The new walls of Jerusalem: Part 3 • From the West Bank, a circuitous road to market

Trucker Rajaee Sultan Tamimi starts his hours-long trek from Hebron to Jerusalem's edge at 4:40 a.m. because of checkpoints. If he could drive straight to the city, it would take 45 minutes. Part 3 of three.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Rajaee Sultan Tamimi rises at 3 a.m. He leaves the house about 4 a.m. and arrives here by 4:30, two hours before sunrise.

He's an Al-Juneidi Dairy & Food Stuffs Company truck driver, father of eight, and on this recent weekday, he has a cargo of some 500 cases of yogurt and other dairy products to get to an Israeli army-run checkpoint at Beitunia, outside Ramallah.

After inspection, the goods will be switched to a truck with yellow license plates that signal permission to enter Israel. That truck will take the goods south, into Jerusalem, to shelves in stores all across the city's Arab sector.

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Like a growing number of West Bank residents, Mr. Tamimi doesn't have Israeli permission to enter Jerusalem. For Palestinian businesses to get their produce into East Jerusalem – which has always been a natural market for them – it's becoming a longer, more complicated, and circuitous haul. They face Israel's security barrier – a concrete wall in some parts and fence in others – and more security checkpoints outside Jerusalem, says the Israeli human rights group Btselem.

"The number of staffed checkpoints is fairly constant, while the number of physical obstacles often changes, depending on the political and security situation," the group says on its website, adding that some 470 obstacles block roads.

"What we've mostly seen is more physical obstacles: The [Israeli] army putting up concrete blocks, dirt mounds, or trenches so that they channel all traffic to the main roads where you have the checkpoints, to make sure that people don't avoid them and to make sure Palestinians don't have access to roads that are only for settlers," says Jessica Montell, the executive director of Btselem.

If Mr. Tamimi could travel straight from Hebron to Jerusalem, his daily haul – instead of snaking around the West Bank through checkpoints and around settlements for four hours – would take about 45 minutes.

In fact, when he started driving in the early 1980s, that's exactly what he did, making deliveries as far north as Haifa and Galilee. "It's now at least double the time to do everything we used to do," says Tamimi. "What makes it bad is that they're saying it will get better, but it's worse."

Barrier to truckers and students alike

Since the start of the last intifada, which began in September 2000, there's been a drastic reduction in the number of permits given to West Bankers to enter Israel. Since the election of Hamas in January, the seal has become tighter, with the ban over the past year extended even to Palestinian students who want to study at – and have been accepted to – Israeli universities.

On Monday, Israel's Supreme Court called a sweeping ban against Palestinian students studying at Israeli universities unreasonable and ordered the military to set specific criteria for admitting at least some Palestinian students into Israel for purposes of study. The decision followed a challenge from Gisha, the Center for the Legal Protection of Freedom of Movement.

From a height of a few hundred students who studied in Israel in 1996, says Sari Bashi, the executive director of Gisha, the Center for the Legal Protection Freedom of Movement, there are currently 14 Palestinian students with permits to study in Israel.

"There's been an overall chilling affect, so Israeli universities have stopped admitting and Palestinian students have stopped applying," says Ms. Bashi, whose organization deals with freedom-of-movement issues for Palestinians in the territories.

The new walls around Jerusalem, she says, mean that many Palestinian students from the West Bank and the outlying areas are no longer able to get to Al-Quds University, which has campuses both inside Jerusalem and in nearby Abu Dis.

"The university is having to duplicate a lot of their services, and around 30 percent of students and faculty are having problems to get their classes. Jerusalem is a hub, so when you cut off that hub from people who live in the surroundings, you're denying people access to family members, commerce, and education."

Traversing new economic realities

Tamimi is on the road at 4:40 a.m., a time when the streets of Hebron are silent and somber. He winds down a back road to avoid a checkpoint at the entrance to the city.

Then he heads north, past Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements. Just as he reaches the southern entrance to Efrat, one of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank, he turns right on a road that will lead him east and north. "If we were able to go straight to Jerusalem," he says, turning, "we'd be there in 10 minutes." This way, the road is old and winding, and at this hour, darker.

Around 5:20, he's passing the settlement of Tekoa, on a hilltop surrounded by Palestinian villages. Tekoa's location is so remote that, according to current plans, it will be left outside the wall, or security barrier, which has yet to be built in this area. In Tamimi's opinion, there are not enough people there to warrant the resources it gets. The roads leading to it are well-lit, while this one is dark. "This road is for Arabs," he says. "See, no lights."

He reaches a checkpoint near Sawahare known by everyone as "the container," because there used to be a shipping container here that marked the place of the checkpoint. Sometimes, he says, it takes two hours to get through. But he's having a good morning, and soldiers wave him through.

"They never tell you what the holdup is, just that they need to check," he says. "Sometimes they will bring dogs to sniff inside the truck."

Heading along the curvy road, he slows down by a small neighborhood mosque, its slim minaret topped with neon green rings. He hops out of the truck and goes inside to quickly say his morning prayers.

Given that he's about to drive into the Valley of Fire, apparently named for its treacherous roads, stopping to pray seems especially sensible.

"When it's rainy, we don't take it," he says, downshifting and moving more slowly. Over mountains that are rough and dry, the light is starting to peek out, brightening the valley.

"At least I get a chance to get out of my house and see something," he says. These days, West Bankers rarely go into Jerusalem.

Getting Israelis and Palestinians to "separate" has been a stated goal of politicians since the Labor Party's Ehud Barak was prime minister in 1999.

