Fence section completion since July: 0

Contractors claiming budget issues, but PMO says NIS 500 million remains untouched.

security fence 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
security fence 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Not a single kilometer of the West Bank security fence has been completed in the past four months, The Jerusalem Post has learned. This week, the Defense Ministry told three contractors with signed agreements worth NIS 100 million not to begin scheduled work on the fence in the South Hebron Hills - due to lack of funds, according to Dudi Barrel, director-general of the Israel Infrastructure Contractor's Association. In spite of that claim, as well as media allegations that the Defense Ministry lacks money in its fence budget for this year, the Prime Minister's Office told the Post that NIS 500m. of the 2007 budget for the barrier remains in the Defense Ministry's coffer. Both the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry said they could not comment on the delay in the work on the South Hebron Hills portion of the fence. In general, work on the West Bank barrier, which has earned Israel international condemnation even as it has contributed to a significant decrease in terrorist attacks, has slowed to a trickle. Last year, the Defense Ministry completed 102 km. of the fence. Some 10 months into 2007, however, only an additional 48 km. - just 6 percent of the entire planned route of the fence - have been completed. Another 80 km. are under construction. Of those 80 km. the Defense Ministry had hoped to complete 50 km. this year, but it now expects to fall short of that goal. It would not say how much the shortfall would be. Earlier this year, the estimated target date for the project's completion was moved from 2008 to 2010 - meaning it will take the government eight years to build the fence which was first approved by the cabinet in 2002. As of this week only 56.9%, or 450 km. of the 790-km. route, has been completed, the Defense Ministry told the Post. This response exactly mirrors information given the Post in the beginning of July, when it made the same query. Of the remaining 260 km. of the planned route of the fence, some 100 km. are tied up in petitions before the High Court of Justice. An additional 160 km., the Defense Ministry said, are still in the planning phase. The Defense Ministry, so far, has offered no explanation as to why work on the fence has slowed down in 2007 compared with 2006. Work on the fence has historically not progressed evenly; particularly in light of the more than 176 court cases that have been filed against the fence. To date, according to the Defense Ministry there are some 45 active cases. It took the Defense Ministry only a year to construct 144 km. of fence from 2002 to 2003. But it took it another two and a half years, from August 2003 to December 2005 to complete another 150 km. of the barrier. With an eye to 2008, officials from the Treasury, Defense and Prime Minister's Office have already been meeting to argue about funding for the project. The Defense Ministry has been allocated NIS 1.3 billion for construction of the fence in 2008, exactly the same figure that it was given in 2007. But it has sought to raise the fence budget to NIS 1.8b. The Defense Ministry has not explained why it needs that sum, which would allow for the construction of anywhere from 138 km. to 200 km. of fence, given the slow rate of progress this year. At an average cost of NIS 9m. to NIS 13m. per km., the ministry should have spent in 2007 from NIS 432m. to NIS 625m. on the fence. That does not take into account money spent on the 80 km. currently under construction. According to the Prime Minister's Office NIS 800m. has been spent on the fence so far this year. According to a spokesman for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the cabinet this Sunday is likely to discuss the issue. But already on Wednesday, MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) said he plans to speak in front of the plenum on the matter. He told the Post he plans to ask that work be halted on the fence altogether because those funds should be used on security matters that are more critical such as anti-missile defense systems. "If it is a security project then there are things that are more important," he said. "If its objective is diplomatic, then in light of the ongoing dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, those matters should be worked on in agreement between the two parties." Initially, Schneller said, when he thought that the fence's objective was purely for security, he supported it. But over time, he said, he has come to understand that its intention is more diplomatic. Still the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry have continued to speak in support of the structure. Barrel, who is among the initial supporters of the fence, said, "Leaving holes in the structure is the stupidest thing that one could do." He added that the situation in the West Bank could change any time and Israel could find itself once more before a new wave of terror attacks. "The fence has proved that it saves lives," said Barrel. He hoped, he said, that it would not take the loss of more lives to renew the drive to complete the fence.