For Palestinians, transfer of power coming too slowly

Bethlehem is one of five West Bank cities expected to be handed over by Israel.

There may be a new president, a cease-fire, and lingering rhetoric about a new era, but life for ordinary Palestinians remains much the same today as it was before Yasser Arafat died: miserable, they say.

For all the expectations that accompanied the Sharm al-Sheikh summit two months ago between the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, there has been scant relief in the regime of Israeli checkpoints that give Israel a veto over ordinary Palestinians' ability to work, study, and visit relatives, residents here say.

Bethlehem was among the five West Bank cities that Palestinians expected to be transferred to their control speedily after the Feb. 8 summit at which the two sides agreed to a cease-fire.

"There is no tangible difference compared with before the election," says Mutaz Arar, a wholesale food distributor, referring to the Jan. 9 vote that Mr. Abbas won by a landslide. "If you are talking about easing conditions, it means the checkpoints should be removed. But I will still have to renew my ID card several times this year because it is getting so worn out from giving it to soldiers."

After protracted negotiations, authority in two cities - Jericho and Tulkarem - was relinquished last month. But Israel has put further transfers on hold on the grounds that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is not meeting its security commitments, including disarming fugitives in the two cities it now controls.

Mr. Arar says that some roads he uses to get to northern West Bank villages, which were open three months ago, were recently blocked with earthen barricades by the army, offsetting the opening of other roads. Israel says the curbs are needed to thwart a continued threat of Palestinian attacks. March was the first month since the intifada broke out in Sept. 2000 in which there were no Israeli fatalities, with the Palestinian factions largely observing a "calming" period they agreed to with Mr. Abbas. Israel says the militant groups are using the time to rebuild their capabilities for future attacks.

A shooting rampage by militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades last week that began at Abbas's office complex in Ramallah and continued in several restaurants there, caused no injuries but highlighted internal disorder in Palestinian cities. Israel says it proves that the PA is unable to guarantee security, demonstrates that checkpoints must be retained, and underscores that Israel must proceed cautiously in withdrawing from cities. "After what happened in Ramallah, there is an understanding in the international community that the Palestinians have to get their act together," says Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry.

Of the seven checkpoints and obstacles that encircle Bethlehem, only one, near the Efrat settlement, has been lifted, says George Nasser of the local chamber of commerce. Adding to the sense of encirclement is Israel's construction of a massive concrete wall at Bethlehem's northern entrance, part of the separation barrier it is building inside the West Bank with the stated aim of halting suicide bombers.

Mr. Nasser says that while the number of permits granted by Israeli authorities to Bethlehem-area merchants to enter Israel has risen to 800 from 600 in recent months, it is still far short of what is needed for a district of about 150,000 people. "Israel made a big fuss as if there's an improvement," he says. "In fact there is a light, slow improvement."

Dwarfed by the gray wall being erected near Rachel's Tomb, Mohammed Ahmed, a young stone worker who voted for Abbas, says: "I feel like an animal and that they can open the gate for me whenever they want. This is like a prison."

His other major frustration is that he has been unable to get a permit to work in Israel. According to the PA labor ministry labor, the number of such permits grew to 1,290 in March, from 900 in January. About 5,000 permits were issued before the start of the intifada, the ministry says.

"More work permits for Israel must be issued," says Nasser. "The income by the workers translates into purchasing power that would stimulate the entire economy."

Shlomo Dror, an Israeli security official, says there is less demand by Israeli employers for Palestinian workers than before the intifada. He adds that Israel prefers that Palestinians work within the West Bank and Gaza Strip rather than enter Israel. "We want them to have an interest to build an independent economy," he says. The barrier construction, says Regev, the foreign ministry spokesman, serves peace efforts by thwarting suicide bombings that would turn Israeli public opinion against concessions.

At the Wadi Nar checkpoint, near Bethlehem, overlooked by a gray army pillbox, a well-dressed retired teacher who identified himself only as Abu Nadir raises his voice. "The issue here is not about checkpoints. It is that our big cities have become big jails. The new government we all wanted gave a lot of concessions," he says. "In exchange for nothing."

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