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UN: Israeli barrier cuts into W. Bank
( 2003-11-12 09:59) (Agencies)

The planned path of Israel's security barrier will carve off 14 per cent of the West Bank, trap 274,000 Palestinians in tiny enclaves and cut off another 400,000 from their fields, jobs, schools and hospitals, according to a U.N. report released Tuesday.

The contentious string of walls, razor wire, ditches and fences has further enflamed already high tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. The United States has also criticized the barrier's planned route deep into the West Bank, saying it could harm efforts to set up a Palestinian state.

A Palestinian boy pauses next to a newly-erected cement block wall, part of the barrier Israel is building between Israel and the West Bank, near the northern West Bank village of Masha, Tuesday Nov. 11, 2003.  [AP]
Israel has said it is building the barrier to keep out Palestinian militants responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis over the past three years of violence. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday it is also meant to prevent "tens of thousands" of ordinary Palestinians from sneaking out of the West Bank and moving into Israel as officials say has occurred in recent years.

Palestinians say the snaking barricade is an Israeli attempt to seize West Bank land Palestinians claim for a future state.

About 90 miles of the barrier has been completed so far around the northern West Bank, mainly following the invisible boundary with Israel.

The unbuilt southern section of the fence, almost 430 miles long, will dip up to 14 miles into the West Bank in some cases, according to the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The dips appear aimed at incorporating some Jewish settlements into the "Israeli" side.

Altogether, the barrier will carve off 14.5 per cent of the West Bank, affecting roughly 680,000 people, nearly one-third of the Palestinians living in the West Bank, the report said.

"People's lives will be seriously disrupted," said David Shearer, head of the local UNOCHA office. The barrier will be "disastrous" for farmers, who will find it difficult to get to their fields and to bring their produce to market, he said.

A Palestinian man (C) clears the debris of his destroyed house in the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern part of Gaza Strip, Nov. 11, 2003.  [Reuters]
"For economic reasons, for education reasons, people will find it impossible to stay in these areas, and they will choose to move out," Shearer said.

Palestinian officials, meanwhile, prepared for a vote of confidence Wednesday on the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

U.S. and Israeli officials had expressed reservations about the makeup of the government, which would leave Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with a firm grip over security forces.

Sharon has said that he is ready to meet with Qureia, nevertheless, and give him the benefit of the doubt. Palestinian Cabinet secretary Hassan Abu Libdeh said U.S. officials told him they would give Qureia some leeway.

"The Americans were not content with the formation of the government, but they said they would judge the government by its performance, by its actions," Abu Libdeh said.

Palestinian officials say they have been in touch with militant groups, trying to persuade them to end attacks on Israel so both sides can resume talks about implementing the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which would establish a Palestinian state by 2005.

Palestinians need an "open-ended cease-fire ... that must be reciprocated by the Israelis," Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said.

Israeli officials say they will welcome Palestinian efforts to end the violence, but they remain firm in their demand that Palestinians dismantle militant organizations, as required by the "road map." Qureia has said he will not use force against the militants.

Israel is "not ruling out a cease-fire ... but it must be backed by real action to crack down on the terrorist organizations," a senior Israeli official said, insisting on anonymity.

Palestinian officials said they remained concerned about scores of unauthorized Israeli settlement outposts many of which must be removed under the road map dotting hilltops throughout the West Bank. The plan also calls for a complete Israeli settlement freeze, which Sharon has so far refused to order.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said defense officials would continue to evaluate the outposts along with Israel's security needs.

"I have to say that in the past year, a number of outposts were dismantled," most of them in agreement with settlers, Mofaz told Israeli Army Radio on Tuesday after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Washington.

Peace Now, an Israeli monitoring group, said the number of the sparsely populated outposts has dropped slightly since the road map was unveiled in June, to 101 or 102. But Peace Now expert Dror Etkes said the population and infrastructure have grown.

Mofaz said the security barrier did not come up in his talks with Rumsfeld, although other officials may raise the issue.

"The fence is meant to provide security for the citizens of Israel ... we have to continue to invest in it," he said.

Asked about concerns that the United States, which has demanded the barrier not cut into the West Bank, may withhold some aid to Israel because of the fence, Mofaz held firm.

"I don't know yet if there will be a price as far as U.S. aid is concerned. It will certainly be discussed in the future," he said. "But to the question of need, I have no doubt that this is necessary, and I can explain this to the Americans."

Palestinian officials have strongly condemned the wall's route.

"Palestinians see the continuation of the wall as burying the hope for peace and killing the vision of a two-state solution," Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said. "It's really a disaster ... a human catastrophe in the fullest extent of the word."

Israeli officials say the barrier has proven effective, reducing the number of infiltrations from the area where it has been completed.

The barrier has gates throughout its route, intended to give farmers access to their fields, Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim told Israel Radio.

Human rights groups say the gates are often closed.

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