Palestinians Head to D.C. To Fight West Bank Fence

By Ori Nir

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
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WASHINGTON — A team of young Palestinian policy advisers is coming to Washington this week in an effort to sway political opinions about the security fence that Israel is building in the West Bank. The group’s presentation on the subject has already influenced at least one member of the Bush administration: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

In the Ramallah headquarters of the Palestinian Authority on June 28, Stephanie Koury, a legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, gave Rice and her staff a 10-minute computerized presentation expressing Palestinian concerns over the fence.

Hours later, Rice shocked and angered members of the Israeli Cabinet when she asked them to “reconsider” the fence. While Prime Minister Sharon presents the fence as necessary for security, Palestinians view it as a political border that encroaches on their land and imposes restrictions on their freedom of movement. Rice reportedly recounted the Palestinian arguments during her Israeli Cabinet meeting.

For the P.A., Rice’s apparent embrace of its position was an important achievement. It also underscored the central role played by a relatively new group of young assistants to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, a team of mostly American-educated legal and policy experts, each specializing in one of the issues of contention between Israel and the Palestinians.

This week, Koury is showing the same presentation that so impressed Rice to American administration officials, members of Congress and their staffers, think-tank experts and journalists in Washington.

Koury’s presentation shows how the fence separates Palestinian villagers from their agricultural fields and greenhouses. It also tells the tale of Qalqilya — a West Bank town of 42,000 that borders Israel — where Palestinians contend that a network of barbed-wire fences and a high wall leave the town linked to the West Bank only by a narrow road, which is controlled by a permanent Israeli roadblock. As a result, the Palestinians assert, Qalqilya can no longer serve as a commercial center for more than 30 neighboring villages; according to Palestinian data, Qalqilya now suffers an 80% unemployment rate.

Koury, 35, a Texas-born American of Lebanese origin, is a specialist on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Accompanying her in Washington is another legal adviser to the PLO: Michael Tarazi, 35, a Harvard Law School graduate and American citizen who abandoned an American corporate-law career to work for the PLO in Ramallah. Tarazi was recently described by The Wall Street Journal as “the most articulate and sophisticated Palestinian advocate to come along in years.”

Koury and Tarazi are part of the 18-member Negotiation Support Unit of the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department, which until recently was headed by Abu Mazen. The unit was created in 1999 with European financial assistance to support the Palestinian team negotiating with Israel’s Barak government over so-called “permanent status” issues. Those negotiations collapsed in 2000, and members of the unit focused instead on public diplomacy, reaching out to campuses, churches, community centers and media in the U.S. and around the world.

That is how Americans met new Palestinian faces such as Tarazi, Koury and Diana Buttu, a 32-year-old Arab-Canadian who was born in Nazareth and still carries Israeli citizenship. Buttu, who like other unit staffers has frequently visited Washington since the American-led “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace was officially published last April, recently told the Forward she decided to join the PLO when she realized how poor a public-relations job it was doing. As an Israeli Arab, she said, she was particularly frustrated with what she viewed as Jewish Israelis’ misperceptions of the Palestinian cause.

Israelis understandably view the separation fence as a way to impede suicide bombers, said Buttu — who recently helped draft language for speeches by Abu Mazen and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat condemning such attackers — but Palestinians see it as a “cage,” an attempt to hem in entire communities. The fence may make Israelis more supportive of a territorial settlement, Buttu said, but if they look at it from the Palestinian side, they will notice that the convoluted contour of the fence, which zigs and zags inside the West Bank, is eroding Palestinian public support for the peace process.

The Palestinians are demanding that Israel stop building the fence and tear down the small strip of fence already erected in the northern part of the West Bank. If Israel insists on building a fence, they say, it should run on the Green Line, the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. Israel’s position is that the fence is not a political border, that it is reversible, and that attempts will be made to build it with minimum suffering to the Palestinians. The United States, according to administration officials, will not ultimately demand that Israel cancel the fence project.

The Palestinians may win a reprieve from an unlikely source, however. This week, Sharon’s Likud party, which opposes the fence, fearing that it will resurrect the Green Line, decided to halt all parliamentary funding for the project until the government convinces it of the fence’s security necessity and cost effectiveness.

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