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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 Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 2006


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.

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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.

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.