ofra settlement 298 AJ.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The US could demand Israel stop work on the security barrier in the West Bank as part of its call for a freeze in settlement activity, security expert Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli speculated as he spoke with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office disagreed, saying work on the barrier, which is designed to prevent terrorist attacks, was not part of their talks with the US.
But it is immediately obvious to anyone looking at a map of the planned 805-km. barrier route that the 295 km. that have yet to be built are largely made up of loops around the settlement blocs of Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and the Ariel/Kedumim area.
There are no plans at this time to complete the barrier in those blocs.
Such construction would, in a de facto, unilateral fashion, define the size of these blocs.
The issue of what constitutes a "settlement bloc" is part of the ongoing talks between the US and Israel, and would be part of any final-status negotiations with the Palestinians.
The Ma'aleh Adumim section of the barrier, in particular, would include work in the hotly contested E-1 area, which the Palestinians say would destroy the territorial contiguity of their future state.
The very idea that US pressure has prevented the barrier's construction around his city of 33,800 people has drawn sharp protest from Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel, who believes its absence leaves his city vulnerable to terror attacks.
"It's economics, not diplomacy, that is the problem," he told the Post. "Ma'aleh Adumim is within the consensus." Kashriel added that he expected it would be retained by Israel under any final-status agreement with the Palestinians.
This government, he said, would not take any steps that would endanger the city's status and place the future of its thousands of residents in limbo.
But Jerusalem attorney Shlomo Lecker, who represented Palestinians from the towns of Suahra e-Sharkiya and Abu Dis during their four-year legal battle against a 24-km. section of the 74-km. Ma'aleh Adumim loop, said politics had everything to do with the route.
Initially, Lecker said, the route had taken in a much larger swath of Palestinian land than was needed for security purposes.
In August last year, the state agreed that the route should be shortened in that area to leave some 4,000 dunams (400 hectares) outside the security barrier.
In April, as part of the ongoing case involving two joint petitions, the state mentioned in a statement to the High Court of Justice that recently it had issued land-seizure orders in the area of Ma'aleh Adumim in preparation for work on the barrier.
In June, the state suddenly shifted its stance toward the barrier, Lecker said.
It told the court in another memo that due to budgetary restrictions and other considerations, it did not intend to build the Ma'aleh Adumim loop at this time.
After receiving this response, the court on August 11 took the unusual step of "erasing" the petition.
It added, however, that should the state want to build a barrier in this area, it had to provide the petitioners with 45 days' notice, at which point they could refile their petition.
"What," pondered Lecker, "could have changed from April to June to push the state to change its plans regarding the Ma'aleh Adumim barrier loop?"
Lecker said he believes Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came under pressure during his May visit to Washington to stop work on the barrier in the Ma'aleh Adumim area.
But Arieli, of the Council for Peace and Security, said former US president George Bush had also opposed construction of the barrier inside the West Bank.
The international community has argued that if Israel wants to build a barrier to protect its citizens, it should do so along the entire Green Line.
According to figures provided by the United Nations, 85 percent of the barrier's planned route is inside the West Bank and only 15% is on the pre-1967 armistice line.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that it was illegal for Israel to build the barrier in the West Bank.
Israel has insisted it has the right to protect its citizens. But in practice the bulk of the 510 km. of the barrier that has been completed still runs fairly close to the Green Line.
For five years, from 2002 when the initial route was approved until November 2007, measurable progress continued on the barrier in spite of the scores of petitions to the High Court challenging the route.
Then in November 2007, just about the time the Annapolis initiative jump-started peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, work on the barrier slowed almost to a halt, said Arieli.
Little has been done since, he said. Work is under way on only two sections, Na'alin and Deir Naballa. Nothing has been done yet on the Ariel loop. In Gush Etzion, save for one section near the Efrat settlement, the Defense Ministry has been waiting for more than two years to receive a ruling from the High Court that would allow it to proceed, said Arieli.
He noted that three of the four largest settlement cities - Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim and Betar Illit - are not currently protected by the barrier.
Both he and security sources list three clear reasons why the work has slowed down: petitions to the High Court, lack of funds in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War and the lull in suicide bombings that has allowed the Israeli public to forget that the barrier is a tool against terror.
But Arieli and Lecker also believe American pressure has played a clear role.
Security sources have rejected this last theory. There has been a shift, they said, in the strategy for securing the Ma'aleh Adumim area and it has been determined that it is now a priority to work on the gap in the fence in the South Hebron Hills.
In the last year, security sources said, work has focused on closing the holes in the barrier around Jerusalem.
But they hinted broadly that there has been a shift in planning and that routes such as the Ma'aleh Adumim loop that appeared reasonable when they were designed are no longer feasible in the current diplomatic climate.
Herb Keinon and Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.