Without unnecessary provocation

Editorial

Haaretz

Tevet 19, 5765

Israel is continuing to establish facts beyond the Green Line (the pre-Six-Day War border), despite the change that has occurred in the diplomatic atmosphere since the death of former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will soon bring the amended route of the separation in the Etzion Bloc and the southern Hebron Hills to the government for approval. As was reported in Haaretz yesterday, the government will present a trade-off: The Jewish settlements in the Etzion Bloc will be on the Israeli side of the fence, and the southern segment will be moved to the Green Line, leaving extensive areas on the other side.

It is difficult to believe this trade will be acceptable to the Palestinian Authority. The candidate for the presidency of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), said yesterday that "there will be no peace with the fence" and he called for it to be dismantled. The construction in the Etzion Bloc will be a test - and not a simple one - of Abbas' relationship with Israel, immediately after the elections in the PA. The route Sharon will present to the government brings to the Israeli side of the fence 50,000 Jewish settlers in 10 settlements in the territories, four Palestinian villages, in which there are 18,000 inhabitants, and many lands belonging to Palestinians from the Bethlehem area.

The Etzion Bloc is one of the settlement blocs over which there is broad public agreement. Various plans for a permanent status agreement, from the Camp David summit to the Geneva accord, have proposed annexing it to Israel in return for an exchange of territory; however, the route that has been planned will cause unnecessary suffering to thousands of Palestinians who will find it hard to lead a normal life and work their lands.

The route was redrawn after the High Court of Justice ruled that it is necessary to take the Palestinians into consideration. The Council for Peace and Security, a nonpartisan organization whose members include retired Israel Defense Forces officers, has proposed a less invasive route that will not cut off the Palestinian villages and will put many Palestinian lands outside the fence. However, the security establishment has rejected the idea and has chosen a wider route, with the support of the Etzion Bloc local council.

Apparently, Sharon and the security establishment have not learned the lesson of their previous failures in the fence affair and they are again trying to use it as a basis for the future annexation of territories deep in the West Bank. This is destined for diplomatic troubles and legal suits that will again cause unnecessary delays in the project.

The fence is not the only Israeli project in the West Bank. Peace Now has reported on the construction of 3,500 new housing units in the Jewish settlements, especially in the large blocs. The government construes the "Bush letter" to Sharon, which recognized the existence of Israeli population centers in the territories, as an authorization to build in the settlement blocs. Apparently, however, there is an attempt here to expand the built-up area in order to increase the size of the areas that will be annexed to Israel in the future.

Even if there is understanding in the international community that large settlements will be included in Israel in return for alternative territory, there is no justification in this for extensive building in the territories. The government has undertaken to suspend construction in the Jewish settlements in the territories as part of the road map, parallel to the implementation of the Palestinian commitments. It is important that the construction be as limited as possible and not look like unnecessary provocation that weighs heavily on the chances for the renewal of the peace process with the Palestinians.