He argued for less Palestinian contact with Israel, whether with the intention of enabling an independent state or simply decoupling the economic lives of the two people.

"Us here, them there," was one of his slogans. This, it was argued, would erase points of friction and opportunities for terrorism.

But the friction is still there, and Palestinians are feeling the economic pinch.

"There are [expiration] dates, and because yogurt is a sensitive material, if it is not sent back immediately the next day, all of this traveling back and forth affects the quality of the product," says Nidal Mohammed, marketing manager with Al-Juneidi.

"Al Juneidi's income in Jerusalem was about 15 percent of our overall income, and now that's almost a total loss for us. But our objective is to stay alive in the Palestinian areas and keep our presence on the shelves, so we keep delivering."

Flying checkpoints and global politics

It is 6:10 a.m. by the time Tamimi is passing Azzariyeh, on Jerusalem's outskirts. Sometime there's a "flying checkpoint" here – checkpoints that come and go.

"The situation for Palestinians is disastrous," Tamimi says. "Men can't find jobs. I blame the Arab leaders for not doing more for us. People here have nothing. They have lost hope. Some men don't have a shekel in their pockets, and their wives go out to work. That's not in our culture."

Nearly a year ago, he voted for Hamas, which won't recognize Israel. That was the people's democratic choice, he says, and now he doesn't understand why international financial support is being withheld. "The world is demanding things that can't be given," he says. Tamimi believes Hamas has the right approach. "Why should we recognize a state with people from all over the world, when Palestinians have been living on this land for generations?"

Neither does he believe in building a Palestinian state next to an Israeli one. "We'll reach a point where we'd have a prime minister or a president who is an Arab, so why not just have one state? Then we can all live here, together, peacefully."

Long days becoming longer

It's 6:27 a.m., the meeting point between dawn and morning when the sun is already up but the moon is still out. There were always some checkpoints here, at least as far back as anyone in this generation can remember. But the atmosphere at them was different, he says.

"Now, when you approach a soldier, they have you open your clothes, they're always stressed.... Before, you could drink coffee or tea with them and chat."

He bypasses Pisgat Zeev, an Israeli neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where about 50 cars idle at a checkpoint, bumper to bumper, waiting to get into Jerusalem. He continues north, passing by the Palestinian village of Hizma.

At an Israeli checkpoint, a bored- looking soldier in a cold-weather jumpsuit and carrying an Uzi simply waves the West Bank vehicles through to another part of the West Bank. Tamimi weaves through the barrier at reduced speed.

"It's not necessary to have these checkpoints at all. Israel says it's just for security, but I think they do it to disturb people. If it weren't for these, I could have left my house at 6 or 7 a.m., instead of 4," he says.

"Obviously the whole situation has significant impact on Palestinians' lives and it has a huge impact on movement of goods and services," says Kevin Kennedy, the United Nations' Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory. "If you look at the AMA [the Agreement on Movement and Access signed by Israelis and Palestinians], we're far from the goals.

"The number of closures, blockades, ditches, earth mounds, and similar road hurdles are up 40 percent from this time last year," he continues. "That's coupled with the permits regime and limits on freedom of movement. A young kid of 20 from Nablus can't go to Ramallah to get a job and that stifles the labor force. In commerce, a journey that once took 25 minutes now takes two to three hours. So the very movement of trying to ship things, the added transaction and labor costs, the time involved, it just drives things up and up, reduces profit margins, and drives down productivity."

While Israel sees blocked roads and security checkpoints as preventive measures that have been successful at thwarting attacks, Tamimi sees them differently. "These checkpoints and walls will never stop someone who's keen on carrying out a suicide attack," he says, using the more popular term in the local Arabic lexicon: martyrdom operations.

The Kalandia bottleneck

Around a quarter to seven, he passes through the Kalandia checkpoint, an area with one of the most gnarled checkpoints between Jerusalem and the West Bank. He has spent up to an hour-and-a-half at the checkpoint in the past.

The heart of the bottleneck is for people trying to get into Jerusalem, which naturally is something Tamimi knows is off-limits to him. Instead, he continues, moving along with the morning rush-hour cars that have begun to fill the roads. He pulls into Ramallah, stops to make a phone call to the head office, and munches on a half-moon of pita bread.

Then he continues driving west, then south, until he reaches the Beitunia checkpoint. The time is 7:31 a.m. The usual customers are waiting: men who want to get their goods through, women who want to visit sons or husbands imprisoned at the nearby Ofer Military Base.

The workday is just beginning

While they wait for the electronic gate to open, the men mill around. With a buzz and a jolt, the yellow gate starts to part, and, as it does, people gingerly and quietly walk through to present their IDs at the guardhouse, which is manned by the Border Police, a paramilitary unit.

A soldier in a military jeep starts beeping with a jarring horn meant to clear crowds.

"No pictures allowed!" a soldier yells at this reporter, ordering her and her interpreter back behind the electronic gate. No amount of negotiating and showing ID cards issued from Israel's Government Press Office seems relevant.

They send in a more senior officer, Capt. Oran Tibi, who gives the order for the journalists to leave. "This is security," Captain Tibi says. "You can't go into this passageway."

It's 7:56 a.m., and Tamimi's dairy products are waiting to be delivered to a driver at the other side of Beitunia. This is not the last delivery of the day. Thankfully, the trucks are refrigerated, which is key in the summer, when high temperatures and slow checkpoints can wreak havoc on a container of fresh milk.

Tamimi passes through just after 8:30 a.m. He still has two more deliveries and 11 hours of work to go.

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