Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Israel removes dozens of West Bank roadblocks

Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff

Recent weeks have seen a dramatic change in Israel's roadblock policy in the West Bank. Right under the nose of the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israel Defense Forces has lifted some of the main, permanent roadblocks in the West Bank, which have played a central role in restricting the movement of Palestinians, mostly between the main Palestinian cities. The decision of the defense establishment to ease Palestinian travel very much reflects the steps the Palestinian Authority security forces have taken against the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. American pressure and demands the Palestinians be allowed to move freely in areas where there is no security risk are also a factor.

Currently, there are only 10 manned roadblocks within the West Bank (excluding those linking the territories with Israel), and searches are not carried out at every one of them. A year and a half ago, there were 35 manned roadblocks in operation.
Moreover, the defense establishment has allowed several hundred Palestinian businessmen, holders of BMC (Businessman Card) permits, free access to Israel. However, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says its data shows there are 630 different obstacles and roadblocks in place throughout the West Bank.

A week ago the DCO roadblock (set up by the Civil Administration) was removed from the way heading into Jericho from the south. This gives the city's residents free access to all parts of the West Bank. The lifting of the roadblock to Jericho also allows access to the city to Israelis who might want to visit the casino there.

Twenty days ago the DCO roadblock to the eastern entrance to Qalqiliyah was removed, and the Einav roadblock east of Tul Karm was also lifted. In it place there are soldiers but they do not check Palestinian vehicles but only cars with Israeli license plates to prevent Israeli citizens from entering Palestinian towns.

At the roadblock of Shavei Shomron, on the exit from Jenin to Nablus, checks on Palestinian vehicles are no longer being carried out.

In essence, Palestinians from the main cities can now travel in the northern West Bank without any security checks.

The roadblocks surrounding Nablus, a city that had been under complete siege, have now all been lifted. Several months ago the roadblocks to the west and east of the city were dismantled, and two weeks ago the northern and southern roadblocks were also lifted.

Soldiers where the Nablus roadblocks stood prevent cars with Israelis from entering the city during the week, but Israeli Arabs are allowed into the city on Friday and Saturday.

The soldiers are also under orders to carry our random checks of Palestinian vehicles.

On a trip to Ramallah, Palestinians will be checked at the Za'atra roadblock, which is south of Hawara, but Palestinian eyewitnesses said there are no delays. This is the only roadblock in the northern West Bank where checks of Palestinian vehicles are still being carried out. On average, a trip between Ramallah to Jenin takes 90 minutes, while several months ago it took hours.

Last week the Aatra (Bir Zeit) roadblock north of Ramallah was lifted. Between Ramallah and the southern West Bank, Hebron and Bethlehem, the Jaba roadblock is still in operation at the Adam-La Ram junction. Palestinians told Haaretz there are still random checks on cars, but Israeli security sources said only Israeli vehicles are subjected to checks to avoid accidental entry of Israeli citizens into unauthorized Palestinian areas.

Haaretz was told "the matter will be taken care of" by security sources.

The Wadi Nar roadblock, located northeast of Bethlehem, remains manned, and random checks of vehicles are carried out. Residents of Hebron, in the southern West Bank, wishing to travel north to Jenin, will be stopped at two roadblocks for random checks, and the delays are not long.

The decision to lift the roadblocks was made by the commander of the Judean and Samaria Division, Brigadier General Noam Tivon, along with Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, commander of the Civial Administration. Mordechai and Tivon will meet with their Palestinian counterparts today at the PA's headquarters in Bethlehem.

The dismantling of the roadblocks may have begun under while Ehud Olmert was prime minister, but the pace was significantly slower than it is today. The World Bank, the international community and the Americans demanded that Israel take substantive action to improve the lot of the Palestinians in the West Bank.

The World Bank stressed in each of its recent reports that only a substantive change in the roadblock situation and easing of restrictions on movement between Palestinian cities would enable economic growth in the PA.

The lifting of the roadblocks is being done with the authorization of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and with the blessing of the Shin Bet.

On a number of occasions Netanyahu has said that he is in a position to take action to improve the day-to-day life of Palestinians in the West Bank in a way that would significantly better the economic conditions in the area.

Both Netanyahu and Barak believe that ultimately they will have no choice but to evacuate the outposts in line with American demands. While that evacuation will be met by reaction from the right wing, lifting roadblocks does not bear a significant domestic political price if there are no terrorist attacks as a result of the easing of restrictions.

Moreover, the good relations between Netanyahu and Barak has enabled the prime minister to rally the defense minister in support of removing roadblocks, while the bad blood between Olmert and Barak blocked progress on the issue.

The latest easing of travel for the Palestinians allows Israel to claim it is meeting its promises to lift restrictions and is contributing to the bettering of the Palestinian economy.

An Israeli security source told Haaretz that "the improved security situation in the West Bank permitted the lifting of the roadblocks. "When there is law and order, [and] there are no armed [Palestinians] in the streets and efforts are made to prevent terrorism, then there is no need for roadblocks," said the source.

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