Israelis to Go to U.S. to Discuss Barrier Rift

The New York Times (9/20/03)

Israeli leaders resolved today to send envoys to Washington to test how strongly the Bush administration will resist construction of contentious stretches of the West Bank barrier they call a security fence, which President Bush has called "a problem."

The aim of sending a high-ranking delegation to Washington, a senior official said, is to establish "what options we can live with and what would the United States accept" concerning the segment of the barrier near Ariel, a large West Bank settlement. Israel says the barrier is intended to shield its citizens from terrorists.

It is not difficult to divine how Palestinians respond to the idea.

Here, farther south from Ariel, in a Palestinian town on the fringes of Arab East Jerusalem, a stretch of the barrier is scheduled to slice through the hardscrabble sports facilities of the Palestinian Al Quds University.

The structure, said Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al Quds and a moderate Palestinian voice, is a "concrete wall of rejection."

Along its length of high walls, fences, guard towers and barbed wire, he said, it will create pockets of Palestinians isolated from one another, "putting us in cages all along the way so that movement will only be allowed from one cage to another, exactly like a zoo."

So today, as Israeli officials led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were meeting to assemble a negotiating position with Washington, hundreds of people gathered here on the university's basketball court to join in Friday Prayers and to protest the construction of the barrier.

While the two gatherings concerned different sections of the divide, the disparate encounters underscored the conflicting perceptions of its purpose: Israel says it is a security measure intended to prevent suicide bombers from entering its towns and cities; many Palestinians call it a land grab that by snaking a contorted route well inside the Green Line boundary established between Israel and the West Bank after the 1967 war, will rob Palestinians of much of their historical land.

"We believe this land is a holy gift," said Abdullah Yusef Halabieh, 72, who reckons he will lose a chunk of his family's centuries-old holdings when the barrier is completed here, severing Abu Dis from Jerusalem. "And we want to die on our own land. But this wall will separate family from family, brother from brother."

The preparations for the barrier here are evident enough. Backhoes and bulldozers have carved dusty access roads on either side of town. They will meet, Palestinian protesters said, on the university's rock-hard ocher soccer field, with its netless goals and gravelly playing field. In the process, a local official said, the barrier will separate people from schools, cemeteries and one another. So far Israel has completed 80 miles of the barrier.

Abu Dis is only one of hundreds of Palestinian places contemplating such disruption after three years of the latest Palestinian uprising, in which thousands of people have died, hundreds of them Israelis killed in suicide bombings.

As they continued to retaliate for the bombings, Israeli forces entered the West Bank town of Jenin on Thursday and demolished the former home of Sahdi al-Tubasi, who killed 15 Israelis when he blew himself up in Haifa last year. The incursion sparked gun battles in which two Israeli soldiers were wounded today.

Israel is also pressing for the removal of Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader. Israel declared him "irrelevant" two years ago, and the United States has tried to sideline him, but he has secured a remarkable political comeback as a result of Israel's most recent threats to take him out of the political equation by means it has not specified.

In Ramallah, where he is confined to a compound with his supporters, Mr. Arafat and other officials pondered the composition of a new Palestinian cabinet today.

Washington has strongly protested against an Israeli proposal to create a corridor leading to Ariel and has suggested that $9 billion in loan guarantees to Israel could be reduced to press for changes in its path. Israel responded to the pressure by agreeing not to construct the disputed segments until a compromise was reached with the White House.

In Jerusalem, Mr. Sharon met with other ministers from his Likud Party and agreed on options to offer Washington.

One was to construct the West Bank barrier as planned so that it reached eastward into the West Bank, an Israeli official said. The second -- which ministers generally disapproved of -- was to surround Ariel, making it a kind of walled enclave. The third, the official said, would entail building the fence farther west but deploying extra forces and other security arrangements at Ariel.

On its Web site, the newspaper Haaretz said Mr. Sharon favored a proposal by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to reinforce Ariel with Israeli forces and other barriers without extending the main north-south barrier to encompass it.

Israel also moved today against suspected extremists among Jewish settlers in the West Bank, charging Shahar Dvir-Zeliger with stealing weapons from the Israeli Army. His lawyer denied the charge. The police said they had found weapons, including assault rifles, machine guns, antitank rockets, ammunition and grenades cached in a West Bank cave.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company / The New York Times / September 20, 2003, Saturday, Late Edition - Final