view, the Palestinians would presumably be able to lob mortar shells into and over the barrier so that Israel would still not be safe.

According to news reports, Prime Minister Sharon is proceeding as fast as he can with construction of the barrier along his preferred boundary. He will probably go as far as he can during the remaining nine months of the United States election campaign when politicians in this country are heavily engaged in politics and the Bush administration will be seeking Jewish votes, money and media support.

The Israeli government normally watches the American administration with the greatest attention and utilizes its American supporters to suppress any measures this government might wish to take to reign in Israeli activities, but now there exists a new force with which Israel must deal -- the European Union. That organization is slowly developing its own foreign policy and it is less constrained by local Jewish populations than is the United States.

Controversy has already arisen over European Union refusal to accept produce from the Israeli settlements. Irish Foreign Minister, Brian Cowan, representing the EU has criticized Prime Minister Sharon's security barrier and has served notice that the new European Union leadership will put more pressure on Israel regarding it than did its predecessor. Since Israel depends on European markets for much of its exports, it cannot ignore the European Union warnings. The Israelis would probably request the United States to intercede on their behalf if the EU should take economic measures with real teeth in order to persuade Israel to halt construction of the fence or to change its route. However, as the EU grows stronger, American influence over its policies will likely diminish. A result could be a row involving the European Union, the Arab states and most of the rest of the world on one side and Israel and possibly the United States on the other.The American government has gently remonstrated with the Israelis about the barrier but the strength of the American Jewish organizations would probably prevent the U.S. government from opposing Israel strongly if such a cleavage should occur.

The controversy may become more open later when the International Court of Justice at the Hague expects to begin proceedings concerning the legality of the barrier under international law. Reports are that the Israeli government will defend it as a security measure designed to prevent terrorist attacks on Israel. Opponents will probably argue that the separation wall contravenes the Fourth Geneva Convention which requires an occupying power to assure the wellbeing of civilian populations under their control. They may argue further that the aim of the barrier is less to protect Israelis than to prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

The Sharon government has not neglected Jerusalem in its barrier construction program. Walls and other obstructions are appearing North, East and South of the city. If it is completed, it would separate the Palestinians of the West Bank from their religious, political and economic center of East Jerusalem. This important center would lose its hinterland and a withering East Jerusalem with its historical and religious monuments would likely drag down the tourist trade which is an essential element in the economy of the whole city.

Prime Minister Sharon's barrier cannot become the boundary of a viable two state solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, but it can encourage the exodus of Palestinians from the West Bank. If a large number of Palestinians find life intolerable in a Bantustan-type country and choose to emigrate, it would lessen the possibility that the Palestinians with their higher birth rate would outnumber the Jews in a single state of Israel. With that problem solved, Israel could look forward to a one state solution in which the Jewish population would be able to exercise control over all of Greater Israel through the ballot box. This may be the goal which the Prime Minister and his hard line allies have in mind and the barrier now being built would play a key role in helping to bring it about.

[Editor’s Note: See also in American Diplomacy Curtis F. Jones, “Sharon's Barricade Briefly Considered.”]


Amb. Dale, retired in North Carolina and active in foreign affairs-related organizations, earned two degrees at Harvard before entering the Foreign Service. He served as an officer in the U. S. Navy during World War II.

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