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Last Updated: Monday, 22 December, 2003, 08:59 GMT
UN satellites eye Israeli barrier
Alfred Hermida
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Satellite image of the West Bank
A Unosat image taken over Israel
The UN is keeping a close eye from space on the path of Israel's controversial West Bank barrier.

It is using satellites to take images of the 700km (435 miles) barrier which cuts across Palestinian territory.

The aim is to offer clear geographical data on a politically-charged issue.

"It is evident by looking at this wall on the satellite imagery to see the damage done to Palestinian villages that are getting trapped," said Alain Retiere of the UN's satellite agency.

Israel is building the barrier on occupied land to protect its citizens against suicide bombers.

Most of the barrier is wire fence at least three-metre high, reinforced with a ditch and coils of razor wire.

The Palestinians argue that the fence is designed to redraw borders ahead of any future peace settlement.

The UN has also spoken out against the fence, describing it as illegal. In a report in September it said the wall was tantamount to "an unlawful act of annexation".

'Unquestionable'

The images are being collected by satellite agency, Unosat, for another UN body, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Alain Retiere from Unosat
When you see the maps, you see there that this is more than just about ensuring security
Alain Retiere, Unosat
Its Jerusalem office is trying to build up an accurate picture of the wall's impact on affected Palestinian communities and analyse its future trajectory.

But this has proved difficult to do, given the sensitivity surrounding the barrier.

"The wall is not easy to monitor on the ground," Mr Retiere told BBC News Online. "You can't get very close to the fence and the fact that you are doing fieldwork is suspicious."

"Satellite imagery is a very practical and inexpensive way to monitor the situation on the ground and to make it unquestionable."

The agency maintains it is not taking a position on the fence, but that its role is to make the information available to all.

Both Israelis and Palestinians have access to the images of the wall.

"This has the virtue of putting the reality in front of everyone," said Mr Retiere.

Solving disputes

But reality that has emerged from the data gathered by the UN agency may not please Israel.

Guide to the route and structure of the West Bank barrier

"There is an increasing degree of consciousness that this wall is not just about security," said Mr Retiere.

"When you see the maps, you see there that this is more than just about ensuring security."

However, he believes the work can make a positive contribution to peace negotiations taking place against a background of fear and mistrust.

The UN agency points to past cases where satellite imagery has helped to solve disputes over land, such as in El Salvador and in Nicaragua.

"What we are trying modestly to contribute is to make as many people as possible aware about the existence of satellite imagery as a resource," explained Mr Retiere.

"The more people know about this, the more we will avoid the tricking of the information which has been an obstacle for conflict resolution for centuries."




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