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Wall still potent symbol of division in Mideast

  • Story Highlights
  • U.N. official urges Israel to "dismantle" barrier separating West Bank from Israel
  • Call comes 5 years after international court ruled Israel's wall was breaking law
  • Israel says wall aims to stem tide of Palestinian suicide bombing attacks
  • Wall affects many Palestinians' access to education, medical care and jobs
By Kevin Flower
CNN
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- A top U.N. official on Thursday urged Israel to "dismantle" its barrier separating the West Bank from the Jewish state and "make reparation for all damage suffered by all persons affected by the wall's construction" on Palestinian land.

The barrier is seen during construction in 2002 separating the Cross Israel Highway from the West Bank.

The barrier is seen during construction in 2002 separating the Cross Israel Highway from the West Bank.

The call by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay came on the 5th anniversary of the International Court of Justice's non-binding ruling that Israel was breaking international law by continuing to build the barrier.

Both United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations dealing with Palestinian issues in the region are using the anniversary to bring attention to the socio-economic impact barrier has had on Palestinians.

Construction of the barrier was begun by Israel in 2002 in the stated attempt to stem the tide of Palestinian suicide bombing attacks that became a frequent and deadly occurrence in Israel during the course of the second intifada which began in September 2000.

From 2001 to 2004, 488 Israelis were killed in suicide attacks according to figures provided by Israel's internal security agency known as the Shin Bet.

The barrier is currently over 400 km (248.5 miles) in length and is comprised of 20-foot sections of concrete wall in more densely populated areas and large barbed wire fencing in rural sections. Construction of the full 700-plus kilometers (435-plus miles) of the barrier has stalled considerably in the last two years as a result of court challenges and budgetary issues.

Speaking at a background briefing for reporters in Jerusalem, a U.N. official said the world body has "no objection to the wall per se when it sticks to the Green Line," a reference to to the 1949 Armistice line between the West Bank and Israel. However, as currently planned, 85 percent of the barrier will be built on land inside the West Bank and that it is having a "devastating humanitarian impact" on the Palestinian population, it added.

In a report the U.N. says about 35,000 Palestinians will find themselves living in "closed areas" that require Israeli permission for them to travel out of. Another 150,000 Palestinians will be surrounded on either three or four sides of the barrier. The result, said one U.N. official, is an "interruption of Palestinian life in all aspects" impacting both economic and social well-being.

For many Palestinians affected by the barrier this has meant the imposition of a complex permit system to allow them to travel, restricting access to education, medical care and employment opportunities.

The barrier has become a potent symbol of the sharp divisions between Israelis and Palestinians with both sides choosing to name the barrier differently.

Many Palestinians refer to the barrier as the "apartheid wall" and view it as nothing more than a land grab by Israel to help support and expand settlements in the West Bank. The Israeli government chooses to refer to it as the "security fence" necessary to protect its citizens from what it views as terrorist attacks.

Israel maintains that the barrier is not illegal and has been a successful tool in stopping Palestinian attacks on Israelis. In a statement to CNN, the Shin Bet said the barrier "is a major obstacle that influences the capability of the terror infrastructure in Samaria to infiltrate attackers into Israel to carry out terror attacks."

In the four-year period from 2005 to 2008 there were 16 suicide attacks in Israel compared to 164 in the previous four-year period.

Speaking to reporters at a briefing Wednesday Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon denied the barrier harmed Palestinians. "There is no impact of the security fence on economic activities," Ayalon said, adding it had not prevented 1 million tourists visiting the West Bank in 2008.

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