Daniel Gavron
December 21, 2007 - 3:39pm

This week's request from French President Nicholas Sarkozy, made at the conference of nations donating money to the Palestinian Authority, that Israel remove the roadblocks in the West Bank is hardly new. World Bank reports have been saying for years that the roadblocks are a major impediment to Palestinian economic development. Tony Blair, the Quartet's special envoy, one of whose briefs is to help develop the Palestinian economy, has also made the same point several times.

Sarkozy, Blair and the World Bank are not talking about the checkpoints between Israel and the territories. They are referring to the barriers that prevent Palestinians from traveling and transporting goods between Tulkarm and Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron, and between all of those places and East Jerusalem. They are also talking about those barriers that block entry to and exit from almost every village in the Palestinian territories.

According to a report in Haaretz last month, there are 572 roadblocks in the West Bank, 97 of them manned. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the manned checkpoints do prevent terror, inasmuch as people passing through them are searched and questioned. These checkpoints may stop a potential suicide bomber from attacking targets inside Israel by halting him early on, and certainly help to protect the settlements in the territories from would-be attackers.

But what on earth is the function of the 475 unmanned obstructions? Is it seriously contended by anyone that a mound of earth, a ditch or a series of concrete blocks can stop terrorists from moving around? Do these barriers serve any function other than embittering the lives of the Palestinians? The sick and the elderly, pregnant women and people carrying shopping baskets undoubtedly find it more difficult to get in and out of their barricaded towns and villages. Indeed both B'Tselem and the organization Physicians for Human Rights have documented cases of sick people being unable to receive treatment because they couldn't reach their doctors or clinics - while anybody planning a terrorist attack can easily clamber over the mounds, traverse the ditches or circumvent the blocks.

The Israel Defense Forces spokesperson refuses to answer questions on the subject, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, is prepared to explain the government's policy in general terms. "Israel must continue to be vigilant," he told me. "The only reason that terror attacks have been sharply reduced is that our forces are preventing them. If there were to be an attack at this point, it would not only cause the deaths of innocent people, but severely damage the current diplomatic process. The prime minister intends to move the roadblocks further from the Palestinian towns and closer to the security fence to ease the lives of the Palestinians, but we must still be very cautious."

Regev's reasonable-sounding statement, however, is only logical with regard to the manned checkpoints. Nobody I've spoken with has a convincing military explanation for the unmanned roadblocks. In fact, people familiar with Israeli military thinking have convinced me that the main object of these barriers is to fragment the territory, effectively preempting the "contiguous Palestinian state" recently touted by U.S. President George Bush. Nothing I have heard has convinced me that the unmanned roadblocks increase the security of Israelis in Israel, or even of the Jewish settlers in the territories.

What I have heard, and what the media have reported, is that the main problem in removing these roadblocks is the refusal of the army to obey orders. When ordered to take them down, the local IDF commander either ignores the order, or replaces the demolished roadblock with another one a few hundred meters away. It seems incredible, but the disobedience of many IDF officers at the start of the second intifada has been well documented.

Long before the recently screened TV documentary "A Million Bullets in October," the facts were reported in Haaretz by Reuven Pedatzur. Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, and senior negotiator Gilad Sher, are only three who maintained in the film that the government was frequently incapable of ensuring that the IDF obey its orders.

Is this still happening? I honestly don't know, but I have a comparatively modest suggestion for our government: Make a start with the 475 unmanned roadblocks. Leave the 97 manned checkpoints in place, but level the earth mounds, fill in the ditches and remove the concrete blocks. Send in the bulldozers and tractors tomorrow morning. It would improve the lives of the Palestinians enormously, and thereby reinforce the popularity of the Mahmoud Abbas-Salam Fayyad regime. It would do wonders for Israel's image in the world, thus enhancing our diplomatic position. It would not harm our security in any way.

Above all, it would be a test case of whether our government is capable or not of making the IDF obey its orders.

Daniel Gavron's latest book, "Holy Land Mosaic," is being published this month by Rowman and Littlefield in the U.S.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017