Wed, Jul 02, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Israelis dismiss Rice's criticism about security fence


The vast security fence Israel is building around the West Bank has exploded on to the diplomatic scene following criticism from the US, which fears the fence will hinder application of the peace road map.

The wall cutting off the West Bank from Israel with fencing, trenches and walls was sharply criticized by US President George W. Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice during talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

According to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, Rice told Sharon on Sunday that the construction of the fence was seen by the Palestinians as the precursor to the border of a future Palestinian state.

Such a border can only be determined through negotiations under the road map, an international peace plan which seeks to end 33 months of bloodshed and pave the way for a Palestinian state by 2005.

"The route of the security fence that you are building ... arouses our deep concern," Yediot quoted Rice as saying. "I propose that you reconsider the route where the fence passes."

But Sharon responded: "If we need to choose between a conflict with the US and the fact that terrorists are going to blow themselves up here, our choice is clear."

"We are talking about the security of the citizens of Israel, and there will be no compromise on that issue," Maariv daily reported.

Sharon's sharp response clearly shows the importance the prime minister attaches to the project, even at the risk of upsetting the US, Israel's chief ally.

His intransigence was unexpected, given that Sharon has himself long been doubtful about the venture, an initiative pushed through by Israel's previous left-leaning Labour Party.

The security fence is a consequence of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and represents one of Israel's main attempts to stem the flow of West Bank Palestinian suicide bombers to Israel.

The appeal of such a fence is enhanced by the fact that not a single suicide bomber has entered Israel from Gaza, which has long been surrounded by a security fence less sophisticated than that being built around the West Bank.

Since the beginning of construction a year ago, Israel's right-wing nationalist faction, which believes in the Biblical concept of "Greater Israel" stretching from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean, has opposed the project, fearing it will cut off Jewish settlements from Israel proper.

But Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said that given the Palestinian Authority's past failure to control militants, there was growing public pressure to erect the fence.

"There is public pressure, especially from people living in certain areas, to build this fence," he said.

Recent opinion polls show a large majority of Israelis are in favour of constructing the fence.

"If the Palestinian Authority had been more effective in the past ... at ending the violence, then the whole issue of the fence wouldn't have arisen," he said.

But he stressed that the fence was purely a security measure and had no political significance.

"It should not be seen as anything but a security measure," he said.

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