Less than a fortnight ago Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took his cabinet ministers on a well- publicised tour of the northern sections of the 360km separation fence, ostensibly being built around the West Bank to protect Israelis from Palestinian attack.
Addressing them afterwards, Sharon adopted his standard posture: the electrified fence, he said, was purely a “security measure” and would not become a “political” border — code among the right and settlers for the government’s refusal to demarcate the borders of a future Palestinian state.
That has been the constant refrain since Sharon was cornered into accepting the separation wall by his former Labour coalition partners last June. However, in contrast to his previous utterances, this time Sharon may not have meant what he said. The ministerial tour appears to have heralded a dramatic new phase in Sharon’s thinking. Panicked by Washington’s apparent determination after the war in Iraq to press on with the Quartet’s road map to a Palestinian state by 2005, and by the White House’s agreement to let other members (the European Union, United Nations and Russia) take a leading role in its implementation and monitoring, Sharon has decided to turn the fence to his advantage. He believes a revised wall can be used to create the Palestinian state demanded by the Quartet but in an enfeebled form that has always been his vision of Palestinian statehood.
With Labour out of the government and his support drawn mainly from pro-settler parties, and with an Israeli public more interested in the achievement of separation than the details of its execution, Sharon now has a free hand to redraw the political map.
Two major changes in the fence plan revealed since the tour on 16 March suggest the new direction in his thinking.
A day after the tour, the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported that Sharon had let slip a plan to build a second fence, on the eastern side of the West Bank, along the Jordan Valley, to connect up with the first fence, on the western side. The two fences would effectively encircle the Palestinian population, turning the West Bank, as leading Palestinians observed, into a “giant prison” — a model already realised for the much smaller Gaza Strip.
Sharon’s spokesmen failed to clarify why a second, 300km fence through the Jordan Valley, the border between the West Bank and Jordan, was needed on “security grounds” — the official reason for building a wall.
An unnamed Israeli cabinet minister offered his own explanation in Yediot: “This won’t leave them [the Palestinians] a lot of territory.” Another added: “Sharon is simply taking away their state.”
As if this were not enough, Sharon delivered the death blow this week. His officials confirmed reports that the prime minister had approved a “realignment” of the route of the second section of the fence, to be built between Qalqilya and Jerusalem.
Sharon has already made sure that the route of the first section — between Beit Shean and Qalqilya — due to be finished by the end of the year deviates from the Green Line, the pre-1967 border with the West Bank, as far as is practical, given his need to keep the Palestinians on the other side of it.
He capitulated to almost every demand made by the settlers of the northern West Bank, including most famously at Alfei Menashe, home to more than a thousand army officers’ families, when he promised to change the fence’s route to the far side of the settlement during a brief tour of the area last summer.
The result is that the fence regularly cuts into the West Bank to devour Palestinian farmland, separating villages from both their fields and their wells. Two towns, Qalqilya and Tulkarm, are being effectively encircled by the wall; and a dozen Palestinian villages have found themselves on the wrong side of it.
The second phase of the fence, however, will make far greater “detours” into the West Bank so that the large settlements blocs of Ariel, Kedumim and Immanuel can be included on Israel’s side. A new winding route will carve its way into the heart of the West Bank, taking the fence to the western edge of Nablus.
Reports in the Israeli media suggest that the third phase of the fence, looping down from Jerusalem to Hebron, will make similarly deep incursions.
Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian cabinet minister, denounced the scheme as a “flagrant defiance” of the road map. “Israel is telling the Americans and British to forget it,” he said. “They are saying they have their own road map, based on dictation not negotiation. They are creating facts on the ground, which will take 40 per cent of the West Bank.”
There were reports that the revised plan would bring some 40,000 extra settlers “back into Israel” while including only another 3,000 Palestinians. However, Sharon’s officials refused to give numbers and those figures seem more than optimistic.
Other estimates by human rights groups suggested that some 200,000 Palestinians will eventually find themselves on the “Israeli” side of the fence. Their status and the mechanisms for ensuring their freedom of movement have yet to be revealed by Israel.
Mr Sharon’s spokesman, Ra’anan Gissin, echoing earlier comments made by the army, said the fence could be moved at a later date if a peace agreement was reached.
That would make the wall a very expensive “temporary” measure: the building costs alone of the western fence are more than $1.3 billion. Israel has yet to budget for the staffing of the watchtowers and mobile security teams to patrol the fence, or for the creation and manning of the promised entry points. The Jordan Valley fence may bring the building costs to well over $2 billion.
A more pressing question for the Palestinians is how much land will be left to them after the two fences have been completed. Even Erekat’s 60 per cent may prove optimistic. Sharon’s worst- case scenario has always been a Palestinian state with severely proscribed sovereignty on no more than half the West Bank.
Although details of the eastern fence are not available, sources said it would hug the eastern foothills of the West Bank mountains to Maale Adumim, the huge Jewish settlement to the east of Jerusalem. That would put the Palestinian city of Jericho on the “Israeli” side, along with huge swaths of the Jordan Valley.
Jeff Halper, a professor at Ben Gurion University who has been tracking the growth of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, said: “What we are seeing is the settlers — Sharon’s long- term allies — winning the argument. The new fence route will create cantons out of Area A and B [where Palestinians were given limited control under the Oslo accords] and force the abandonment of only a few of the more isolated settlements.”
“Combined with the eastern wall, Sharon will be able to create a series of Bantustans [powerless mini-states adopted by apartheid South Africa for its black population], locking the Palestinians into prisons.”
He believes Sharon and the settlers are moving fast to establish irreversible facts on the ground before the road map kicks in after the war in Iraq. “Sharon is scared of the road map and the fact that the US will not be solely in charge of its progress. This way he can create a situation in which the exertion and expense needed to bring about an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will appear to be impossibly exacting.”
He added: “It is unclear what Israel intends to do with the growing number of Palestinians on the wrong side of the fence produced by this plan. My suspicion is that they will transfer them or make life so unbearable for them that they draw their own conclusions and migrate.”