(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'In general, I'm against the fence," said Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief Rabbi of Efrat in Gush Etzion, referring to the security fence currently being erected in Israel. "But in a country which is having a fence, we have to try to get everybody in."
Construction of the security fence around Gush Etzion was scheduled to begin immediately after the holidays, but as of press time, no work had yet been done.
The route of the fence in the area is now under serious debate.
The route in question was proposed to the government by the Council for Peace and Security, a non-profit organization of security and diplomacy experts, and was found unacceptable to the Gush Etzion Regional Council.
It excludes settlements such as Tekoa and Nokdim, which have each been around for more than 20 years, and furthermore, according to the Regional Council of Gush Etzion, it poses more security dangers and gives land priority to the Palestinians.
"What they [the Council for Peace and Security] suggested is to surround the communities here with fences, like a jail - and people cannot live like that," said Shaul Goldstein, the head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. "Secondly, this type of fence is an obstacle for the army to respond to any terrorist attacks - if the fence is so close to the cities, terrorists can attack and run away.
"Basically," Goldstein continued, "we need to change the technical details of the fence as well as the route, so we can ensure our security and show the world that this is not a future border."
Danny Rothschild, the president of the Council for Peace and Security, explained that the route of the fence espoused by his organization is determined by two criteria - the course of an appropriate line from a topographical perspective, and keeping the number of Palestinians on the Israeli side to a minimum.
He says the fence is necessary for the security of the state and denies any claims that it poses security dangers for residents of Gush Etzion.
In fact, Rothschild stated, "the fence they [Shaul Goldstein and the Gush Etzion Regional Council] want will cause them many more security problems than our fence."
Rothschild also refutes the claim that Palestinian land ownership is being given priority over Jewish land ownership in the planning of the fence route.
"That's a lie," he said.
However, despite Rothschild's declaration that "Gush Etzion will remain part of the state of Israel," the fence proposed by the Council for Peace and Security does indeed exclude Tekoa and Nokdim, as well as Karmei Tzur and Maalei Amos, all settlements within the jurisdiction of Gush Etzion.
Colonel Shaul Arieli, a member of the Council for Peace and Security, explained that their proposed fence route only incorporates six percent of the West Bank, and taking any more than that would infringe upon the Palestinians and "damage the demographic balance in Israel."
Arieli elaborated "that Nokdim, for example, is 12 km. deep into the West Bank - so if we included it in the fence, it would break the Palestinian contiguity between Beit Lehem and Hebron."
"We don't want to damage the daily life of Palestinians near the green line," Arieli said. "If we take in any more settlements, we will separate the Palestinians further from each other and this will only make their lives worse and anger them more."
Arieli admitted that land priority is indeed being given to the Palestinians over the Israelis.
"Of course it is," he said. "Because we are talking about large [Palestinian] cities and not two or three small settlements [Tekoa, Nokdim, etc.] deep in the West Bank." Nonetheless, Gush Etzion residents said they plan to fight for all their settlements to be included.
"We are going to use as much legal power as we have to try and get as much as possible within the fence," reiterated Riskin, who is also the founder of the Ohr Torah Stone organizations in Israel and abroad, as well as a columnist for this newspaper. "Because aside from security, this is also about our right to be here. To that end, we're trying to have places that are closed and places that are open - a technical fence."
Goldstein, who has been in close contact with Riskin as well as with mayors of the other communities in Gush Etzion, explained the idea further. "In some areas, we are pushing for technological barriers such as cameras, radars and even cactuses, instead of an actual fence."
When asked whether he thought the idea of a technical fence was possible, Rothschild said he has nothing against it, "if it does the job."
But Arieli dismissed the idea as "not serious," and said the job can only be executed with an actual fence, not with a technical barrier.
Nonetheless, Goldstein maintained that changing the make-up of the fence is necessary. "We do not in any way want the fence to be misconstrued as a political fence - as a future border," he said.
The Council for Peace and Security, however, sees it differently.
On the one hand, Rothschild asserted he not only doesn't think the fence will become a future border, but that "it should not be the future border - it is there to protect the people, period."
In apparent contradiction, however, Arieli stated that, "the separation fence will be considered a future border, except for Jerusalem," which he said would be discussed during final-status agreements.
As for the settlements left outside the fence, such as Tekoa and Nokdim, Arieli explained that they would meet the same fate as Gush Katif.
"Eventually, after negotiations with the Palestinians, we will have to evacuate them," he said.
As a result of the disagreements, the regional heads of Gush Etzion met several times with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, in an attempt to agree on a route for the fence that is acceptable to all parties.
"Mofaz is under a lot of pressure now from 'fence fans' like Danny Rothschild to build it as soon as possible," Goldstein explained. "But he was very open and sympathetic to our concerns, and if 50% of the things he said come true, we'll be in a very good position."
In order to gain a better understanding of the issues, Mofaz visited the area Wednesday, and though the defense minister accepted some of the demands of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, Goldstein said he is not happy with the results, and "there are still many things that have to change."
Goldstein said he plans to meet Thursday night with other council members to discuss the situation. He contended that in the worst-case scenario, "if we feel being fenced in negatively affects our safety in any way, we will reject it altogether."
But remaining outside the fence, according to both Goldstein and Riskin, has serious drawbacks as well.
"Watch the Arab world - they are very much against the fence," Riskin said, "because they feel whoever remains inside will be part of Israel, and whoever remains outside will be part of a future Palestinian state, so we would only be playing into their allusions if we give up on the fence." Looking into the future, Arieli remarked that, "the strategic goal of Israel is eventually to put an end to this conflict through negotiationsâ€¦ so we cannot build a fence that does not compensate the Palestinians."
On the other hand, Riskin pointed out that Israel's problems with the Palestinians run far deeper than fences.
"I wish I understood where the prime minister is going and what his vision is," Riskin said. "And because he hasn't made that clear, I'm afraid he doesn't have a vision.
"It's a pity that we have to be involved with fences altogether - we should be trying to change the countries around us to be democratic and give freedom to their citizens - a future Palestinian state founded upon democracy, peace and freedom should not be judenrein, and given that kind of peace program, there would be no need for anyone to leave their settlements, and there would be no need for fences."
In the meantime, the residents of Gush Etzion are waiting for the government to determine their fate.
"We want the route proposed by the Council for Peace and Security to be discarded by the government - we are asking for a better route for the fence, one that encompasses all of Gush Etzion and won't be misconstrued as a future border," said Josh Adler, a resident of Efrat.
"We are going to do everything we can to make sure this fence doesn't happen," said Anita Finkelstein, a resident of Tekoa. "We didn't come here to have the wool pulled over our eyes by our own government - in the end, this fence will just make it more difficult to provide security to the part of Gush Etzion that's even included in the fence, and then the whole of Gush Etzion will find itself in a very dangerous, very indefensible position, and we cannot, with open eyes, allow that to happen."