(photo credit: Rafael D Frankel)
For the first time, monetary constraints rather than legal problems could halt work on the security fence in 2007, defense officials on Wednesday told the Knesset group that lobbies for the barrier.
"We would have to stop working," a defense official told the lobby when he spoke of the NIS 500 million slated to be cut from the NIS 1.3 billion set aside in the 2007 budget for construction work on the security barrier.
That sum represents some 38 percent of the overall 2007 budget for the fence.
Given that the security fence costs approximately NIS 9 million a kilometer, such a cut would halt the construction of some 55 kilometers of the barrier in 2007.
At the start of 2006, officials had predicted that the 790-km. route would be completed by the end of 2007. In December, defense officials told The Jerusalem Post that it would not be finished until the end of 2008.
In the Knesset on Wednesday, security officials reported that some 500 km. of the route were mostly finished, with some 100 to 120 km. scheduled for completion in 2007. This leaves 180 to be finished in 2008, the security officials reported.
To date, they said, all the delays in fence construction had been due to legal cases brought against the barrier in the High Court of Justice, which is due on Sunday to deliberate issues regarding the fence in the Gush Etzion area.
As of December, there were 41 legal cases pending before the High Court of Justice regarding the security fence, according to the Defense Ministry.
"At this moment it is not money that is stopping us," a security official told the lobby group.
But a representative from the Finance Ministry and MK Danny Yatom (Labor) said that for the first time, money would be an obstacle when it came to the fence.
Yatom, who heads the lobby and who was the only lawmaker to show up for its meeting, said the prime minister had accepted the idea of removing NIS 500m. from the security fence's budget for 2007.
The Finance Ministry representative concurred and said that his office along with that of the prime minister had looked at cutting the NIS 500m. from the defense budget to help pump NIS 1.8 billion into the Defense Ministry's operational budget.
A Defense Ministry spokeswoman told the Post the cut had not been finalized. She added, however, that money taken from the 2007 separation fence budget would be returned in 2008. In the end, the fence would be completed, she said, but it just won't happen in 2007.
However a security official told the Knesset lobby group on Wednesday that he feared a delay in work for financial reasons could have an impact on legal cases pending before the court. It could open the door to the argument that the route is not essential for security, he said.
Yatom said that he would personally check the budget to see what the money would be spent on, to insure that it is of higher priority level than the fence. Yatom added that he wanted to see the fence completed by the end of 2007.
Mark Luria, a spokesman for the pro-fence activist group The Public Committee for the Security Fence for Israel, attacked the decision to take funds away from the security fence in 2007.
"We have gotten to a critical stage in building the fence, it would be foolish at this point to decrease the funding when we are finally going to see the fence completed," Luria said. "It is quite possible that people could pay with their lives for this decision," Luria said, adding: "I hope that won't happen."