Israel plans buffer zone on edge of occupied territories

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The Independent Online

Israel's armed forces have drawn up a plan to seal off lands running along the Palestinian side of the 1967 Green Line ­ which marks the periphery of the West Bank ­ to create a closed military zone that would be almost one and a half miles wide in places.

The proposal, which Israeli government officials justify as a security measure against rising guerrilla attacks, was condemned by senior Palestinian officials as another draconian form of collective punishment against the population, which has been living under an Israeli blockade for months.

The plan ­ known euphemistically by Israeli officials as the "seam zone programme" ­ was expected to be unveiled by the army yesterday, but Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, delayed it to allow a cabinet debate on the basis that that it had "far-reaching" implications.

News reports quoting an Israeli official who had seen the blueprint said the military zones would range in width from a few hundred yards to 1.4 miles, all east of the Green Line. Palestinians would be barred from entering without special permits and would be at risk of being shot if they tried to do so.

If Israel does introduce the plan ­ which may yet prove to be sabre-rattling ­ it is sure to cause a furore internationally. This may not matter to Mr Sharon. After all, Israel has ignored international condemnation of its assassinations and did so again yesterday, killing two low-level members of Fatah in the West Bank town of Tulkarm. Its death squad, which fired missiles from helicopters, missed the main target, Raed al-Karmi, a senior Fatah activist accused by Israel of masterminding shooting attacks.

The prospect of driving the Palestinians further back within the occupied territories by setting up military zones was the subject of fierce debate in Israel.

Security service sources expressed doubt over whether it would stop suicide bombers ­ a-near impossible task, given the way in which Palestinian and Israeli areas are entwined, especially in Jerusalem. Previous proposals to attempt to separate Israelis from Palestinians by fences have led some Israelis to worry that such a move would result in "de facto" recognition of the 1967 border.