Rabin backs new West Bank homes

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The Independent Online
The Israeli government gave the go-ahead yesterday for 3,000 more homes for Jewish settlers around Jerusalem on the occupied West Bank, tightening Israel's grip on the disputed city.

A ministerial committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, approved plans to build in three large settlements north, south and east of Jerusalem.

Following Sunday's murder of 19 Israelis in a suicide bombing, Mr Rabin has also begun moves to set up a "security border" to separate Israel from the West Bank Palestinians. Like the Maginot line in France in 1940, a security fence makes more sense in terms of domestic politics than military strategy. Israelis are apprehensive and want a sign that Mr Rabin is doing something to prevent another attack. Nobody knows what the line will look like or where it will be built. The Environment Minister, Yossi Sarid, said there should be an electronic security fence, "together with soldiers in the field and patrols along its length." The Police Minister, Moshe Shahal, said it would take eight months to build a 380-km (228-mile) fence through the hills and wadisof the West Bank.

A 10ft-high barbed wire and chain-link fence already surrounds most of the Gaza Strip and is regularly patrolled by Israeli soldiers. Another fence runs along Israel's border with Lebanon. But there, the real defences are the Israeli army and a force of Lebanese militiamen who are on the Israeli payroll.

It is unlikely that the cabinet committee set up by Mr Rabin, which is to report back in two months, will opt for a modern version of the Great Wall of China. The army sees this as a waste of manpower, tying up troops in fixed positions. A more likely option will be a line patrolled by the paramilitary Border Police. Only in some places will there be a physical barrier.

This creates immediate political problems. The Palestinians say a new line would preempt the Oslo agreement of 1993 and negotiations on the final status of Jerusalem and the West Bank. They note that Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, recently suggested Israel annex 11 per cent of the occupied territories, where 70 per cent of the 120,000 settlers live. A Palestinian geographer, Khalil Tufakji, said he fears the new line would be anchored on Israeli settlements along the lines east of the old Green Line, that marked Israel's 1967 border.

By stepping up the building of settlements on the West Bank, Mr Rabin has ensured that the two populations will be more intermingled. The Finance Minister, Abraham Shohat, yesterday acknowledged that Mr Rabin's Labour government is building settlements three times faster than the preceding right-wing Likud administration.

Strong new fences probably will be built where there are large Palestinian populations on the Israeli border, such as between Qalqiliya, with a popultion of 20,000, and Kefar Sava, on the Israeli side of the border. There will also probably be a tough security line west of Tulkarm, a Palestinian town of 35,000, from which the bombers who struck at Beit Lid last Sunday are believed to have left on the road to Netanya.

The new line will not separate Palestinians from Israelis. By appearing to annex parts of the West Bank unilaterally, it is likely to weaken the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, and strengthen Hamas and Islamic Jihad, from whose ranks the suicide bombers come. Militarily the fence is likely to bring few benefits. As the Israelis found during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982-84 - the era when suicide bombing was first refined as a political technique in the Near East - somebody who is prepared to die is difficult to stop and usually finds a target.

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