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Expanding Israeli presence in West Bank remains controversial

EIZARIYA, West Bank—Issam Faroun, the mayor of this West Bank town known in the New Testament as Bethany, watched Israelis pulling out of the Gaza Strip two weeks ago with an ironic dread.

While fellow Palestinians in Gaza celebrated the pullout, Faroun spent the week protesting an Israeli military order that would cordon off the last open land in his town suitable for development and lead to thousands more Israelis moving into the heart of the West Bank.

Soon, he notes, the town that used to be on the main highway linking Jerusalem's Old City with Jericho will be surrounded on three sides by thick concrete walls and high-tech barbed-wire fences—the Israeli security fence that's already Eizariya's dominant feature.

"The effect on the town is something like a tsunami, something like an earthquake," Faroun said.

As Israeli forces bulldozed evacuated Jewish homes on the Gaza Strip and in four northern West Bank settlements, a different reality was playing out on the West Bank: There, military planners remained hard at work fencing off Arab areas surrounding Jerusalem while construction crews build thousands of new Israeli homes.

And while a majority of Israelis appeared to back the Gaza pullout—a newspaper poll released Thursday showed 56 percent of Israelis in favor and only 35 percent opposed in the aftermath—the expanding Israeli presence on the West Bank remains as controversial as ever, with Jewish peace activists and Palestinians squaring off against supporters of the settlement movement over whether a similar pullout should be contemplated there.

Caught up in the battle is the Israeli security fence. Opponents say it's severing Palestinian communities from their historic links to East Jerusalem, and proponents say it remains necessary to prevent suicide bombers from sneaking into Jerusalem.

Dror Etkes, settlement watch coordinator for Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlement expansion, says that whatever reasons Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had for leaving Gaza—security, demographics, democracy—apply even more in the West Bank.

"In the West Bank, there are two separate life systems—one for Israelis and one for Palestinians," he said. "If it remains in the West Bank, Israel will have to decide: democracy or an ethnic state."

Settlement advocates scoff. "There's plenty of room," said Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat in the Gush Etzion settlement block south of Jerusalem.

Peace Now points out that while Israeli soldiers are expected to bulldoze 2,800 Israeli houses in Gaza and 360 Israeli buildings in the northern West Bank as part of the pullout, 4,000 houses are being built in West Bank settlements.

The impact of the expanded settlements is compounded by the security fence, which critics say is cutting off Arab towns such as Eizariya from hospitals, entertainment and the cultural and religious centers of Jerusalem.

Faroun says he's frustrated. Tourism in Eizariya has trickled to a few buses a day. The shelves of the shops are stocked with only a few cigarettes and soft drinks. Jerusalemites who once came to town on Fridays for meat no longer make the trek.

Now, the only way to pass from Eizariya to Jerusalem a half-mile to the west is by crawling through a bent metal plate in a gate that lies along the path of a thick, concrete wall.

The only way for most Palestinians, that is. Jewish Israelis and those with blue Israeli identity cards can take Highway 1, a high-speed bypass road that starts down the hill from Eizariya, past Ma'ale Adumim, the red-roofed Jerusalem suburb of 30,000 residents, through a busy army checkpoint and into the city.

With Jerusalem cut off to the west, Faroun had hoped to build a hospital, parks, an industrial zone and housing on a wide, mostly empty slope east of town. More than two weeks ago he submitted a detailed proposal for the project to the military-civilian authority that controls the area.

A few days later, however, the army issued land confiscation orders to make way for another section of the security barrier. It ran right through the area Faroun had hoped to develop.

"You want a plan to expand, O.K., here's a plan to confiscate," Faroun said, holding up a copy of the Israeli Defense Forces confiscation order. "We came to this situation with full hope and a full effort to reduce the impact of the barrier."

Some Israelis, concerned that Jerusalem will lose its historic Palestinian influences, have formed a new group, Ir Amim, which advocates that nothing be done that would prevent Jerusalem from being a capital for both Israel and a future Palestinian state. They are particularly concerned about an area called E1, adjacent to Faroun's proposed development, where Israel plans to develop another suburb with 3,500 homes.

"If the E1 area is going to be built, it means that East Jerusalem is going to be totally cut off from its natural Palestinian environment," said Amos Gil, the group's executive director.

Gil said the security fence will isolate many Palestinians, such as the 30,000 residents of the Shufat refugee camp or the village of Kfar Aqb, from Jerusalem, which has traditionally been their home.

Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said construction of the security barrier will proceed as long as Israelis face a security threat. But he said the government is willing to dismantle two dozen unauthorized Jewish homesteads in the West Bank that have popped up since Sharon took office. "We've shown what we can do with settlements," he said.

Settlement supporters say they intend to work hard to ensure that support for the Gaza pullout doesn't become a push for a change in West Bank settlement policy.

A poll released Thursday by Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper showed that Israelis gave soldiers and police officers high marks for their performance during the pullout, whereas the outside settler supporters who made the most noise were met with low approval.

"The religious Zionist community insulated itself and did not reach out and engage the secular Zionist community," said Efrat's Rabbi Raksin, in explaining the support for the Gaza pullout.

But Peace Now's Etkes said his group sees an opening to undercut support for West Bank settlement. "As much as we are in trouble, they are in bigger trouble," he said of the settler movement.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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