How many West Bank barriers will Israel forgo?

Sixty roadblocks have been removed in the Palestinian territory, but critics say that isn't enough to improve life in the West Bank.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Checkpoint: Cars in the West Bank last week lined up at an Israeli security checkpoint on a road between Jerusalem and Hebron.
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    Israeli soldiers abandoned a roadblock at Rimonim junction as part of Israel’s removal of 60 security barriers in the West Bank. Concrete blocks used by the soldiers for a checkpoint remains, suggesting the army could return at any time.
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This crossroads used to be a daily battle for Palestinian motorists, with traffic stretching a half-mile and wait time before inspection by Israeli soldiers longer than an hour.

Now, as a small step toward peace that included Israel's removal of 60 security barriers throughout the Palestinian territories, soldiers are gone from the road, and traffic between the northern West Bank and Jericho glides through the junction.

With Israeli and Palestinian leaders trying to negotiate a peace deal this year, the checkpoint trial brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month seeks to break the zero-sum equation between Israel's security and Palestinian economic prosperity.

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Untangling the maze is intended to improve daily life for Palestinians and boost Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas at the expense of Hamas, his Islamist rival in the Gaza Strip.

Yet the military watchtower staring down at the Rimonim intersection highlights the Israeli army's domination of the West Bank and shows how tentative the gesture is.

"The soldiers are still here on the side of the road," says Hani Halawah, who said the daily commute between his village and Jericho was shortened from three hours to 40 minutes. "At least it gives hope to people that there is a possibility for achieving peace."

Under the first stage of the US sponsored "road map," lifting restrictions on Palestinian movement is a precondition for implementing any peace treaty. But hundreds of barriers, ranging from dirt mounds to the temporary checkpoints, are still intact in the West Bank. Judging the effectiveness of the initial peace gesture is proving difficult.

The United Nations counted as many as 573 permanent barriers and checkpoints around the West Bank at the end of last year, as well as an additional 69 "flying" checkpoints on an average week. Almost immediately after Israel announced that it had completed the checkpoint removal, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat dismissed the move as public relations.

Beyond releasing the West Bank economy from an eight-year straitjacket, roadblock removal would stoke confidence among Palestinians in the peace process. A dissonance between declarations and the reality on the ground, however, erodes that support, analysts say.

"People read in the papers that checkpoints are going to be removed, but in reality, they move around and see the same checkpoints are there. That's why they're skeptical about whether this is for international consumption, or ,in fact, happening," says Mohammad Dejani, professor of political science at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem.

"If the removal of the checkpoints is real, it's very significant for the peace process and improving the psychology and economy of the Palestinians," he says.

Palestinians view the vast number of roadblocks as proof that Israel wants to punish the entire population for the acts of militants. Israel counters that every security barrier serves a purpose and its removal represents added risk.

"We've taken a calculated risk," says Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "If the Palestinians were more effective in their own counterterrorism, it would change our risk assessment, and we would take down more."

Barrier removal has been concentrated in the northern West Bank. The vast majority taken out have been the dirt mounds that block access roads to main roadways for rural villagers, creating two separate transportation networks for Palestinians and Israelis. Permanent barriers controlling access to large Palestinian cities have not been touched.

Echoing PA criticism, human rights advocates say the impact of the removal so far has been negligible. "It's a sham," says Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights watchdog B'Tselem, who charges that many of the existing barriers have little security value.

"Placing such an extensive network of physical obstacles over such an extended period of time … is not the correct balance between the needs of the occupying power and the needs of the occupied population," she says.

US Gen. William Fraser is scheduled to monitor implementation of the roadblock removal and report back to Secretary Rice. "The removal of the 50 or 60 roadblocks is not the end all and be all, it's a means to an end," says US Embassy spokesman Stuart Tuttle.

A drive to the Palestinian village of Sara shows the mixed results of the removals. Soldiers who once stopped Palestinian cars at a junction outside the village are gone. But the main entrance to the village is clogged by a dirt mound.

Ibrahim Harsa says that while his truck deliveries to the nearby city have been shortened, relatives who live nearby still must still go hours out of their way to travel in the West Bank. And what if Israel carries out a more substantial lifting of the barriers? "I would feel like a king. I want my freedom more than I want a state."

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