WASHINGTON - The World Bank, an international development institution that says it has no political agenda, may be preparing to fund Israeli security checkpoints around a controversial separation wall under construction on occupied Palestinian territories.
Israel is not eligible for World Bank lending because of its high per capita income, but Palestinians are.
According to a World Bank official, the project would help the Palestinian economy by allowing Palestinian goods and workers a faster review at the checkpoints.
"We had proposed a couple of crossings and Israel has more formally come back to us and asked whether we would help secure financing for these, which is why we have started to prepare a project," Markus Kostner, the Bank's country program coordinator for the West Bank and Gaza, told IPS.
The crossings would be designed to speed up the movement of Palestinian people and cargo, and would be staffed by Israelis.
"However, as I said, our financial contribution would be to the Palestinians. Because of its high per capita income level, Israel is not eligible for World Bank financing," Kostner said.
"So the project helps enhance the efficiency of the border crossings for the benefit of Palestinians, as well as at the same time … at least maintain if not increase the security considerations of Israelis. From that perspective, it'll be a double gain," he added.
Approval of the plans may come as early as June this year, he said. The funding would come either in the form of grants or soft loans. The Bank declined to give a dollar value for the project and said it was still under consideration.
The Palestinians say they are following the issue closely.
"Our policy is that in principle, as long as this is not cut from any funding or aid to the Palestinians, then we'll put it under discussion," Hassan Abderhman, chief of the Palestine Mission in Washington, told IPS.
"However, we haven't been informed of the World Bank plan. We are still in the discussions phase."
Some watchdog groups say the project would violate international law since some of the proposed checkpoints by the Israelis are on and around the separation wall, which annexes Palestinian land.
"If they are going to be funding the checkpoints outside of places in the Green [Line], then it's clearly a violation of international conventions and law," said Terry Walz of the Washington-based Council for the National Interest, a group that monitors U.S. and international policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.
"I must admit that making the Palestinians pay for the modernization for these checkpoints is an embarrassment, since they had nothing [to do] with the erection of the separation wall to begin with and in fact have protested it. I think the whole issue is extremely murky right now."
The Israeli business publication Globes reported on Feb. 15 that World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa Region Christiaan J. Poortman and other senior figures indicated that the Bank does not rule out financing infrastructure projects inside Israel that benefit Palestinians, such as a rail link between Gaza and the Ashdod Port or water projects.
Poortman also told the Jewish weekly publication The Forward two weeks ago that the World Bank is considering funding projects and security crossings around the separation wall.
The Forward quoted Poortman as saying that the World Bank "has indicated that it is willing to play a role, whether financially or in technical assistance," in upgrading the border crossings.
Poortman was not available for an interview.
This would be the first time the World Bank had stretched its interpretation of lending to the Palestinians to permit funding Israeli security measures and projects on occupied land.
Two weeks ago, an official Israeli delegation headed by former Brigadier General Baruch Spiegel briefed U.S. officials on the planned crossing points.
Spiegel heads a team appointed by Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to contain the Palestinian "humanitarian" problems emanating form the construction of the separation wall.
Spiegel has reportedly also briefed officials with U.S. Jewish groups and senior World Bank officials.
An action alert from the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a leading pro-Israel lobby group, said Israel is building "state of the art" checkpoint crossings "for Palestinians traveling from Gaza to Israel, modernizing five similar terminals between Israel and the West Bank and substantially reducing the number of security checkpoints and roadblocks in Palestinian areas."
Israel is also building a Jerusalem bypass road that will enable Palestinians to travel between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank without moving through security checkpoints.
Some U.S. aid slated for the Palestinians would also be going to fund checkpoints. The Palestinians will eventually have to pay some of those debts.
President George W. Bush's public offer of $350 million in aid to the Palestine Authority actually allots some money to fund those "state of the art" checkpoint crossings.
The World Bank may also be trying to cast the modernization of checkpoints between Israel and the Palestinian Territories as a "development" project to be undertaken by the either the Israelis or the Palestinians as a way of improving the Palestinian quality of life and ease of communication.
The World Bank has been at the center of several controversies over the past few years, including charges that it backs international corporations at the expense of poor people in developing nations, but this is the first time it appears ready to get actively involved in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. James Wolfensohn had rejected this possibility last year.
The controversial separation wall is not built along the Green Line, the borders before the 1967 war in which Israel annexed more Arab land, but is in the West Bank, the main part of a potential Palestinian state.
The route of the barrier purposefully runs deep into Palestinian territory in order to help annex Israeli settlements and to break up Palestinian territorial contiguity.
Many development groups question the involvement of the World Bank and the U.S. government in the scheme.
Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish group that advocates peace with the Palestinians, supports the potentially greater freedom of movement and economic growth new checkpoints would provide, but wants to ensure that U.S. funding only pays for construction along the Green Line and not for the entrenchment of the security barrier deep in the West Bank.
"American aid to construct crossing points for the barrier inside the West Bank would violate U.S. policy that opposes spending U.S. tax dollars in support of Israeli settlement activity and the perpetuation of Israel's occupation of the West Bank," the group said in a statement.
"Israel has a right to deploy a barrier to protect itself from suicide bombers and other terrorists. However, it is our view that such a barrier should be built on the basis of the Green Line, not in the West Bank."
The Council of National Interests, a group monitoring the request, described the project as a boondoggle in which "Peter is robbed to pay Paul."
(Inter Press Service)