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September 3, 2004

Sharon Speeds Up Wall After Attack

by Jim Lobe

JERUSALEM - Three yellow Palestinian taxi vans stand forlornly near the checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank a day after Tuesday's suicide bombing in the city of Beer Sheva. The attack caused 16 fatalities, and Israel closed the approach to the city for Palestinians.

Normally, the drivers say, they earn a living ferrying people between the nearby Palestinian villages and the border. Some cross into Israel legally but most avoid the checkpoint and enter the country illegally. The long, unmarked border is impossible for the Israeli army to patrol effectively.

In response to the suicide attack in Beer Sheva, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered work to be speeded up on the southern section of the separation barrier on the West Bank. Israeli community leaders in the southern Negev region called on the government Thursday to avoid delays.

In the aftermath of the bombing, many in Israel point to the effectiveness of the barrier that has been partly completed in the north of the West Bank. "Where the barrier is there is no terror, and where there is no barrier terror has a chance," public security minister Tzahi Hanegbi said on a visit to Beer Sheva shortly after the bombing.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague and the United Nations General Assembly have said that the barrier – a combination of electronic fences, ditches and high concrete walls built on Palestinian land – is illegal and should be torn down.

The bombers who attacked Beer Sheva came from Hebron, the largest city in the southern West Bank. On Wednesday the Israeli army blocked off the city and demolished their houses.

The Tarqumia checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank is the closest to Hebron. Ibrahim Ghreib, dressed in his work clothes, stands hesitantly by the side of the road near the checkpoint, not sure whether to wait for work transferring loads between trucks at the terminal or return home, because so soon after the attack in Beer Sheva there is very little traffic.

The 27-year-old Ghreib who is married and has a child says he regularly makes the trip into Israel illegally. "There is no work in Tarqumia or even in Hebron, and when there is I hardly get paid. In Israel I get paid well."

There are many ways to cross into Israel without going through the checkpoint, says Ghreib. But the journey is not without risks. An observation tower stands on a hilltop near the checkpoint, and military jeeps regularly patrol the area.

Ghreib says he was stopped on his way through the hills by an army patrol two weeks back. Israeli soldiers held him for two hours and beat him up, he says. "My ribs still hurt."

After the attack in Beer Sheva, Ghreib says he is aware construction of the barrier may be speeded up. "But even when they have the wall here I will continue to go to Israel to work. I'll find a way through; I don't have another option."

Some commentators say it is intelligence failure rather than the absence of a barrier that made the attack in Beer Sheva possible. The Israeli army has been trying to locate the cell of the Hamas movement in Hebron that has claimed responsibility for the attack. Israeli commanders admit they have had huge problems cracking the Hamas infrastructure in Hebron.

In the adjacent village Dorra the Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh has been observing events in Hebron. He is close to the Islamic movement of which Hamas is a part. "The Hamas cell responsible for the attack is very small, two, three or maybe five people," he says. The Israelis, he adds, have never made much headway against Hamas in Hebron.

He says he opposes the suicide attacks because "they have done a lot of damage to the image of the Palestinians on the international stage." On the other hand he believes that Israel's "Nazi-like" behavior, its "genocidal actions" and its "Gestapo tactics" have provoked the bombings.

Amayreh says it is obvious that the barrier in the north led to a shift in Hamas operations to the south. But Palestinians will always find a way to keep up attacks through the barrier, he says.

A barrier has been planned through this area. Mohammed Adwan, mayor of Surif village further north says that even before the bombing the Israeli army had told him of the route the barrier will take through Surif.

At places it will run some 300 meters (980 ft.) inside the municipality's boundaries. Some people will lose most of their lands, and with that their income.

"I don't care if they build a wall, but let them do it on their own land," Adwan says. "This has nothing to do with security; it is about confiscating our land."

But even if the barrier was on Israel 's side of the border it would cause untold hardship in Surif, he acknowledges. About a thousand people from Surif regularly work in Israel; only 150 have permits to cross into the country legally. "It will mean terrible unemployment if they are unable to go."

But he too is confident that people will cross into Israel despite the barrier. He proudly produces a picture on the front page of the Al-Quds daily showing young Palestinians climbing over the high concrete wall that Israel has built in the Abu-Dis area of Jerusalem. "You see," says Adwan, "we will always find a way across."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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