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(photo credit: AP)
Almost no progress has been made toward completing the West Bank security barrier in the past 15 months, according to numbers provided to The Jerusalem Post by the Defense Ministry on Wednesday.
To date, around 490 km. of the planned 805-km. barrier have been finished, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Shlomo Dror.
This is the same figure he gave the Post in February 2008, just after a suicide bomber came through a gap in the structure and killed a woman in Dimona while wounding 40 other people.
Dror spoke with the Post a day before the fifth anniversary of the International Court of Justice in The Hague's advisory opinion saying that construction of the barrier in the West Bank was illegal.
On Wednesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay called on Israel to "dismantle the wall" and "make reparations for all damage suffered by all persons affected by the wall's construction."
Since the nonbinding court ruling, Israel has continued to say that the structure saves lives and that it has a right to build it in the West Bank to protect its citizens against terror attacks.
In practice, in the past two years, work on the barrier has slowed to a trickle.
While work crews continue to complete mostly constructed sections, or to redo sections of the route based on High Court of Justice rulings, the number of fully completed sections has not increased in 15 months.
In two years, the length of the barrier has increased by only about 40 km.
Although the Defense Ministry had initially said it would complete the fence by 2010, Dror told the Post it was now looking to finish 500 km., 62 percent of it, by 2010.
He would not make any projections as to when the entire barrier, which was begun in 2002, would be finished.
Dror added that the focus at this juncture was on completing the barrier in the Jerusalem area. He said 100 km. of the overall barrier route had been held up by court cases and that work had not yet begun on another 200 km.
He blamed both the High Court and budget problems for the delays in completing the fence in the areas of Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, the Ariel and Kedumim fingers, as well as the South Hebron Hills.
A spokesman for Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the project remained a high priority for Barak, but he had no explanation as to why work had slowed down.
The United Nations, left-wing groups that monitor the barrier, as well as the head of security for the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, all told the Post there was little overall progress toward completing the structure.
At a Jerusalem press conference, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released a report in which it said the overall length of the barrier route was 709 km., of which only 413 km., or 58.3%, was completed. It added that another 73 km. was under construction.
The UN said at the briefing that its issue was not with the fence but with the route, of which 85% is in the West Bank and only 15% along the pre-1967 armistice line. It, too, called on Israel to abide by the Hague ruling and construct the barrier along the Green Line.
Once the barrier is completed, the UN report said, 35,000 Palestinians holding West Bank ID cards in 34 communities will be located between the barrier and the Green Line. The barrier would surround approximately 125,000 Palestinians on three sides and 26,000 Palestinians would be surrounded by it on four sides.
It added that the barrier has made life very difficult for the Palestinians by dividing families, and cutting off access to medical care, schools and farm lands.
Pillay, in a statement Wednesday, said, "The wall is but one element of the wider system of severe restrictions on the freedom of movement imposed by the Israeli authorities on Palestinian residents of the West Bank."
According to Oxfam International, which also issued a report on Wednesday, the overall route would divide the West Bank into three parts and up to 22 smaller isolated enclaves, jeopardizing the viability of a future Palestinian state.
The route as it was planned in June 2008 passed through 171 West Bank localities, affecting 712,313 Palestinians, according to Oxfam.
It said that 49,291 dunams (4,929.1 hectares) of land had been confiscated for the barrier and 27,841 people had been displaced.
Oxfam did acknowledge steps the government has taken to try to ease the obstacles posed by the fence. To help farmers access their land, 70 agricultural gates were created in the barrier, though farmers still had a hard time getting to their fields, Oxfam said.
The government has also spent NIS 2 billion to construct an alternative system of roads, underpasses and tunnels to facilitate Palestinian travel around the barrier.
Speaking at a Foreign Ministry press conference in Jerusalem, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon denied that the security barrier obstructed Palestinian movement.
He noted that in spite of the barrier, 1.2 million tourists visited the Palestinian territories in the West Bank in the past year and that the area's GNP had grown by between 5% and 7%.
AP contributed to this report.