Israeli checkpoints take on new permanency

As more checkpoints slice up Palestinian territory, ease of travel is a distant hope.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is confined by Israel to the tiny self-rule enclave of Ramallah. Yet he makes Palestinian statehood sound like it is just around the corner, declaring 2002 "the year of independence and liberty."

The gap between Mr. Arafat's rhetoric and the reality of heightened fragmentation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip territory earmarked for the state has never been wider, say both Israeli and Palestinian analysts. Pointing this up, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon again banned Arafat from leaving Ramallah for Bethlehem, this time to mark yesterday's Orthodox Christmas celebrations, on the grounds that the Palestinian Authority has not arrested alleged assassins of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

And Israel's seizure Thursday of a major arms shipment it says was headed for the Palestinian Authority has further stalled de-escalation toward a significant easing of restrictions.

Troubles in moving around, though new for Arafat, have become all too familiar to Palestinian civilians and civil servants.

As Jewish settlements break up the contiguity of Palestinian areas - in some cases even expanding - there is stepped-up construction of bypass roads. The roads, built after the 1993 Oslo Agreement to enable settlers to skirt Palestinian Authority areas, separate villages.

Dozens of new checkpoints

And no less of a challenge for statehood is that dozens of new Israeli army checkpoints have been established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in moves the army says are aimed at thwarting attacks on Israelis.

While Israel announced last week that it is removing some of the barriers, Palestinians say no real change has been made and that the announcements are a show to impress visiting US envoy Anthony Zinni. "I don't see that it has made a real difference on the ground," says Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.

A leading Israeli analyst of Palestinian affairs predicts that many of the new checkpoints will become permanent. "The Palestinians might be on the way to establishing the first virtual state," says Hillel Frisch of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. "Virtual statehood" would include governing institutions and international recognition, but it would lack territorial contiguity, he says. "The Palestinians have lost the basic trust of the Israelis, so the Israelis will do everything possible to remote-control the state. Israel will want to slice the state up, to keep the checkpoints."

According to Didi Remez, spokesman of the dovish Peace Now group, which opposes settlement construction, an "extremely significant" number of bypass and military roads have been created since the start of the uprising on land seized from Palestinians. A new map issued by the PA's Palestinian Geographic Center, shows 78 new checkpoints.

Jacob Dallal, an army spokes-man, says the checkpoints are essential "to prevent people seeking to carry out terrorist attacks from entering Israel and from moving around" within the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As soon as the Palestinian Authority makes a greater effort to thwart attacks, checkpoints will be lifted, he says.

Palestinians say checkpoints are often in areas well-removed from Israelis and amount to collective punishments. They believe the real purpose is to increase pressure on the civilian population.

During a recent trip in a shared taxi, one of the seven passengers, Palestinian Authority agriculture ministry supervisor Abdul-Rahman Sawafta, was making the journey from his office in Ramallah to his home in the northern West Bank. He used to make the trip every day, but now he stays in Ramallah for three or four days because of the duration and danger of the journey. Some areas in the West Bank where he has work can no longer be reached at all, he says.

And with travel through Israel to the Gaza Strip barred since the uprising began, Dr. Sawafta has been unable to inspect the ministry's projects there.

Reinforcing separation

The largest new checkpoint is Kalandiya, established last summer. It reinforces the separation of Arab neighborhoods of Jeru-salem, the intended capital of the state, from Ramallah, its commercial center. Israeli soldiers check identity cards. Clogged traffic languishes, and pedestrians have to walk 300 rubbish-strewn yards to get across.

Within moments of setting out by taxi from Kalandiya, the red roofs of Geva settlement come into view. Another settlement we pass, Kochav Hashahar, was constructed in order to block the Palestinians from expanding into the Jordan River Valley border area, according to Mr. Remez. Our route takes us east of a chain of settlements which, he says, were positioned to separate Ramallah from Nablus, the most populous city in the northern West Bank.

Three checkpoints into our journey, near the Bekaot settlement, a young soldier examines our documents. "Where are you going? Which one is Mohammed? Open the trunk," he says. On the side of the road, we notice a gun pointed at us, the soldier's finger cocked on the trigger. "That's how we secure ourselves. It's not loaded. We don't harm the innocent," says the young soldier.

At the next checkpoint, Tayasir, a soldier who takes our papers says pointing the gun at passengers is a new procedure instituted because there have been Palestinian attacks in the area.

"It makes you sick," Sawafta says. "We're just trying to get home from work and they treat you like a suspect."

Another passenger warns: "If you open the door quickly, the soldier will shoot you." Two days later two Palestinians were killed by soldiers at Bekaot.

A car had failed to slow down and "one of the two may have been shot unintentionally," Haaretz newspaper reported. There were 51 checkpoint deaths of civilians last year.

Almost three hours after beginning at Kalandiya, we arrive at Jenin, the West Bank's northernmost city. That is considered excellent timing these days for covering about 60 miles, though it is almost twice what it took before the intifada. Our journey may have been expedited by my press card. The same trip can take four to six hours or even longer, I was told. And for routes closed by the army, requiring travelers to traverse unpaved paths in hilly terrain and switch taxis, it can take hours to travel a dozen kilometers. "I would accept a two-state solution with Israel. But a real state means having security, not having to wonder if they will close the roads or shoot at people," says a young PA employee at the end of the journey.

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